The Social Kitchen

By Juliana Aristizabal and Lissa Johnson

Today it is commonplace to think of the kitchen as the social center of the home, where everyone comes together to not only eat but to engage with each other in many functions.   Current use of the kitchen as a social center has evolved over time and been greatly influenced by changes within the family structure and that impact on daily life.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, kitchen design and use was purely functional — a place to cook and store food, generally adjuncts to the house, kitchens were a workspace purely for utility.  Christine Fredrick applied Taylorism, a methodology developed to improve workflows and efficiencies through scientific management to kitchen design.  As a “modern” women, Fredrick saw the opportunity to apply such theories to domestic situations and published a book explaining the concept to women.  Eventually this book found it’s way to Austrian architect Margarete Lihotzky who in turn created the first galley kitchen incorporating Taylorism and ergonomic considerations.  The Frankfurt Kitchen, as it is known, was compact but efficient and influenced workman like kitchens for decades.


Dr. Buckminster Fuller who said, “To make the world work for 100 percent of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or to the disadvantage of anyone” redefined the function and goals of a kitchen during the 1940s. During this time, the nuclear family unit was strong and clearly defined and following Fuller’s decree the kitchen needed to function for everyone in the home, not just the cook.  It was a revelation to think of the kitchen as a nice place in the home and by the 1950s the kitchen became the shinning star of the home where the homemaker, Mom, could effortlessly whip up a classic meal in heels and pearls.  Through the 1960s the model of family and the function of kitchen was maintained but influenced by regional styles and aesthetics and the beginning of a counterculture within America.


During the 1970s domestic duties became more politicized and the kitchen became a popular place to discuss changes, ideas and revolution.  A more sluggish economy forced women into the workforce and the role of homemaker became less defined.   The kitchen was a battleground for the emerging roles of changes in the roles of men and women in the home.  As women broke free and spent more time out of the kitchen, men began to find a place for themselves in the kitchen, sharing responsibilities became a necessity for families during this tough decade.  With more people operating inside the kitchen it continued to emerge from a workplace and develop into an integrated part of the home.  With everyone running about, mealtime was a when everyone could gather and the American Kitchen became a warm, inviting place for everyone in the home.


Towards the end of the twentieth century the kitchen had completely redefined itself as the center for family life.  Similar to the social changes around it, the kitchen became more individualized for each families own needs — efficient and lively for those who needed quick meals, detailed and indulgent for the stay at home parent who enjoyed laboring over the meal.  As we became more accepting of many family units and social norms, we also became more accepting of a kitchen which engaged the family and guests of a home.


The family is generally regarded as a major social institution and a locus of much of a person’s social activity. In the new family structures we have to consider family size, family composition and members’ roles. These aspects will determine the use of the spaces in a dwelling, which means the kitchen will play a role according to the family’s needs

Modern families tend to be smaller than traditional families; today’s families have reduced sizes to three or four people. Many American families don’t meet the traditional structure of family known as “nuclear” family. Non-traditional families include childless families, one-parent families, other family configurations, and quasi-family units based on non-marital cohabitation, including same gender couples. (Nam, C.) Nonetheless marriage is still being considered as a way to promote stability in family relationships and more efficient distribution of household financial resources.


Multi-racial family configurations are very common now days. Technology has helped the world to be a smaller place and big cities have become melting pots for different cultures.  Cultural influences on the family unit in turn required kitchens to be tailored to new cuisines and ways of cooking.

Family roles have also changed. Women are no longer limited to house chores and the “breadwinner” of the family is not limited to the father. Men and women have divided their responsibilities at home; both share their chores instead of splitting them along gender lines and becoming their partner’s judge.  The functions of a kitchen are not gender specific but the approach to design and layout was now being influenced by not just the woman of the house.

The kitchen has always been a meeting place for family members, but as the family’s structure changes the use of the kitchen has also changed. Kitchens used to be enclosed and limited to cooking and eating. Today, the kitchen is a meeting place, where families and friends gather for different activities. This is why the contemporary design approach is to open up the kitchen to the rest of the house. This way it can be part of a social gathering space, allowing people to be in the kitchen, living room or dining area and still participate in the events outside each area.


Looking to the future, we have to assume that the definition of family will continue to change and evolve.  Those changes will also continue to influence our lifestyle, how we interact and how we eat.   Advancements have been coming thick and fast in the twenty-first century and while we have become more accepting of new cultures, family structures and sexual preferences there are other things that feed anxieties and the kitchen will continue to be a place of refuge as we move forward.

Kitchen design will continue to evolve as an integrated part of the household but in the future, the functional cooking space will become harder to visually identify as a separate space in the home.   Materials and finishes used in the design will influence the rooms around it.   The challenge moving forward will be to embrace both the functional and social aspects of the kitchen.


It is hard to imagine but families of the future will likely be even more active and on the go than we are today and thus the hub of the home will need to become increasingly more efficient, perhaps we’ll see a look back to the embracing efficiencies that allow the kitchen to be more and more multi-functional for all the tasks needing to be done.

We have already taken down the literal walls but the future will be about the virtual ones as well.  The social “media” kitchen will bring families together to eat and share that experience both in and out of the house.   With social media taking over not only society but our family life as well the kitchen will need to embrace this idea to keep everyone interested.  Kitchen design will need to embrace this new way of communicating to further the social aspects in a kitchen.  Organizing a family meal will be done over mobile devices, an oven preheated remotely and a place to log in and work while a meal cooks will allow families time to unplug, relax and sit down to eat.  Grandma will be able to sit at the table from Florida and Mom can remind you to eat your vegetables while on a business trip around the world.  As our families develop in the future, the kitchen should aim to embrace those changes in order to maintain a place of supreme importance as the heart of a home.


Development of the kitchen during the 20th and 21st centuries has been influenced by many different changes in our society.  Family structure, lifestyle, political and economic shifts have continuously changed the approach to kitchen design and concept.  Changes in family life will be ongoing as we move into the future and will influence new layouts and aesthetics with the one constant being to provide functionality and efficiency to the users.


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