It’s been three years since we moved into our mid-century home in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of New York City. Though I’ve touched about every square inch of our place, I have yet to pull the trigger on a kitchen remodel, as I grapple with a decision to leave the galley kitchen footprint intact or bring down walls for an open concept kitchen.
Any inclination of mine to keep the galley footprint is rooted in recognition of the work of Philip Birnbaum, the architect who designed this building in 1946. Beloved by developers for his efficient use of space and by homeowners for gracious floorplans with lots of windows and natural light, Birnbaum was an architect more renown for his interiors than exteriors, though he’s credited with some 300 buildings in New York. I particularly enjoy the subtle drama exhibited in things like his raised dining platforms and sunken living rooms. Who am I to mess with Birnbaum’s design?
In fact, galley kitchens weren’t unique to this one architect, but were ubiquitous in Jackson Heights construction of the era. To understand why, we need to step back in time.
One early proponent of the galley kitchen was Ladies Home Journal columnist Christine Frederick, an American home economist and author of the 1913 book “New Housekeeping: Efficiency Studies in Home Management.” Inspired by time-motion studies of her day that were popularized by Frederick Winslow Taylor — probably best known to us modern folks as the stopwatch carrying dad in stories like “Cheaper by the Dozen”— and similar of his assembly-line and machine-era contemporaries, Christine Frederick was first to apply such efficiency and workflow theories to kitchen design. We have her to thank for the “kitchen triangle” workspace theory.
Frederick’s book, translated into German, caught the eye of Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, who was also a student of Taylorism. Hired by German architect Ernst May — who was tasked with solving a post-WW1 housing crisis in the city of Frankfurt by shoehorning some 10,000 livable units of public housing into a city where both money and land were in short supply — Schütte-Lihotzky applied similar workflow principles. Her 1926 “Frankfurt Kitchen” was a compact galley design, inspired by restaurant cars she’d seen on trains.
The Frankfurt Kitchen was a model of efficiency, hygiene, and workflow. But it was also stylish and available in four modern colors: blue, gray, white, and green.
Her design withstands the test of time. You can easily imagine a Frankfurt Kitchen plopped down in a current-day Jackson Heights home, and it wouldn’t even seem all that dated.
It’s not so far removed from some of the beautifully renovated galley kitchens that I’ve been admiring in my neighborhood, like this recently remodeled galley commissioned by a chef, which was featured on Sweeten blog.
Or this one that was shared in neighborhood forum Jackson Heights Life.
With so many lovely examples, where homeowners were able to keep the original footprint, why would I mess with what’s unmistakably a model of efficiency? Well… because I’m finding it not all that functional for the way Ross and I (and probably lots of other modern couples today) live.
It even had it’s detractors in it’s heyday.
According to Wikipedia, “Schütte-Lihotzky had designed the kitchen for one adult person only. Children or even a second adult had not entered the picture, and in fact, the kitchen was too small for two people to work in. Even one person often was hampered by open cabinet doors.”
The biggest complaint I have about my kitchen is that it’s a one-cook kitchen. Not only can two people not cook dinner side by side comfortably, but even someone coming in to grab a drink from the refrigerator disrupts the flow. In addition, I find the aisle that probably easily accommodated 1940s appliances is too narrow to fit today’s equipment comfortably. When our dishwasher door is open, it blocks the refrigerator. When the oven door is open, I have to stand to the side to remove trays — all well and good when I’m baking cookies, but it becomes treacherous when I’m pulling a piping hot 20 pound turkey out of the oven.
It seems ironic today that these early female pioneers, Fredericks and Schütte-Lihotzky, elevated the role of housewife to one worthy of scientific methods and modern design yet at the same time isolated her in a walled-off kitchen, far away from social interaction, but that’s not how women in 1926 would have viewed it.
While Schütte-Lihotzky herself admitted to not even knowing how to cook, she recognized how challenging domestic drudgery could be, especially for women on low incomes, and set out to make housework as efficient as possible. Applying Taylor principles, Schütte-Lihotzky studied common household tasks, timing them with a stopwatch, and reduced unnecessary steps. Many of her design elements, including pull-out bins for flour, sugar, and spices; drop-down ironing board; movable ceiling light; angled dish drainer; and two-sided garbage shoot (trash could be disposed of on the kitchen side, while the bin could be removed from the hallway) were delightfully innovative for her time and would have been much appreciated by her “audience” — the new generation of modern working women who had to balance housekeeping with a job outside the home. No one at the time would have questioned the inherent gender bias in the division of labor.
According to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where most of these historical photos originate, Schütte-Lihotzky separated her galley kitchen by design, to isolate cooking noises and smells. Eat-in kitchens were viewed as unhygienic at the time. The Frankfurt kitchen aspired to make the kitchen like a factory line or laboratory, designed for cooking, washing, food storage, and ironing — even in the tiniest of apartments.
The popularity of the Frankfurt Kitchen was influential and far reaching, and galley style kitchens continued to be a common style of kitchen well into the 1940s and 1950s. But another style was also coming into play mid-century, and that was… you guessed it — the open concept.
I’ve been noodling around in Sketchup for some time, reimagining what my kitchen might look like if I were to open the galley walls, and I have to say it’s pretty exciting.
Not only could two cooks work side by side, but I’d have room to employ wall ovens, which would make baking easier, safer, and more efficient. I could also locate the refrigerator in a place where anyone might grab a cold drink and not disrupt the flow of cooking or clean-up.
So, what do you think? Galley vs. open concept. Historical accuracy vs. functional design?