Sometimes a kitchen is just a kitchen, but not often. If a house is a machine for living, as Le Corbusier said, then the kitchen is its engine. If that machine is seen as a living organism, then the kitchen is its heart and brain.
The many-splendored thing that is the modern kitchen - as a coherent workspace, object of study, model of efficiency and a leading indicator of the state of design ever since - began to take shape sometime around 1900.
It has also been a battlefield of conflicting belief systems, not least regarding the role of women in society. As the use of servants declined, housewives became at once early adopters of new products meant to free them from drudgery and the corporate advertising that relentlessly defined them as household fixtures themselves.
Which is to say, kitchens were heavily symbolic sites long before any of us became involved with the ones that bless or blight our individual lives. This is elaborately demonstrated by "Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
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Using a tantalizing sprawl of design objects, artifacts and artworks, "Counter Space" places the modern kitchen in a broad historical context.
It is bound to invite personal memories: I rediscovered the Ekco vegetable peeler, Chemex coffeemaker and copper-bottomed Revere Ware saucepan of my mother's kitchen; the Terraillon plastic food scale and timer from my first New York apartment; and the old domed Magnalite tea kettle that an ex-boyfriend cherished.
But in the main, this exhibition sprints with dazzling speed and pinpoint precision across an amazing amount of social and aesthetic history and shows how these histories are connected. The kitchen's design evolution meshed with the new availability of gas and electricity; with the rise of cities, the middle class and health consciousness; with early stabs at prefab housing; with the growing independence of women.
Of course, the kitchen evolved with the emergence of modern design itself, as a self-consciously forward-looking, socially minded discipline whose brief was to improve everyday life for all.
The show's centerpiece is a stupendous recent acquisition: one of the last surviving examples of a relatively complete Frankfurt Kitchen designed in 1926-27 by Margarete Schuette-Lihotzky (1897-2000), Austria's first female architect.
It was mass-produced for housing blocks built in Frankfurt to meet housing shortages caused by the devastation of World War I, and remains a model of cockpitlike clarity and purpose. Including a grid of small metal bins (for storing rice and the like) that resembles a hardware store, it was one of several modern kitchens designed mostly in Germany in the late 1920s.
"Counter Space" proceeds in three sections.
"The New Kitchen" focuses on kitchen design through World War II, when the kitchen was conceived of as a kind of no-nonsense laboratory.
"Visions of Plenty," the exhibit's second section, covers the explosion of new materials, especially colorful plastics, expanding markets and growing residential footprints that followed the war, when one German designer presciently noted that "America has fat kitchens, Europe has thin ones."
The final section, "Kitchen Sink Dramas," looks at the kitchen as grist for the artistic mill starting with pop art. In a way it is too bad not to devote all the gallery space to design itself, especially since some objects are displayed on high shelves and are difficult to see. But the trade-off is a sharpened sense of the organic relationship between art and its social context.