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One of the most prominent places to see the shift in attitudes, both socially and design-wise, has been through the lens of the domestic kitchen. In the past century, kitchen design trends have swung back and forth on the pendulum between “fun and funky” and “sleek and restrained.” From the sterile white porcelains of the ’20s to the macramé plant hangers of the ’70s, the kitchen was a physical representation of the American psyche: a gathering place, somewhere to enjoy your family and feel a sense of belonging and comfort.
I learned that the hard way when I lived in an apartment without a dedicated kitchen. Since I didn’t really cook much anyway, I initially dismissed the omission. Little did I know that living without easy access to a kitchen—even if it’s just a place to make your coffee and zone out in the morning—is a huge bummer. After I left that apartment, I made it a priority to find a place where I could really embrace the idea of making my own food. And that’s when I really started to see the kitchen as more than just a place to microwave a cup of mac and cheese–it’s the heart of the home.
It’s not easy maintaining a kitchen: They get messy! Things can get out of hand fast. But the more time I’ve spent in mine, the more I’ve really learned to love it. I’ve taken to baking cookies and actually cooking dinner. I still live in a rental, but I fantasize about removing some of the contractor-grade cabinetry and painting it all a fun shade of green. Until then, I’ll live vicariously through the kitchen design trends of the past through vintage catalog scans and kitchen appliance advertisements.
1920s–1930s: Shaping up for the future
In the 1920s and 1930s, we started moving away from the rounded, effusive, decorative shapes of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras for a more restrained, sleek style. Art Deco was the most popular, especially in public buildings like the skyscrapers of New York City. That said, for such a dramatic design vernacular, American homeowners had to find a way to apply Art Deco elements to their homes, which were usually much more modest than the Chrysler building.
During this period, kitchens made more use of tiling, both on floors and in walls. Similar to what was happening in bathrooms, tiles kept surfaces cleaner because they weren’t absorbent like wood and could easily be wiped off. Flooring gave homeowners the chance to express their inner Art Deco as a focus on geometric shapes emerged. Linoleum floors gave people the opportunity to add some pizazz to what would have been boring hardwood before–classic checkerboard was the most popular choice, but into the 1930s, colorful, angular patterns became more en vogue. “I find myself pulling inspiration from the mixed patterns and bold color choices of the Art Deco era,” says Sapna Aggarwal, designer and founder of Bungalowe, who often works with 1920s-era Craftsman-style homes.
One of the most sought-after and beloved components of the ’20s and ’30s kitchens is the breakfast nook. A little kitchen recess often with two built-in benches and a table, breakfast nooks were the perfect gathering places for families throughout the day—not just in the morning. For so long, kitchens were designated as a “women’s realm,” but attitudes were slowly shifting. This division of space allowed kitchens to be both a place of labor and leisure, instead of just eating in an adjacent dining room.
1940s: Keep it simple and sweet
Interiors of the ’40s were pared back and minimal—though there was no sparing of sweet decorative flourishes, like gingham-patterned curtains adorning the window above the sink or knickknacks like cookie jars and pottery filling the built-in shelving spaces. Cherry red, navy blue, butter yellow, and kelly green all popped against a crisp white background, whether it was on wallpaper or an embroidered tablecloth.
While the Art Deco movement was forward-thinking and avant-garde, the 1940s took a decidedly more traditional approach. Imparted still was the sleekness of the tiled walls and floors, as well as new appliances like the workhorse Monarch electric oven range and the rounded, lustrous Gibson door refrigerator. There was less emphasis on the futuristic chrome, and more organic motifs—like flowers, fruit, and roosters—were seen everywhere from breadbaskets to floor mats.
1950s–1960s: Atomic-era innovations
Some of the more conservative stylings of the 1940s fell away as families were finally able to “live the American dream.” With the advent of space travel, interiors were awash in the midcentury style of the Atomic Age, replete with starbursts, boomerangs, and explosive asterisk patterns. We were living in the future, and those motifs were all over midcentury kitchens—think blonde wood cabinetry, formica countertops, and chevron-shaped drawer pulls. Back to the forefront was the newest technology and appliances—not to be stored away in cupboards but proudly displayed.
“There are certain things about the midcentury kitchen that are decidedly out of step with current faves, particularly the desire to really show off and emphasize technology, which is typically avoided today if possible,” says Sarah Archer, bona fide vintage kitchen expert and author of The Midcentury Kitchen: America’s Favorite Room, from Workspace to Dreamscape. “The Space Age kitchen was usually a showcase for gadgets because they were a way for middle class homeowners to show that they were au courant.”
Women in the household were still expected to maintain everything, and that included preparing pot roast for dinner or aspic for lunch. There was no shame in employing the newest contraptions to prepare a delicious—or at least interesting-looking—meal. Prevailing midcentury kitchen color schemes not-so-subtly hinted at popular family values: robin’s egg blue, baby pink, and sunshine-y yellow set off against the more “natural” wood in cabinetry or exposed beams.
1970s: Over-the-top kitsch
Homeowners did away with the focus on appliances and technological innovations in the 1970s. Instead, the kitchen was a place to relax with friends, drinking Tab, and listening to Three Dog Night playing from an 8-track. In culinary terms, kitschy kitchens of the ’70s were the embodiment of a delicious casserole: warm and comforting, without any pretensions.
