Feb 28, 2011

Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen

Museum of Modern Art
September 15, 2010 – May 2, 2011

by Samantha Oddi

Even though the practical products that help to run a home are the
result of countless hours of deliberation and design, they are not the
commonest pieces in an art museum. Most of these ease-making products
are intended for the kitchen, where they are supposed to make feeding
ourselves simpler, quicker, and even more fun. The kitchen in
particular is typically an unglamorous place that requires some amount
of daily cleaning, regular stocking, and a number of mundane,
necessary chores. Despite all this, the kitchen and the products
created for it have been featured in design exhibitions at the Museum
of Modern Art for some time. Outside of some of the museum's longer
running design displays is a temporary exhibit which resides in the
Special Exhibition Gallery, previously the home of Monet's Water
Lilies, called Counter Life: Design and the Modern Kitchen.
Consisting of images and text, household objects from different eras,
posters, sculptures, moving images, and an intact example of a
Frankfurt Kitchen, Counter Space depicts different eras in the
evolution of the kitchen in the twentieth century and the various
responses to that kitchen by advertisers, designers, and artists.
The mission statement of the Museum of Modern Art explains that the
museum seeks "to create a dialogue between the established and the
experimental, the past and the present" and Counter Space was clearly
created with that mission in mind.(1) As created by Juliet Kinchin,
a curator in the department of architecture and design, and curatorial
assistant Aiden O'Connor, the exhibition has three parts: The New
Kitchen, Visions of Plenty, and Kitchen Sink Dramas. "The New
Kitchen" illustrates the changing designs and products for the kitchen
after World War I, especially as it related to the Frankfurt Kitchen.
"Visions of Plenty" showcases the expansion of American kitchens and
the greater variety of appliances and plastic products made available
after World War II and through the Cold War. The last section,
"Kitchen Sink Dramas," features the different interpretations of the
kitchen and housework in different artists' work since the 19060's.
The New York Times writer Roberta Smith wrote that the connection
between the final section and the rest was "boilerplate art history,
but to see it made with real-life art and artifacts against the rich
backdrop of this exhibition is something else."(2)
Counter Space is indeed rich. That such a large amount of content
manages to fit into a relatively small space in a coherent way is an
impressive accomplishment. Materials from every department of the
museum's collections are featured in the exhibition, including a
surprising number of selections from the film department. Moving
image materials are prominent components in each section of the
exhibit. They explain, provide context and commentary, or just
entertain. They are viewed in different ways in each section as a
result of the context in which they are presented and their method of
A large screen hangs from the ceiling at the entrance to the exhibit
and a scene is projected upon it (pictured below). Die Frankfurter
Küche (The Frankfurt Kitchen) is a black and white silent film from
1928 that was directed by Paul Wolff. The original film print has
been digitized and is projected by a digital projector.
(picture - http://www.flickr.com/photos/43355544@N03/5487290946/)
The film demonstrates the effectiveness of the new Frankfurt Kitchen
by comparing it's efficiency and cleanliness with footage of women
working in a typical kitchen of the time, while intertitles explain
the differences between the two cooking environments. The display
introduces the visitor to "The New Kitchen" and the beginning of the
Embedded in the side of the model Frankfurt Kitchen is a video screen
not much larger than a standard sheet of paper (pictured below). It
plays The Housing Factory (c. 1928), a black and white silent film
about the process of making pre-fabricated housing. The video
practically blends in with the still photographs of similar size that
have been printed onto the side of the kitchen. A visitor can
seamlessly move from reading to watching to viewing.
(picture - http://www.flickr.com/photos/43355544@N03/5486696251/)
In the "Visions of Plenty" section there is a series of three video
screens joined together in a long rectangle that stands out from the
wall (pictured below). A display of magazine advertisements from the
post-war era are laid out in a glass case below the screens. Three
sets of headphones that allow a visitor to listen to any of the three
screens hang on hooks below the case. The first screen plays Plastics
(1944, black and white, sound) and Tupperware commercials (1950's,
color, sound). The second screen shows The Last Word in Automatic
Dishwashing (1950, black and white, sound), Frigidare Finale (1957,
color, sound), and Frigidare Imperial Line (1956, color, sound). The
third plays G.E. Refrigerator commercial (1952, color, sound), A Word
for Wives (c. 1955, color, sound), and Design for Dreaming (1956,
color, sound). These short films are all meant to sell different
aspects of the modern dream kitchen to Americans reveling in the extra
money created by the boom years following World War II.
(picture - http://www.flickr.com/photos/43355544@N03/5487292468/)
Martha Rosler's Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) is featured in the
"Kitchen Sink Dramas" section of Counter Space. The black and white
video is played on a large, boxy television with a flat front, which
sits on a rectangular pedestal, placing the image just below eye level
(pictured below). The video does have sound, which plays out of the
television's speakers, but it can barely be heard over the sound of
other visitors and displays. In Semiotics Rosler imitates the
behaviors of the host of a television cooking show, though she does so
with an angry attitude and never interacts with any food.
(picture - http://www.flickr.com/photos/43355544@N03/5486695687/)
Video screens, television sets, and a projector and screen are the
only methods of presentation for moving images in Counter Space. When
I visited on a Wednesday afternoon the exhibit was busy, but not
crowded, and most visitors seemed eager to watch the different moving
image content spread throughout the exhibit space. The crowd was made
up of a variety of ages, from children in strollers pushed parents to
the elderly in wheelchairs guided by caregivers. The exhibit had no
obvious target audience, though most of the moving image content came
from American and Germany, so people from those countries would
presumably have a greater connection to the material than others.
The moving image content brings the exhibit to life. Unlike other
exhibits are art museums, such as MoMA's current Abstract
Expressionist New York, we all have personal experiences with the
subject and types of items on display in Counter Space. We can look
at all the pieces and see if they relate to our memories. However,
the objects and still images alone could just as easily make up an
exhibit at an archeological museum. The idea of Counter Space without
the moving images conjures up something almost sterile. The moving
images help to further engage the visitor in each section, either
through memories of commercials or the critical thinking inspired by
the video art pieces.
Whether or not there is a specific argument to be made by Counter
Space is difficult to tell. If there is any at all it is to place the
evolution of kitchen design in the greater context of modern art, to
legitimize the fact that MoMA has collect so many bowls and tea
kettles over the years. That doesn't mean that there are no
underlying meanings to the exhibit, however. We all create what a
kitchen means for ourselves, based on our own experiences and what we
see or read in the media. What makes up the kitchen is thoroughly
thought over, tested, and aggressively marketed to consumers. By
juxtaposing items, advertisements, and artwork the curators are asking
visitors to think critically about what the space means to them and
how it came to be what it is today. The exhibit urges the visitor to
look for meaning in a room that is part of everyone's everyday life.

(1) "About MoMA." MoMA | The Museum of Modern Art. <http://www.moma.org/about/>.
(2) Roberta Smith, "The Heart That Beats, Heats, Chills and Whips."
New York Times 19 Sept. 2010.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.