When most people are renovating a kitchen, a big part of the planning is usually about finding new appliances. Homeowners ponder shiny new stoves and microwaves that can sense what’s cooking. While I didn’t do a full renovation, I recently had to replace my refrigerator, and it was a solid week of comparing models, square footage, and the location and size of crisper bins and butter drawers. It’s no surprise that kitchen remodels are such a big deal. In many homes, the kitchen is the essential hub. It’s where families gather, where there is morning coffee, lunches are packed, and groceries are stored. Kitchens need to be efficient, well-lit, and properly equipped for modern living. So why then is there such a market for vintage fixtures, appliances, and decor? Why are there so many people who want to go back to heavy chrome blenders and avocado green canisters?
Go with the Flow
It seems that the popularity of Mid-Century Modern furniture and décor has made its way into the kitchen, and really, why not? With open floor plan homes, you really can’t go from a living room that looks like the set of Mad Men to a kitchen with a sleek marble island, stainless steel appliances, and a pot-filler faucet over a Viking stove. As any HGTV host would tell you, “The theme should flow, throughout the home, in a cohesive motif that exudes your esthetic.” Well, maybe they wouldn’t say exactly that, but in general, your home shouldn’t have multiple personalities. So retro-style kitchens, where one could imagine Betty Draper or Laura Petrie whipping up a Jell-O mold, are very on-trend, with vintage Kitchen Aid mixers and Ice-O-Matic cube crushers being sought after by designers and homeowners alike.
Retro or Repro?
So if you’re planning to turn your kitchen into a Formica and porcelain showcase, do you go all authentic and search out older items, or do you buy modern reproductions that have the bells and whistles of modern technology, but the look of days gone by? It takes a little research, but there are suppliers that craft new stoves, fridges, and cabinets that you’d swear came right out of Ozzie and Harriet’s kitchen. One major manufacturer of retro style appliances is Big Chill. They offer the outward appearance of bygone days, with the efficiency and up-to-code wiring of today. Still, there are more than a few purists who will search every flea market and estate sale to find just the right Bakelite utensils, Fiestaware bowls, and Magic Chef stoves.
Most kitchens that are done up in an MCM theme have a mixture of the two options, with homeowners wanting the quality and advantages of new items when it comes to a stove or a fridge, but will go authentically antique with décor and utensils. Anything that plugs in has to be safe in a kitchen since there will be water and maybe even gas burners in the area, so cloth cords and exposed wires can be problematic.
The Time Warp of Kitchen Styles
In general, as home styles have changed, the kitchen has been the one place in a home that tends to reflect an era rather than a particular color palette or architecture. The kitchens of the 1950s and 60s were futuristic. They reflected the time; there was a space race, the moon was within reach, cars had chrome and fins to evoke the look of a rocket ship, and home cooks wanted a little of that NASA/Good Housekeeping vibe when they were making supper or doing the dishes. A fashionable kitchen from a 1960’s magazine spread would probably look much like a present-day kitchen done in MCM style, only the original was a nod to the future, while today’s kitchens echo the past.
Name that Decade
The MCM period differs, depending on whom you ask, but it started in the post-war 1940s, and some say continued up at least to the first couple of years of the 1970s. Kitchen appliances and furnishings changed a great deal during these years, and each decade has its iconic brands. In the 1940s, Hotpoint was very popular for their large porcelain covered electric stoves. Today, these models are sought after for restoration projects since they are at once vintage but bring back a vibe of the post-war era that the future would bring innovation and technology to the home.
In the 1950s, as the space race was heating up, kitchens were going a little more high-tech. While the kitchen was still a work center, Crosley came out with a “Musical Chef” radio in 1954 that had a dial for tuning in music and programs and a built-in timer to make sure the meal didn’t burn if the cook took a coffee break.
In the 1960s, it was common to see small dinette sets in a kitchen, with Formica tops and chrome trip. Having a seating area in the kitchen meant it was becoming more of a gathering point and not just a utilitarian workspace.
While it may not be a strict historical database with dates and events, looking at how kitchen appliances, utensils, and styles evolved through a major design period does show how kitchens reflected the times. Each decade leaves its mark on fashion, home design, and even everyday items like blenders and toasters.
Brenda Kelley Kim lives in the Boston area. She is the author of Sink or Swim: Tales From the Deep End of Everywhere and writes a weekly syndicated column for Gannett News/Wicked Local. When not writing or walking her snorty pug Penny, she enjoys yard sales, flea markets, and badminton.
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