by Catherine McMahon
"Meal machine, experimental laboratory, status symbol, domestic prison, or the creative and spiritual heart of the home?"
While the modern kitchen has historically been impacted by technological innovation, perceptions of cultural value have played a significant role
in its design and tech is by no means the sole driver of change in this realm. ... It is with this in mind that we attempt to understand the role
innovation will play in the future kitchen and how designers can intervene in this highly charged and complex environment in a meaningful way.
While the recent economic downturn has caused consumer spending on durable goods to decrease, spending in the kitchen-on quality foods, premium appliances, and high-end cookware-has increased as more Americans refrain from eating out in favor of staying at home. It is now in the domestic sphere that they feed a growing interest in gastronomic pursuits. In addition to this we are experiencing a paradigm shift in basic attitudes towards food as more and more consumers reject the food produced in the factory and support production on the farm. Interests in food culture and cooking have converged at this moment to create a number of opportunities for rethinking the kitchen environment. Furthermore design centered on the culinary experience must also negotiate a number of contemporary challenges such as changes in housing trends, the influence of popular media, technological innovation, and the rearrangement of lifestyles.
It is important to understand that food trends and kitchen design both shape and are shaped by one another. In the twentieth century the kitchen underwent a metamorphosis as innovations in technology-gas stoves, electric appliances, refrigeration, microwave cooking-as well as food science-standardized portions, stabilized textures, and systematized flavors-wrought cultural and social change both in the oven and on the tongue. For example in the '20s and '30s fiscal austerity and limited supplies of food gave rise to practices of careful measure and its attendant tools, measuring cups, spoons, scales, recipes, etc., as well as built-in spaces designed to minimize waste and streamline food preparation. In the post-war era, defined by the military industrial complex, the means of food production became centralized in the factory and wartime technologies such as the microwave oven (think T.V. dinner) became available in the marketplace. In short, the convergence of food science, industrial production, and kitchen technology radically altered the ways in which we perceive both food and its consumption.
The last ten years or so have played witness to a fairly significant backlash against systematized forms of food production as consumers regain an interest in the diverse cultures surrounding food. Nonetheless conditions in contemporary society are still shaped by past history and convenience and speed remain a preeminent concern. The kitchen has also expanded in definition to become a locus for entertainment, socializing, and a host of other domestic functions in addition to being thought of as a space centered on nourishment. It is critical to strike a balance between the user's desire to expand their culinary repertoire and engage in cooking as a creative activity and their need to respond to the pragmatics of everyday life and the realities of time constraints.
One of the most complex and interwoven spaces in the home, the kitchen simultaneously mediates the spheres of domestic politics, regimes of health, sensory experiences, culinary legacies, and social affairs. The tools and spaces of the future kitchen should reflect this diverse set of concerns with regard to the contemporary zeitgeist. Early in the decade kitchen trends were shaped by the ascendancy of Martha Stewart and her totalizing sense DIY home perfection, as well as the Pro chefs depicted in popular media who were equipped with sharp knives and the blazing furnaces of stainless-steel ranges. The housing boom and subsequent real-estate speculation only increased consumer spending on luxe kitchen goods and the fetishization of the professional kitchen. The current atmosphere is more subdued and kitchen design is becoming more condensed, refined, and nuanced. A new kind of scientific and information-based rationality has taken over food culture as well, finding expression in experimental, boundary-crossing, and narrative-rich forms of culinary engagement. Future kitchen strategies can build upon the desire users have to translate data, stories, and images into gastronomic experience.
While the modern kitchen has historically been impacted by technological innovation, perceptions of cultural value have played a significant role in its design and tech is by no means the sole driver of change in this realm. In reality technology is often a reluctant partner in the kitchen, while mobile tech, touch-screens, and networked mentalities proliferate in our lives like rabbits, many still prefer to hear the analogue hiss of a gas flame hit the bottom of their frying pans. It is with this in mind that we attempt to understand the role innovation will play in the future kitchen and how designers can intervene in this highly charged and complex environment in a meaningful way.
