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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Invisible fridges and cooling cubbies: how kitchens have been designed for the rich

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Rich people are having a couture cooling moment. The new status symbol, according to the New York Times, is an invisible fridge. Rich people buy enormous $15,000 Sub-Zero fridges and then stick panels on them that match their custom cabinetry. The result? As if by magic, it looks like there are no appliances in the house.

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There are cooling drawers, too. The drawers are mostly built into kitchen islands, although it’s increasingly common for the ultra-rich to have them installed in bathrooms for temperature-controlled face creams.

“Most people put four – or possibly six” cooling cubbies in the kitchen, the Times reports, filling each with various drinks. There are increasingly few freezers in the homes of the rich, although sometimes, you can find a tiny one for ice cream. Apparently, frozen meals are a bit passé. “Freezing food is becoming less and less fashionable. People want to eat more organically,” interior designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard tells the Times. It is a stance one can only take today if they are is very, very sure they can afford non-decaying food tomorrow.

I doubt the very wealthy are asking for tiny freezers and hidden refrigerators because they are on the side of big bottled beverage and big rot. Probably, they just think it looks nice.

Designers like Shannon Wolcack, who owns a design firm in West Hollywood, agrees. Why does the kitchen need to host its own persistent optical illusion? “Kitchens used to be concealed. It had a door. That was where you had all your appliances. It was like the work space. And now, kitchens are more of a lifestyle. You want to make it pretty and seamless,” she tells the Times.

A non-invisible fridge, circa 1950s.
A non-invisible fridge, circa 1950s. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

Is there anything inherently wrong with sticking a panel on your fridge so that it looks like a cabinet? Of course not. But the history of kitchen cabinets and the appliances tucked in snugly between them is not pretty or seamless – and it’s still stewing.


A practical theory of kitchen design didn’t emerge until the 20th century. Until then, kitchens were just random bits of furniture and a stove shoved in attics, basements and poorly ventilated back rooms. Architects didn’t care about kitchens because their high-end clients’ kitchens were filled with servants.

After the first world war, the architects behind New Frankfurt, in Germany, were tasked with finding a way to build affordable housing that fostered community and equality by design. This time, the architects decided to include kitchens in their world building. Grete Schüette-Lihotzky, the first female architect in Austria, was in charge of the kitchens. In a 1997 interview before her 100th birthday, she said: “Before I conceived the Frankfurt kitchen in 1926, I never cooked myself. At home in Vienna my mother cooked, in Frankfurt I went to the Wirtshaus. I designed the kitchen as an architect, not as a housewife.”

Grete Schüette-Lihotzky, circa 1935. ‘I designed the kitchen as an architect, not as a housewife.’
Grete Schüette-Lihotzky, circa 1935. ‘I designed the kitchen as an architect, not as a housewife.’ Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images

She was not a housewife, but that did not keep her from respecting the women who were. Lihotzky believed the work of the home was real work. She thought it should be treated with professional dignity.

Using the research of the home economist Christine Frederick, Lihotzky created an orderly layout of storage, appliance and work surface. Frederick was an odd silent collaborator. Lihotzky was a passionate communist dedicated to an egalitarian future, while Frederick is widely credited with disseminating the 20th-century version of the separate spheres of men and women. She was also influential in arguing that all mass-produced home goods should be made to fall apart so that industries could keep making mass-produced home goods. (This is called planned obsolescence, and tech companies still do it today.)

Still, Lihotzky took Frederick’s measurements seriously. Cabinets, shelves, appliances, work surfaces were each fixed in place, fitting precisely.

Inspired by the efficiency of research labs, Lihotzky standardized kitchen workflow and under cabinet storage. Your kitchen looks a little like a lab, standing work surfaces and cabinets lining the wall, because in 1926 a woman decided to give it the dignity and efficiency of one.

Lihotzky’s kitchen is boldly utilitarian. It’s gunmetal green because research suggested flies disliked the color. Form follows doggedly after function on every surface and in every cubby. She created the first fitted, or built-in, kitchen, complete with standardized cabinets and standardized liberation. Ten thousand of Lihotzky’s Frankfurt kitchens were built in New Frankfurt.

In 1930, buoyed by the success of her kitchen, Lihotzky accepted a commission to help design cities for the first of Stalin’s five-year plan. The first plan was supposed to turn the Soviet Union into a great industrial power while creating a collective Soviet culture. She was asked to help design a world that could foster Soviet ideals. Lihotzky helped design Magnitogorsk, an industrial city built around steel production. Magnitogorsk served as a shining example of the supremacy of the Soviet Union.

A view of the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works.
A view of the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works. Photograph: Vladimir Smirnov/TASS

While Lihotzky designed a new world, others were subjugated for it. People were imprisoned so they could provide the hard labor required by Soviet ideals. Agricultural land owned by the peasant class was collectivized through brutal, bloody force. People kept dying but Lihotzky remained.

