The birth of modern kitchen design

In order to design kitchens of the future, it helps to understand kitchen design of the past

April 4, 2024

Kitchens have been evolving in their designs for hundreds of years. As needs and ways of living change, so these designs evolve but in order to design the best kitchens of the future, it often helps to understand how these past designs worked.  It can help clients with large country houses understand how their houses were initially intended to be used, and in doing so, how we can now improve their future use.   The Artichoke team pays particularly close attention to how country houses were originally intended to operate, and how changing socio-economic environments have affected this use over time. There have been huge cultural changes over the last 150 years – so let’s take a look back.

A spacious kitchen with white cabinetry, marble countertops, and a central wooden island with three stools. elegant pendant lights hang above, and a doorway on the right leads to another room.

It was not until the mid 19th century that kitchen design became of interest to house owners.  Prior to that, the owners of large country houses were simply not interested in their kitchens or how they were designed. The rooms were out of sight, often in the basement or away from the main body of the house.  They were therefore out of mind, run by the cook, the servants and the housekeeper, and the closest they got to interior design was choosing the paint colour.

A cozy kitchen corner with beige cabinetry and shelving, displaying kitchenware and wicker baskets. features include a stone countertop, integrated appliances, and a decorative wooden beam.

In the 1860s, changes in social attitudes and wealth distribution altered social hierarchies and the way the majority of even large houses were run.  Advances in transport through new rail and road infrastructure meant a more mobile workforce and permanent household positions becoming less attractive compared to new office-based work in major cities. The kind of weekly planning between homeowner and cook or other domestic staff was consigned to history for the majority of households.

A cozy traditional kitchen featuring a classic wood-fired stove, beige cabinetry, and a terracotta-toned shelf with pottery. a patterned floor with red and black tiles complements the warm ambiance.

The growth of the middle classes (who could afford fewer servants and smaller houses), meant an increasing number of women found themselves in the kitchen.   Originally they made bread and trained their staff, but soon they found themselves working alongside the kitchen staff they employed.  It was inevitable that improvements to cleanliness, comfort and kitchen interior design would soon follow.  This was emphasised by influential cookery writers of the age such as Mrs. Beeton who capitalised on the country’s new found love of kitchen design and kitchen living.

Fast forward to modern living

Todays large country houses present a conundrum. Designed and built for this bygone era, the kitchen is hidden at the back of the house, often downstairs and out of sight. By comparison, modern homes want the kitchen at it’s centre – connecting family and friends around cooking and meal times with spaces for entertaining as well as more informal dining.

The issue of how to deal with the movement of a kitchen is a serious and involved topic – especially for listed houses and we explore the challenges in a separate Notebook article here.

The pioneering elements of modern kitchen design

Through the post war period of the 1950’s and 1960’s kitchen design began incorporating key elements we still see today. Work flows from sink to oven to counter top together with increasing interest in central islands changed not just the design but the way the space worked and felt. Yet some of these elements drew their inspiration from the great houses of the past. Instead of islands there were cooks tables – items that Artichoke have painstakingly re-created in several projects – even commissioning ironmongery to replicate uniquely beautiful historical pieces. For more of these details, explore Artichoke Kitchen Projects where you can see examples of cooks tables inspired by houses such as Lanydrock in Cornwall.

A luxurious kitchen featuring a large marble-topped cooks table with brass drawers, classic black and white tiled backsplash, and elegant accessories including a bowl of red apples and tall blue flowers.

Above all, the best kitchens are creations imagined from many years of evolutionary design – where place and history serve to connect the needs of the modern family and home to the legacy of the past. They are an opportunity to not just make delicious recipes from the finest ingredients or a place to make great conversation. They are a way to make history a living connection between past and future.