The sleek space-age kitchens brought to us by generations of futurists would at first glance seem outlandish, elaborately built-in equipment,
seamless facades, robot helpers, or magically automated appliances that pop out whole birthday cakes, lit candles and all. Some of these innovations
have proved prescient-home shopping through the TV or miniature vacuuming robots (think Roomba), yet past utopian visions failed to imagine the
kitchen as an intrinsically creative space. In an effort to free women from the drudgery of domestic labor dreams of automatic replicators or
'meals-as-pill' emerged. While convenience foods do hold a place in our lives, the desire to cook has never really died out, and micro brewing,
canning, urban farming, smoking, roasting, baking, etc., are all activities gaining in popularity today. Furthermore, the flat and opaque "leftover"
or "dinner" modes on devices such as microwaves leave consumers cold and confused. Successful UX strategies will take into account creativity and
sensory experience when looking to create enhanced experiences for the home chef.
How can digital media augment existing spaces and objects by enhancing qualities of insight, inspiration, perception, and storytelling-thus creating layered experiences around the art of cooking?
Philips' Microbial Home (2011) offers insight into the opportunities that exist when the kitchen environment is rethought from the ground up. The
designers at Philips reframed the conceptual definition of the kitchen by moving away from the idea that it is a space that houses autonomous
functional objects and moving toward the concept that it could be an interconnected ecosystem of functional elements. Surprisingly low-tech, the
Microbial Home takes time-tested technologies such as methane digestion, evaporative cooling, or gas cooking and creates a structure where these
technologies are co-dependent upon one another. Beyond the abstraction of "eco-friendly" values, the configuration of the Microbial Home heightens
the user's awareness by making efficiencies tangible and expressing a tight fit of form to function thus creating a sensibility that food, the
means of preparing and storing it, and waste are all a part of a singular cyclical system. As more and more people attempt to take control of
their environmental behaviors they opt to focus on the origins of their food, purchasing much of their produce, meat, and even dairy from CSAs,
farmer's markets, or the organic aisles at the local grocery. Designers have the opportunity to mirror these values in the kitchen by helping
users to understand the relationship between the food and its preparation, as well as how to cut down on waste, mismanagement, and excess.
How can individual appliances be rethought as a collective behavioral system - wherein each appliance has its unique role yet is connected to the others either physically or through a shared mental model?
The founders of Blue Bottle Coffee have raised the act of brewing a simple cup of coffee into a flavorful and nuanced sensory experience. They
emphasize the process, material, and the science behind roasting, grinding, and brewing by reviving heritage techniques and refusing to bend to
the existing retail norms of speed and easy flavor. This is part of a larger trend towards gathering knowledge and understanding about every
stage of a food or beverage's terroir and preparation. Prior to this a working knowledge of a food's source and a desire to master difficult
techniques characterized a leading commitment to gastronomy. Now everything from a food's DNA (genetically modified or not), to the chemical
processes it undergoes when being prepared, to the unique transmutations of flavor and nutritional value made possible in combination with
other ingredients are taken under consideration when experimenting with cuisine. The future kitchen will foreground process and transparency
to enable home chefs to make more intuitive and precise decisions while cooking.
How can kitchen tools reveal more information about their inner workings in order to bring users closer to rather than alienate them from the cooking process?
Data generated in relationship to food has been a relatively new phenomena-it was not until 1990 that the FDA mandated nutrition labels for
most food products. In many ways this kind of data falls short of expectations, it is atomized, de-contextualized, and difficult to shape
into a holistic picture of nutrition and wellness. Whole Foods adopted the ANDI (Aggregate Nutrition Density Index) score and a number of
apps from Fooducate (which scans barcodes and offers healthy alternatives) to The Eatery (which crowdsources nutritional value) have attempted
to respond to this dilemma. Current smart kitchen strategies gather data for tracking energy consumption, making recipe recommenders, giving
medicine reminders, or managing food shopping systems. The kitchen offers a physical space to bring all of these disparate data streams into
context-by integrating it into the fabric of the environment and gathering feedbacks from appliances, sensor networks, or RFID tags this
information can be made more relevant and actionable.
How can the physical space of the kitchen be utilized to shape useful narratives out of disparate streams of data?