Sippican Cottage



A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Say, What Is a Kitchen, Anyway?

Exhibit A: Not really a kitchen, unless they’re going to eat that horse.

Say, what’s a kitchen?

No, really, I’m asking. I’ve seen television once or twice, and I’ve gotten confused about what a kitchen is for. I used to think it was a room in your house where food is stored, and prepared, and sometimes eaten. Heaven help me I don’t know what it is now.

First of all, I apologize for referring to anything inside a house as a “room.” As I understand it, if a TV host slips up while reading their cue cards and utters the word “room,” a kind of SWAT team rushes onto the set, gags and hogties them, and takes them off to a This Old House gulag. They’re heavily drugged, given electroshocks and other assorted mental massages, until they chant, “It’s a space, it’s a space, it’s a space…” and then released back into the Home and Garden gene pool. Of course, if you go outside the house, and put up an awning, buy a $2,000 grill, and arrange some plastic chairs around it, it’s an “outdoor room.” Don’t ask me how everything got backwards, I didn’t make the rules.

Hmm. Upon reflection, you can ask me. I actually know who started this fad of calling a room a space, and a space a room. His name was Bruno Zevi, and he wrote the most destructive book in the history of the printing press, Architecture as Space.

Now, you might think that’s a bold claim on my part. There were some books written by some other dastards back in the day that did a lot of damage. That brushy mustache guy’s self-help book caused a lot of trouble, for instance. The least funny Marx brother’s book got bad reviews from Solzhenitsyn, too. But Zevi’s got them all beat. He ruined housing, or at least talking about it, and nearly everyone lives in some sort of housing. Only a small portion of the population ever marches in torchlight parades or salutes missiles as they roll by the grandstands.

I went to architecture college until I wised up. I wised up plenty when they made me buy a copy of Architecture as Space, and told me this was the next big thing ooh la lah cutting edge hipster revolutionary foofarah, and I’d better get with the program, buster, and learn it. Because I was paying for my education with money I earned, instead of borrowed, I decided to actually read the thing. I’ll save you some trouble, and sum up its contents: Three hundred pages of drivel, and don’t forget to call everything a space! The end. My classmates apparently only remember the title, and wave their arms and call everything THE SPACE. I dropped out and built houses with rooms in them and called them that.

I was also front and center for the final destruction of the modern kitchen. Ramming a run of cabinets into the corner of an undifferentiated chasm where three rooms used to go was just the warmup, architecturally. Now they’ve taken to putting the cooktop in the island, facing out into the great beyond. It’s an especially piquant way to cook when there’s seating on the opposite side of the island. I don’t know about you, but I like to eat while perched on a stool with bubbling cauldrons and pans spitting grease at me. It makes me feel like I’m an extra in Macbeth.

So where did this bad idea come from? Where all bad ideas come from, television. A long time ago, I met Julia Child. She wanted me to do some work on her house in Cambridge, Mass. She was a stalwart lady. She was one of the few customers I’ve encountered who was tall enough to look me straight in the eye. She was as pleasant as rain in the desert. She needed this and that done in her house, and showed me around. I was in the kitchen where they filmed some seasons of her show. It was a perfectly traditional layout, and quite pleasant. She told me that the TV people installed a big island with cooktops in the middle of the room for her to cook on, so the audience could see what she was doing. She also told me that no one in their right mind would cook on a setup like that if they had a choice. She had a big, gas range against the wall, with a flat area on both sides to hold stuff while she worked, and that was where she cooked when the camera was off. So according to Julia Child, everyone has lost their mind, because everyone saw her on TV facing the wrong way in the kitchen, and mimicked what they saw.

So what is a kitchen? It’s basically three things. A sink, a stove and a refrigerator. That’s it. They used to call it the work triangle. There were certain ratios for how far apart the three should be. These ratios are argued over endlessly. The ratios were right in the first place, so any discussion would be moot, but that never stopped anyone, especially since social media was invented. These ratios are like discussing (yelling at AM radio hosts) whether the Patriots need linebackers more than wide receivers in the draft. You can talk about the topic endlessly, and never have to come to any conclusions, because Belichick always picks six defensive ends and a punt returner anyway.

The origins of the kitchen work triangle are piquant to me. You can trace it back through all the attempts to modify it with newer, bad ideas, to Lillian Moller Gilbreth. That’s right, sane kitchen design was born in Maine. It took the rest of the country to screw it up. Old Lily Gilbreth was married to maybe the greatest man that Maine ever produced, and she was no slouch herself. I listen to people like the Gilbreths. You should too.

So all we need is a sink place and a stove spot and a fridge locale. The people who lived in our house before us only got three of those things in the wrong place. Off to the drawing board.

[To be continued. If you’d like to support Sippican Cottage, tell your internet friends about us, and/or subscribe to our intermittent email blast. Thanks!]

4 Responses

  1. With regard to the picture, as Jayne said in Firefly:
    “If wishes were horses, we’d all be eating steak.”

    I’m just gonna add to the three things in the kitchen triangle (invented by the beautiful Myrna Loy, if I remember correctly) that along with the stove, sink and fridge we need some flat space on which to put the things going into or on those three things. Some people call ’em “counters”, but in our house it’s the midnight obstacle course for the cat, since he’s not allowed on them while we’re conscious.

    I can’t wait to see how the kitchen looks when you’re done. Ya gotta love the cedar shake backsplash, though. If they’re saturated with cooking grease once you take them down you could break them up, put ’em in a Ziploc and use them as emergency fire starters.

  2. Hi Blackwing- Like you mentioned, kitchen counters are the connective tissue between the three nodes of sink, stove, and fridge. If you follow the link for the work triangle, they actually specify (bare) minimum lengths of counter you should have on either side of the appliances and sink. Of course, in the real world, while it’s theoretically possible to have too much counter space, I’ve never seen it in the wild.

    More kitchen pictures on the way!

  3. Here’s my complaint about the kitchens on tv… WHY do they insist on putting cupboards all the way up to the ceiling?? It would be wasted space for me because I am (now) short and old and I refuse to climb a ladder to reach the top shelf. Which, by the way, is also my reasoning for hating/refusing to have inset lighting in ceilings!

  4. Hi Jean- Thanks for reading and commenting.

    As far as cabinets go, typical kitchens just have too many of them, period. A kitchen with lots of open shelves make more sense. Dishes and glasses stack so neatly there’s no reason to hide them behind doors. And basically everything below your waist should be drawers, not cabinets, if you ask me. A huge kitchen with dozens of cabinets isn’t as good as a modestly sized kitchen with an adjacent pantry. That’s what we made ours into, BTW.

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