“I feel like kitchens really reflected their homeowners’ personalities back then, and I think we can all agree that the ’70s might be regarded as the most wonderfully garish decade of all,” says Elrod, the artist and design enthusiast behind Mexakitsch.
The dominating color scheme of the ’70s was inarguably a muted rainbow of earthy colors, but even in their subdued tones, they still popped amongst the wood-paneled walls and matching cupboards. Lucky homeowners might find that some of these relics are still alive in their kitchens: brown built-in wall ovens like the Hotpoint’s Coppertone collection, Frigidaire stoves in (you guessed it) avocado green—and GE refrigerators in that sunny harvest gold.
It would be near impossible to leave the folksy overtones of ’70s kitchens alone without adding a dash of personal decor and flair. “I really adore the use of hanging plants and vines during that era,” adds Elrod. “In fact, I appreciate that there were a lot of ‘suspended’ kitchen items back then—macramé plant hangers, swag lamps, and floating cabinets all come to mind.” Because so much of the decor in kitchens wasn’t static, kitchen owners could infuse personality by simply opening a window and letting the wind blow through a dangling macramé wall hanging.
1980s–1990s: Postmodern in the city
Postmodernism really started gaining momentum in the 1980s, and the trendiest interiors were seen in the lofted apartments of metropolitan cities like Los Angeles and NYC. As technology was rapidly advancing, kitchens were designed to emphasize the cutting edge and new intensity of domestic gastronomy.
“So when we talk about industrial or ‘high-tech’ design, there’s a ton of chrome/shine/stainless steel involved,” says Rock Herzog, the interior designer behind Cocaine Decor. “I love the look of a kitchen that appears like it’s owned by a professional chef who took a bunch of the stainless steel work tables home from work and turned them into [their] home setup. It’s so slick and sexy.”
The whimsy and personality of the ’70s stepped aside for the sultry texture of reflective brushed steel, the presence and gravitas of a big French door refrigerator with a bottom-drawer freezer, and kitchen accessories that imbue the sensual lines of Italian design, like track lighting affixed to the ceiling. Chrome, black leather, and high-tech appliances came to center stage in the loft-style postmodern kitchens of the ’80s and ’90s. “It makes a lot of sense to think of these materials as being in relationship to not only what would look good in this kind of space, but also what was available for use,” adds Rock. The elegant mixture of gleaming metals with rough exposed brick kept kitchens from feeling too stuffy or uptight.
2000s–2010s: An island of one’s own
Kitchens in the 2000s and 2010s were expanding—as lot sizes and homes became larger, they were able to accommodate much more. Islands, de facto gathering places of extended countertop space, allowed occupants the choice to hang out at the kitchen table or at the granite-covered oasis. For a while it seemed like stainless steel was the only acceptable colorway for kitchen appliances, and while they started off looking futuristic and glossy, they always ended up with some kind of dent. But hey, at least the fridge dispensed ice and water!
Maybe it was the influence of Under the Tuscan Sun, or just the romanticization of terra-cotta toned Italian kitchens. Whatever the cause, there was a massive shift toward emphasizing natural wood tones (most of them a honey-colored oak), sometimes highlighted by cream or off-white laminate surfaces. Decorative bottles filled with olive oil, preserved peppers, and lemons were displayed near crafty Mediterranean-inspired bulletin boards made of used wine corks.
Today: Bright and airy
It’s 2023, and we didn’t give up on all of the trends from the last 20 years. So there’s a lot less beige-y brown and Tuscan inspiration, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a recently built kitchen without a waterfall-style island: They’re sleek, sexy, usually in a white marble, and oftentimes paired with a “caged” industrial-goes-minimalist pendant light. Some of the most popular kitchens today tend to go more towards the modern farmhouse route, with stark contrasts of white glossy marble with matte black metal hardware.
On the other end of the trends spectrum, I’ve noticed a lot of experimentation with colors like yellow and green, innovative uses of light-colored plywood or particleboard and—finally!—a return to colorful appliances. Brands like Smeg and Samsung Bespoke allow you to forego the played-out stainless steel by customizing your kitchen in fun hues like cherry blossom pink or tangerine orange.
“The desire for color speaks to the shift from the kitchen as a workspace into a room for living, which was cemented in the postwar era and partially explains the need to display kitchen tools in a decorative fashion,” Sarah explains. “Now that people crave a more streamlined, spare look, the color of an appliance makes a statement and puts the kitchen in a visual dialogue with the rest of the house that doesn’t depend on having lots of objects and knickknacks getting in the way.”
And to cut through anything that could seem too dated, ideas from a century ago are showing up again in kitchens of today. “Nooks and crannies, moments of humble intimacy,” says interior designer Hollie Velten of Spaces. “We are big fans of banquettes, little built-ins, and cozy corners to invite human interaction and experience throughout the stages of child and adulthood.”
Whether you prefer your kitchen bursting with color or in glossy grayscale, modern kitchens celebrate the sunshine, allowing large windows to bring the outside in and help your microgreens grow. After all, the most important part of your kitchen is that you actually enjoy being in it.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest