Tomorrow’s World Today, The Simple Things, April 2019
All copy as provided to publication
In the early 20th century, the future felt imminent. The aftermath of the First World War left people wanting to forget the past and look forward, and increasing industrialisation meant leaving behind old ways of life for new urban jobs and suburban homes. After World War Two, mid-century homes became testing grounds for new ideas about how we might live in a future that seemed just around the corner. As the Design Museum’s Home Futures exhibition explores ‘today’s home through the prism of yesterday’s imagination,’ Katie Treggiden investigates whether its big ideas have stood the test of time.
1 . The fitted kitchen
Designed in 1926 by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky for a social housing project in Germany, the ‘Frankfurt kitchen’ was such a hit that it became the blueprint for apartment kitchens across Europe. ‘Firstly, life is work, and secondly it is relaxing, company, pleasures,’ said Schütte-Lihotzky, dividing the home accordingly, with the kitchen reserved for the former. As women who had worked during wartime were encouraged back into the home, scientific management pioneers Christine Frederick and Lillian M Gilbreth’s sought to professionalise the role of the housewife, reimagining the kitchen as her workplace. Inspired by this idea, Schütte-Lihotzky carried out time and motion studies to create a kitchen that optimised efficiency, workflow and hygiene. For the first time, kitchens came complete with stoves and built-in storage – and even fold-down ironing boards. Aluminium drawers provided space for dried goods and pulled out for easy pouring. Kitchens might have changed – they are now family spaces for ‘relaxing, company and pleasures’ too, but we still take many of Schütte-Lihotzky’s ideas for granted. Our fitted kitchens are ergonomically designed around the tasks we use them for – and who doesn’t dream of labelled containers for everything from rice to sugar?
2 . The automated house
‘Welcome to this wonderful new world of push-button cooking, cleaning and homemaking… In this kitchen you can bake a cake in three minutes … the dishes are scraped, washed and dried electronically, [and] even put themselves away,’ so claimed a 1957 promotional film for the RCA-Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen – promising to liberate women from domestic chores ‘with a mere wave of her hand’. Of course, this was a Heath Robinson-esque fantasy – the appliances in the film were operated by remote control from behind a two-way mirror. Today, we might still have to put our dishes away ourselves, but we can outsource many of our chores to a series of interconnected digital devices that use data they collect on our behaviour to predict our every need, from ‘smart fridges’ that order more milk when we run low to systems that adjust the heating and lighting in anticipation of our return home. However, for all our technological advances, housework still seems to be gendered – Amazon's Alexa might be able to order our groceries online, but ‘she’ does so with a biddable female persona.
3 . Small space living
The kitchen was not the only room expected to shrink. With the urbanisation of populations and the post-war housing crisis, 20th-century designers became obsessed with clever ways to fit life into ever decreasing spaces. None more so than Joe Colombo, whose 1969 Total Furnishing Unit compressed the entire home into a single mobile box measuring just 28 square metres. The yellow and white ‘pod’ contained kitchen appliances, bookshelves, a television, a bathroom, a wardrobe and fold-down twin beds – all you had to do was plug it in. Commissioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it still sounds pretty crazy until you consider that MINI Living, the architecture arm of the automotive firm, showcased a similar prototype at Milan Design Week in 2018 and plans to open its first apartment block in Shanghai this year. Given that the United Nations predicts that two thirds of us will be living in cities by 2050 and ‘megacities’ such as London, New York and Tokyo already house more than 10 million people, Colombo’s far-fetched idea might not be as improbable as it once seemed.
4 . Living on the move
Home Futures explores notions of nomadic living from Archigram’s 1970s Walking City – the vision of an entire metropolis contained within a giant, four-legged, walking robot that could move to find resources and other communities – to the story of a Danish man who sold his house to buy Airbnb rental apartments and now sleeps in a different hotel every night. Although we are not living in walking robotic cities and few of us actively relish the idea of moving every day, we are increasingly nomadic. Empowered by digital technology, and temporary co-working and co-living spaces that are starting to make ownership seem outdated, we can increasingly move from place to place with (almost) everything we need in a smart-phone and a carry-on suitcase. Perhaps the house of tomorrow is no house at all.