INTERIORS / Kitchen sink dramas: In the modern British domestic theatre, the kitchen plays a key role. And style has become as important as substance. A report on the design war between stainless-steel laboratory and cosy Edwardian nostalgia

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THE LATE 20th-century British have a deeply emotional relationship with the kitchen. At the beginning of the century it was barely mentioned in design books, considered as it was the very bowels of the house, a functional place where the servants did their thing. The promotion of the kitchen to 'the heart' of the house - a source of emotional as well as physical sustenance - reflects the social changes which led to its usurping the role of the dining room.

The formality which a mahogany table and silver candelabra seemed to impose was at odds with the more casual way of living which began in the 1960s. By the end of the 1980s it was really only the upper classes, and those who still indulged in the antiquated practice of 'dinner parties', who clung to the notion of a separate dining room. That was fine when you had servants to lug the Boeuf Wellington, but now the dining room and its distance from the kitchen only served to emphasise the position of wife as servant. Emancipated woman did not want to be left stirring the gravy out in the conversational cold.

So eating in the kitchen evolved from a D H Lawrencian working-class deprivation in the 1930s to a kind of Bohemian eccentricity in the 1950s, and finally won the seal of middle-class approval in the 1980s. By this time, anyway, the bourgeoisie was rather coy about the whole idea of dinner parties: society had become much more informal. Besides, serving meals in the kitchen - following a carefully worded invitation to 'supper' - did not raise culinary expectations too high, a paramount consideration for households where both partners worked; 1990 was the year of spaghetti and candles on saucers. Necessity was thus disguised as style: dining in the kitchen gave the impression of casual intimacy - it was taken as a compliment to the guest, where even 20 years earlier it might have been seen as an insult.

But the demand for a kitchen big enough to eat in (a small one tends to lower the value of a house) increased the pressure for it to be stylish. In the affluent Eighties the ideal was Smallbone, their designs a modern version of the Edwardian - glass-fronted window pane cupboards in painted wood. By the end of the decade Smallbone and lookalike kitchens were endemic, their popularity due to the fact that they aped old-fashioned gentility while concealing all mod cons. They perfectly suited the National Trustisation of British taste and its tendency to wallow in nostalgia - in any stately home you will see visitors looking dutifully impressed by the carving in the ballroom, but reserving the real oohs and aahs for the butter churns and copper pans downstairs.

The owner of the modern painted wood and glass kitchen, which may well have such rustic touches as wicker drawers for potatoes, has a nostalgic hankering for the days when everything was done by hand, although he or she is probably a Magimix- and dishwasher-addict. This is a sanitised version of the sort of non- designer kitchen exemplified by Kate Dyson's (shown overleaf). Its aesthetic disorder and familial domesticity would score no points with estate agents, but it hits the right note with aspirant aesthetes who would like to be this warm and casual, if only they could find a shop that sold such commodities . . .

All that's missing from this culinary Utopia is an Aga. The Aga inspires a kind of primitive idolatry in the middle classes. It is a modern fertility symbol, a womb-like thing that promises bountiful heat, wholesome food and comfort. Hermann Muthesius, an extremely percipient and meticulous German observer of the English house at the beginning of the century, wrote in his book Das Englischhaus of the strange compulsion that the English had to enclose their stoves within alcoves: his explanation was that the stove had evolved out of the fireplace in the wall that was used for both cooking and heating, and had not managed to rid itself of these connotations.

'So inseparably bound up with the English notion of an interior is it that they still want to create the impression of a fireplace in their kitchens,' he wrote. 'In the English view a fireplace is the one thing that gives life to the room and makes existence in it tolerable.'