She finally fled the Soviet Union in 1938 during Stalin’s final Great Purge. Even the architects who helped build Stalin’s world were not safe any more. In 1940, she returned to Vienna to join the resistance against the Nazis. She was caught by the Gestapo and jailed for four years. Her liberation was designed by US troops in 1945. Despite the success of the Frankfurt kitchen, Lihotzky was not invited to help rebuild her country after the war. People were too wary of communist design. She spent the rest of her career working as a consultant for communist governments, rationalizing liberation through standardized measures.


The Frankfurt kitchen sought to help women put drudgery in its place. Twentieth-century American appliance advertisements promised to free women of the drudgery altogether. Washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, toasters, refrigerators, garbage disposals and adjustable temperature irons all made their first domestic appearances in the first half of the century.

Once appliances could be mass produced, they needed to be sold. Thanks to planned obsolescence, once they were sold, they’d always be bought again.

In the 1920s and 30s, appliance advertisements called appliances “invisible servants”. By the 1950s, the domestic help angle was dropped in favor of domestic pride. Kitchen design was overtly political once again, and the purpose of the home was remade.

Historically, homes have been a unit of consumption and production. Some homes consumed grain while producing children and textiles, for example. In cold war America’s propaganda and policy, the home became exclusively a unit of consumption. The kitchen was the consuming center of that home. It was a white woman’s patriotic duty to have a house full of capitalist produced, time-saving appliances. She was supposed to use her saved time to devote herself to the American model of womanhood – a careful, carefree housewife with pristine children and a pristine home. Her home wasn’t a work space, it was a lifestyle.

A 1955 advertisement for Formica.
A 1955 advertisement for Formica. Photograph: Neil Baylis/Alamy Stock Photo

Marietta Shaginian, a Soviet journalist in the 1950s, called the American kitchen “‘ideologically inappropriate’ because it was designed not to help the working woman achieve self-realization but to compensate the middle-class ‘professional housewife’ for her lack of a place in the public arena”. American housewives were not expected, or welcome, in the public arena. And they certainly weren’t about to be paid for their work in the private arena. You could hardly pay a woman for her work in the home if you were determined to prove consumerism ended her work.

Some racist white feminist architects envisioned a life truly free of domestic work spaces. They sought to free white women, and their homes, of kitchens altogether. The oppression of Black women and women of color was often an integral part of their designs. In the early 1900s, Alice Constance Austin was commissioned to design a socialist commune of kitchenless houses. Food would be cooked in a central kitchen and sent to communal patios by a series of underground rails. Laundry would be taken care of this way too. The central kitchen would be staffed with paid labor.

Applications to become a member of the commune were open exclusively to white socialists. The commune’s founder didn’t think it was “expedient to mix the races in these communities”. There’s no way to know what their employment terms would have been, however. Austin’s vision of a home without a hearth was never built – the commune fell apart over a lack of water and leadership.

Sometimes the kitchenless house got literary support. In Women and Economics, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of the feminist classic The Yellow Wallpaper, opines: “Take the kitchens out of the houses, and you leave rooms which are open to any form of arrangement and extension; and the occupancy of them does not mean ‘housekeeping’. In such living, personal character and taste would flower as never before … The individual will learn to feel himself an integral part of the social structure, in close, direct, permanent connection with the needs and uses of society.”

Certainly a house without a kitchen still holds people who need to eat. If the men and women of the house aren’t doing housework, who is? Who is dusting those rooms where taste flowers and the form of society itself is touched? For Gilman this was “a need for labor unmet”. In 1908, she published a paper in the American Journal of Sociology explaining how to meet that need, titled, “A Suggestion on the Negro Problem”. Gilman wrote that the mere fact of Black people in America caused “social injury”. Her “suggestion” for that “problem”? A forced labor corp, complete with uniforms and bases.

She argued that Black people “should be taken hold of by the state” and “enlisted” into forced labor. “Men, women, and children, all should belong” to her “proposed organization”. The “enlisted” would be made to labor on farms, in mills and in building roads and harbors. Gilman suggested the state build “a training school for domestic service” at each enlistment base. Once trained, “individuals could be sent … on probation … to remain out in satisfactory home service. In case of unsatisfactory service they should be re-enlisted.” In Gilman’s ideal world, Black people were “free” to clean Gilman’s house or face enslavement – a chilling and dystopic vision.

White communists, white socialists, white feminists, white capitalists and white supremacists were all hoping to engineer whole societies by designing the kitchen. Each saw kitchens as permanently fitted with women – they just disagreed over what that meant. All kept the footprint of patriarchal understanding and most anchored deep into racist foundations. None of their blueprints made room for the meaning of the work in the kitchen. Forget the meaning, they could hardly be bothered with the function.

It’s time to design the kitchen for the world we’ve engineered. Women have traditionally cooked in the kitchen. But they’ve wept and screamed there too. What work surface will bear our scratches best? Is there a line of cabinets deep enough to hold our grief?

Maybe the rich have got it right with their hidden fridges. Why pretend the substance matches the surface? It never has. We could start covering everything with cabinet panels. Sinks, stoves, counters, windows. The new status symbol is an invisible kitchen. Everything is cabinet now.

This is an edited excerpt of a longform piece that originally appeared in Homeculture, a newsletter about home. Looking for more great work? Here are some suggestions:

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