Kitchen design in the 1960s – how a period of pop and free love changed the kitchen into a place of fun and social gatherings

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Petra Bjelica
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The era of the 1960s was a crazy, eclectic time. Many different styles, influences, and novelties emerged in architecture design – on one hand, you had the elegant, classy and sleek forms from the 50s and on the other the new colorful, psychedelic, and futuristic Space Age design.

Adding the cultural revolution into the mix, it was only natural that the changes highly influenced the way people thought about their home kitchen. It was a period in which kitchens ceased to be merely practical workrooms, in fact they became one of the central places of the household.

1966 Mutschler Kitchen. Author: Ethan, CC by 2.0

The biggest transformation can be seen in a line of the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright who said, while describing the house he designed for a married couple, “Many years ago the woman, who was called a kitchen mechanic, worked behind closed doors. We put her into space and made a lady out of her” as quoted in the book How to Plan Trend-Setting Kitchens. The role of the kitchen reflected the societal and cultural changes.

Kitchen in the late 50s and early 60s. Author: Mitchell Hearns Bishop, CC by 2.0

By the 1950s the kitchen became the central room in the house, influenced by the 1920s Bauhaus design solutions. It became a part of the home where preparing family meals, dinner parties or social gatherings were connected with entertaining and everyday fun. The tendency for enjoying one’s everyday routine was dominant. Kitchens went from being the least attractive places to being designed as ‘trophy’ rooms for showing one’s style, preferences, and personality. At the time, the interest in culinary skills was popular, and a lot of attention went to improvements of home cooking and kitchen utensils and appliances.

Home economists in kitchen, 1968. Author: Seattle Municipal Archives, CC by 2.0

The biggest improvement of the modern kitchen in the 1960s is considered to be the new kitchen layout; the work triangle consisted of 3 connected work areas – the stove, sink and the refrigerator. This essential model is an example of a highly utilitarian and effective design. Some of the forms from the 1950s were continued to be used, such as built-in cabinets and integrated appliances, but the wall-hung refrigerators or steel cabinets were replaced. Instead of steel, the dominant material used in the 1960s was wood as well as wood tones, especially pine cupboards. Kitchens were becoming larger, with an abundance of working space. They were open and transitional so as to be connected with an uninterrupted view of the rest of the space – living or family rooms.

Balfron Tower kitchen made in 1967. Author: George Rex, CC by-sa 2.0

The kitchens in the 60s were usually cheerful and bright places, with busy patterns on the walls or mosaic backsplashes. Prevailing colors were bold and robust ones like orange, mustard lemon, saffron, violet and eggplant shades, or avocado green which, for better or for worse, was everywhere. They were usually contrasted with dark counter tops and sometimes with psychedelic tiles or wallpapers. One more novelty included a chalkboard for notes, recipes, grocery lists or reminders. The design intended to make kitchens vibrant and pleasant places with furniture examples such as the Saarinen tulip chairs. Some were groovy and kooky, with shag rugs, loud in-your-face details, and furniture that had fluid forms. Materials such as plastic, vinyl or PVC were a regular feature alongside timber, copper, and stone. Wicker and cane were often used for furniture.

1963 kitchen. Author: Bromford, C by-sa 2.0

Technology introduced some new appliances such as the dishwasher that became a standard in homes in the 1970s and other improvements that made the cooking easier and faster. Characteristics of the 1960s décor found its way into kitchens: the Mediterranean or other exotic influences, futuristic and science fiction tendencies, or crazy psychedelic images and colors. Part of it was the intention to include a compact outdoor kitchen for garden parties and barbecue.

1967 kitchen in Norway. Author: The Municipal Archives of Trondheim, CC by 2.0

Towards the end of the 1960s, kitchen design in the United States took on a more modernistic, sleek and angular touch to it, a contrast to the frenzied vibrancy of the American lifestyle. Still, we can draw a line and say that kitchens in the 1960s had their own distinctive and special charms. A lot of key features were embellished and continued to be used in the next decade, and some of them, such as the model of the work triangle, continue in most design solutions even today. And what is even more important, the idea to have fun in your own kitchen became a very important reference point for future architects and interior designers.