The subject of kitchens—what they reveal about their owners, how many it is acceptable to have—has become something of a political football in the run-up to the British general election. Three main-party leaders have invited cameras and journalists into their kitchens for coffee and conversation—with mixed results. But there is something far more interesting about the kitchen than its brief spell as a subject of spin, as I realised on a recent visit to the Geffrye Museum. And that is its positioning over the centuries in our homes, and what that tells us about our domestic history and our relationship with food.
The Geffrye, London’s museum of the home, occupies a row of handsome, early-18th-century almshouses next to Hoxton station. Inside, you walk through a series of 11 room sets which reproduces typical living spaces of the last 400 years: a multi-purpose hall of 1630, through various parlours and “withdrawing” rooms, ending up with a loft-style apartment of 1998. Many of these are faithful copies of rooms in actual London houses. They have been furnished not with the high-quality antiques you might see in decorative arts museums or stately homes, but with what would have been found in the homes of ordinary people—“people of the middling sort” as they were called before the phrase “middle class” caught on.
The Geffrye narrates the story of the emergence of the middle classes through their domestic interiors. In a townhouse built after the Great Fire of London, a parlour or a dining room is the chief living space, rather than the earlier communal hall; this meant an increased separation between employers and their servants. And, although the workplace and the home were at first in the same building, gradually in the 19th century these too were separated as people moved away from the centre of town and travelled in to work. It is fascinating, as you pass through the centuries, to see wooden panelling (or wainscots) replaced by wallpaper, and sturdy oak furniture morph into more delicate creations in polished walnut. There are always dining tables and chairs, but up to now there is no sign of where the food is prepared.
It is only in the last room set that the kitchen makes an appearance. The 17th-century kitchen, a dirty, noisy and potentially dangerous place, was hidden away in the basement far from the living quarters that people rented, a separate family on each floor. Gradually, with fewer servants and improvements in plumbing and hygiene, the distance between kitchen and living room began to decrease. Loft living is credited not just with the craze for wooden floors, but with the integration of the cooking area into the main living space.
“It’s already history,” says David Dewing, the director of the Geffrye, as he looks at the 1998 loft-style room with the kitchen to one side of the living area. “In the next room set we make, I expect the kitchen will be the centrepiece: it’s become the focal point of the living space, and the act of cooking has itself become part of entertaining.” Another symptom of that shift—perhaps even a cause of it—is the quantity of food programmes on TV and the rise of the celebrity chef.
Perhaps politicians shouldn’t be embarrassed about having showy kitchens: it’s just a sign of the times. But they might instead like to wonder how they inform the issues surrounding obesity and health. When the kitchen was some distance away, you must have thought twice about a midnight feast. But the modern interior is a snacker’s charter: food is around and accessible all the time. It seems to me after visiting the Geffrye that, in the obesity debate, the role of architecture and our embrace of the kitchen have been somewhat overlooked.
The Geffrye Museum, London, free. Tour of the almshouses, £3