Loosening ties to the kitchen sink

Bauhaus' modern domestic designs could have eased the woman's role in prewar Germany

by C.B. Liddell

One of the reasons the Germans lost WWII, it has been argued, was because they failed to mobilize their female labor force to the same degree as their enemies. This had much to do with a “Kinder, Kuche, Kirche” (children, kitchen, church) mentality that consigned women to a world of old-fashioned domestic chores and child rearing.

But it didn’t have to be this way, as “Bauhaus Taste — Bauhaus Kitchen” at the Shiodome Museum demonstrates in an exhibition that pays testament to the role some German designers had in freeing women for other duties through the modernization of the kitchen.

The exhibition focuses on improvements made in the design of kitchen utensils, appliances and work space by the renowned Bauhaus school, which operated in Germany from 1919 to 1933. As the dates suggest, Bauhaus was the quintessential Weimar Republic institution and, like that well-intentioned but ill-fated state, had a similar quality of slightly naive progressivism. But it was this idealism that enabled Bauhaus designers to eschew time-honored cultural patterns and apply an uncompromisingly rationalist approach to overhaul the existing notions of the kitchen.

The slick, streamlined kitchen that resulted from this design revolution is represented by a full-scale replica of the kitchens from the “Masters’ Houses,” designed by the architect and founder of the Bauhaus school, Walter Gropius, to provide accommodation for the masters of the school.

The kitchen, with a large easy-to-use sink, drying rack, easy-to-clean surfaces, innovative storage space and other features reveals how the designers hoped to liberate the German hausfrau. In the process, this and several other “un-German” ideas marked the Bauhaus out as enemies of the new order brought in by the rise of Adolf Hitler, leading to the closure of the school in 1933 and the flight of many of its leading lights. For this reason, Bauhaus had more impact abroad than it did in Germany, even before the war.

The main problem the exhibition has is that it shows us the genesis of something that we now all take for granted. Although most of the items date from the 1920s and have a veneer of aging, they essentially resemble the sort of things you can pick up in modern home and interior stores, such as IKEA or Conran. “Salad Bowl with Servers” (1924-25) by the designer and abstract artist Josef Albers, has the pleasing simplicity and minimalist aesthetic that we associate with a much later period. To the Nazis, obsessed as they were with totemism, heraldry, and symbolism, this must have been a chillingly disturbing object.

To really appreciate this design revolution, you need to compare the Bauhaus kitchen with its immediate predecessor, the pre-World War I kitchen, a place of time-consuming and ill-thought-out laborious tasks, which, at least in the better-off households, required the employment of servants. Unfortunately the exhibition makes no attempt to set up such an illuminating contrast.

Good design, once it has been created and accepted, tends to create an illusion of effortlessness. This in turn is liable to lead to a “So what?” response. Visitors to the exhibition might feel this way, as so many of the ideas here are now part of our daily life. But the exhibition is partially saved from this danger by a 10-minute film on show. Here we see how the kitchen and the other rooms in the house were supposed to function.

Like any evangelical vision of a brave new world it has that wonderful retro-futuristic sense of flying jet-packs and meals in pill form, showing a number of bright ideas that the world wasn’t quite ready for, such as the mixing bowl stabilizer featuring spring-loaded hooks and the removable arm rests that allowed you to turn a sofa into a bed. The inclusion of such plausible failures makes us appreciate the quality of the successful designs that we are ever in danger of taking for granted.

“Bauhaus Taste — Bauhaus Kitchen” at the Shiodome Museum, Roualt Gallery, runs till Dec. 12; admission ¥500; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.panasonic-denko.co.jp/corp/museum/en