- “Look Who’s Designing Kitchens”Personalization, Gender, and Design Authority in the Postwar Remodeled Kitchen
In 1952 Youngstown Kitchens told consumers, “Planning your kitchen is easy, and you’ll have a lot of fun doing it!”1 Because customers selected from the company’s line of steel cabinets and were free to arrange them as desired, promoters hoped to convince these amateur designers that the result would be a new, personalized cooking space. Similar encouragements for consumers to take part in designing their own remodeling projects were common in the rapidly expanding postwar home improvement market. After profiling an economy-minded couple who planned their own finished attic, a news-letter from a savings bank in Waycross, Georgia, advised customers to likewise “put the job on paper!”2 In Alhambra, California, a remodeling salesman described how, when visiting the homes of prospective clients, he asked them for help measuring the existing room. “And pretty soon I’ve drawn the customers into the act,” he said. “They’re part of the building project. They’re selling themselves, although very likely they don’t realize it.”3 Home improvement promoters—building product manufacturers, local dealers, contractors, and sales teams—expected amateur design rhetoric to prompt feelings of investment in a project and to increase the chances for a signed contract.4
These promoters relied upon a variety of selling aids, from product samples and point-of-purchase displays to before-and-after booklets and miniature planning kits. Introduced in the 1920s and consisting of numerous diminutive cabinet and counter pieces arranged to represent different layouts on a scale-model room, miniature kits became a centerpiece of remodeling marketing in the postwar era (Figure 1). Modular kitchen equipment manufacturers commissioned the sets and provided them to their networks of local partners. Door-to-door salesmen and contractors stowed the kits in custom briefcases and carried them to community demonstrations and appointments in the homes of prospective customers. They were also found in the showrooms of hardware and lumber retailers and dedicated remodeling centers that focused on home improvement.
The functions that manufacturers assigned to the kits and the meanings that they ascribed to them varied depending upon the audience. Articles and advertisements directed at remodeling sellers often framed the kits as professional design tools meant to bolster expert standing. Alternately, manufacturers presented miniature planning kits as nonthreatening, inviting objects that would elicit eager consumer involvement in a project. But exhortations for consumers to design projects themselves and to take charge of their own customization efforts conflicted with local dealers’ efforts to establish the professional credentials of in-house planners (Figure 2). They were also in tension with the processes of mass production and kitchen standardization upon which the modern cabinet industry was based. By the mid-1950s the efficiencies of large-scale manufacturing had reduced the costs of new cabinets and counters, bringing them within the financial reach of a greater number of Americans than ever before. Trained crews could install a new kitchen in under thirty minutes.5 To achieve [End Page 57] such savings in time and money, manufacturers had to limit variation in their product lines.
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Miniature planning kits offered consumption in the guise of creativity. While seeming to transfer authorship to consumers, the sets secured primary design authority with manufacturers, dealers, and contractors. The prominent role of the (predominantly male) professional kitchen planner undermined essentialist claims of female kitchen-layout expertise made by manufacturers promoting amateur design. When present, such professionals tended to mediate consumer preferences, directing amateur participation in the initial choice and organization of cabinets and counters. It was only the selection and composition of counter and paint colors, wallpapers, floor patterns, curtains, and wall hangings (ironically, the traditional female domain of surface decoration) that...