One good reason for avoiding a designerkitchen is that you can't leave so much as a saucepan lid on the draining board without giving visual offence, whereas in Kate Dyson's a pile of unwashed dishes becomes quite picturesque. Kate owns an antique shop specialising in objects relating to dining; when the Dysons bought their house in 1978, she was an antiques journalist. According to John Dyson, she had 'all sorts of fancy ideas, like making cupboards out of 18th-century French armoires, whereas I, being a New Zealander, wanted something along the lines of a practical cowshed'. What both were agreed on was that it should be a 'family room' that made the most of the spectacular first-floor river views. For the first few years they lived with a basic temporary kitchen downstairs - a measure they highly recommend - so that they could decide exactly what they wanted out of a kitchen. They then drew up the units and had them made in ordinary block board by a country carpenter, who lived in the house for two weeks while he worked, assisted by John. The whole pain-free exercise, John estimates, came to pounds 1,300 and after 10 years there is nothing they would change.

Clearly the kitchen serves its purpose; you could spend pounds 20,000 to fit it out with the latest technology, perhaps saving 10 minutes a day on food preparation, and plan it so that the sink- to-cupboards round was a few metres shorter. But would it be worth it? As Adrian Forty points out in his book on design history, Objects of Desire (Thames & Hudson pounds 9.95) the myth of 'labour-saving devices' was questioned as long ago as 1930 by the Ladies' Home Journal, which argued: 'Because we housewives of today have the tools to reach it, we dig every day after the dust that grandmother left to a spring cataclysm.' Hazel Kyrk, a domestic economy expert, wrote in 1933 that 'the invention of the washing machine has meant more washing, of the vacuum cleaner more cleaning, of new fuels and cooking equipment, more courses and more elaborately cooked food'.

Though it is a minority taste among the scrubbed-pine fixated British, the kitchen-as- laboratory school of design still has fervent adherents. Its roots are in what Forty calls the 'aesthetic of cleanliness', of which Le Corbusier might be described as the Messiah. The enthusiasm with which modern architects tend to pursue tidiness and order in their own homes, and particularly their kitchens - viz Alfred Munkenbeck's stainless steel installation (opposite) - has suggested to some observers an anal-retentive strain in the breed. And it does seem plausible that a certain personality type - organised, efficient, somewhat obsessive - goes for the streamlined, kitchen-as-machine-for-cooking in. But the anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her book Purity and Danger (Harmondsworth 1970), has a more sympathetic interpretation. 'In chasing dirt, in papering, decorating, tidying,' she writes, 'we are positively re-ordering our environment, making it conform to an idea.'

Alfred Munkenbeck rejects the notion that his kitchen marks him out as an excessively tidy person. It was, he says, designed to cope with his culinary clumsiness. 'It's a very forgiving kitchen, you can make all sorts of mess. If you spill something you don't have to worry about it disappearing down cracks.' Munkenbeck stresses that the kitchens he designs for clients are 'slightly more picturesque - stone counter tops and wooden doors rather than 100 per cent stainless steel, which is something I've always wanted for myself'. The carcass of the kitchen is made from medium-density fibreboard with thick stainless steel welded about it, which gives it a substantial feel and avoids the 'tinny look'. The kitchen cost him, as an architect with architect's perks, pounds 7,500.

He also argues that his kitchen is just as sociable as the more traditional 'friendly' wood kitchen, built as it is into the main living area, and placing the emphasis on cooking as a spectator sport. 'Cooking is part of the joy of having people round. The idea of preparing things in advance and then shutting yourself away in the kitchen at the last minute is total anathema to me.' Everything is planned to be within easy reach on the one wall and ergonomically designed to prevent stooping over the sink. Most kitchen manufacturers base the standard height of units (850mm) on the average height of people in the 1950s - apparently we have grown a bit since then.

But what has changed most of all is our attitude to kitchens. Nearly 90 years ago Muthesius wrote: 'The English are not interested in arrays of copper vessels and fine crockery, or in show or comfort of any kind in the kitchen.' He would be surprised - and probably disappointed - to see how we have sold our souls to the concept of the Dream Kitchen.

(Photographs omitted)