I recently came across a list post of gorgeous midcentury modern kitchens to emulate. As I scrolled, I realized they had one thing in common – clearly none of them were actually midcentury kitchens. So today I’d like to break down the differences between a kitchen built in the midcentury era, and those done in a midcentury style, now.
The Kitchen at Mid-Century and the Midcentury style kitchen
The definition of a true MCM kitchen is not the laminate counter tops and pastel appliances.
You can recognize a classic ranch kitchen by its layout and by the driving philosophy behind it. The midcentury modern style kitchen is a very different animal. It may feature bold colored tile, stunning plywood cabinets and an atomic pendant lamp or two … but it has been designed to meet a different set of needs!
Side by Side: Then vs Now
Both of these images are high end spacious kitchens done in a midcentury style. However, you can easily see how the original one is the domain of just mom – she had to turn her back to the work surfaces to make eye contact with camera. Whereas, the new kitchen is set up for socializing so that multiple people can use the work area and/or just keep the cook(s) company at the bar.
Floor plans have evolved over 60 years
Here is a plan of a classic eat-in kitchen next to a modern update of the same space.
(This happens to be the kitchen of my grandparents’ never-updated ranch contrasted with a hypothetical update for modern life.)
Note the separation between food prep and eating space in the original kitchen. The wall-facing work surfaces allow a solitary cook to focus, but don’t support conversation while cooking. The choke point between the peninsula and the refrigerator makes opening the fridge door act like closing a drawbridge. There are two windows and three doors but very little actual access to the rest of the house.
The updated version is open to the living room, clusters food storage in a full height pantry wall at the left and allows for multiple cooks to move through the space. Wit the windows by the eat-in area converted to sliding doors, and part of the wall to the living area is removed, the kitchen can connect the house’s social spaces.
Because the people using the kitchen have changed
A kitchen built in the 1950’s was a command center for one person – mom – to spend the day in: cooking, organizing the household and supervising kids. It was meant to be high tech (filled with the latest labor-saving appliances), efficient and attractive.
A modern kitchen has very different DNA, plywood panelling or teal backsplash notwithstanding! The kitchen has gone from mom’s command center to family social center. Everyone in the household may be in and out of the kitchen through the day, from breakfast and packing a lunch to sneaking a midnight snack. The modern kitchen does double duty as a hangout and gathering space. It needs to support homework and working from home while serving as the go-to spot for any party.
The Way to a Home’s Heart … is through the Kitchen
One thing is true of kitchens both then and now, kitchens have a lot of connections to the other parts of the house.
You’ll find at least two doors in a midcentury era kitchen:
- access to the garage (or possibly just a side or back entry door)
- open doorway leading to a dining space
- there may also be doors to the basement, a pantry and even a bedroom.
My own 1953 kitchen has four doorways: kitchen exit door, pass through to dining area, basement and one to the smallest – nursery – bedroom. It’s a space planner’s nightmare.
The layout of the ideal modern kitchen has changed to match changing use. There is a much greater connection to the rest of the house.
- access to mudroom / garage
- either a wide framed doorway or entirely open to living area
- may have access to the backyard or patio
- there may also still be doors connecting to a basement or pantry
- there will NOT be a connecting door between kitchen and bedroom!
Work surfaces and Layouts
The layout of an original midcentury kitchen is typically an “L” or U” of work surfaces – base cabinets with shallower wall cabinets mounted above. There’s also the occasional galley variant – counter on two sides of a narrow work corridor. Later or larger midcentury kitchens may have an attached eat-in area, sometime separated from the kitchen by a peninsula or countertop. The sink is nearly always centered on a window overlooking the yard.
This layout was practical for the solo cook. She could pivot on one foot or take a few steps around the infamous “kitchen work triangle” to move between fridge, stove top and sink, keeping their back to the center of the room.
Toay, work surface preferences have shifted away from wall-engaged base cabinets for two reasons. A) there are fewer walls in the new, interconnected kitchen, and B) with multiple cooks, there’s a need to make eye contact across work surface, not turn your back to the room every time you need to chop or mix.
It is now typical to have more counter height work surface with nothing overhead. Even if there are base cabinets along the walls, they may have open shelving or no storage space above rather than the traditional wall cabinets. That storage space has been condensed into full height “pantry” style built ins which can also contain appliances like fridges and ovens along one dedicated wall of cabinetry.
Changes to the Kitchen are driven by changing demographics
Part of the reason for the schism between midcentury and modern kitchens is less style than substance. Modern kitchens … and houses … are used in very different ways than they were half a century ago.
Per this study published in Nutrition Journal in 2013, in 1965, 92% of women and 28% of men reported cooking. In 2007, it was 67.7% and 41.7%. The time that those who reported cooking SPENT in their food prep changed dramatically too. Women went from spending nearly two hours day in food prep to just over one hour. Men’s cooking time went up from 36 minutes a day to 45.
In short, all members of the household are now in and out of the kitchen at all times of day, from getting ready for work and school in the morning, to midnight snacking. The kitchen needs to be more accessible for everyone’s use.
If you’re interested, here’s an infographic summarizing everything. Enjoy skimming!