The Influence of the Fitted Kitchen

While feminists and household economists of the rational school had long espoused the concept of the fitted kitchen, few homes had fitted kitchens until after World War II. The United States was well ahead of Britain in this respect, and U.S. companies began to use the desirability of the fitted kitchen as a marketing vehicle for a range of appliances in the late 1940s. In terms of cookers, this brought an emphasis on ergonomic design and materials. Surplus wartime stocks meant that aluminum became an affordable lightweight option for some cooker parts. Features such as glass doors, introduced in the 1930s, and eye-level grills were heralded as aids to efficiency and economy of movement. The 1950s fitted kitchen also prompted the revival of the split-level cooker with a waist-level or eye-level oven. The term “split level” is used to signify that the cooking units are not integrated vertically, but dispersed horizontally. Split-level electric cookers first appeared in the early years of electric cookers and were initially the more common design in the United States. However, their double width meant that they were too large to fit comfortably in smaller kitchens. In the 1960s, in search of new selling points, manufacturers developed features that extended the potential for producing meals requiring different types of cooking. One option was the cooker with two ovens, allowing simultaneous cooking at different temperatures. Oven fans helped to distribute the heat more evenly, facilitating the use of the whole oven, while attachments, such as rotisserie spits, tailored the oven for specialized cooking.

The standard cooktop held four fast radiant rings, and boiling ring technology changed little from the 1930s to 1966, when the ceramic electric hob, or cooktop, appeared. The ceramic hob was the commercial result of an accidental discovery at the Corning Glass Works in the United States in 1952. A malfunctioning furnace produced an opalescent, tough glass with distinctive thermal properties. Heat from bare electric elements placed beneath the glass, and demarcated by patterns on the upper surface, is conducted vertically, but not horizontally. Not only is the ceramic hob extremely efficient, but with its flat surface, it is easy to clean and available as a work surface when not in use for cooking. Manufacturers also gave much attention to the cleanability of ovens. One “self-cleaning” method, introduced in 1969, was the application of a grease-resistant coating to the oven interior. This is known as catalytic cleaning. Another method, introduced in 1978, was pyrolitic cleaning, whereby a short burst of maximum heat after cooking prevents the build-up of hardened grease. Cleanliness was also the motive for the development of the electric cooker hood, which is placed directly above the hob to absorb greasy vapors and cooking smells. Such hoods contain an extractor or exhaust fan and filters. Depending on the hood design, the extracted air may either be recirculated in the kitchen after filtration or vented outdoors.

Since the 1970s, when the fitted kitchen approached its peak of popularity, manufacturers have designed kitchen appliances to fit in with the standard sizes of kitchen units. This also prompted the evolution of the split-level cooker into the modular cooker, whereby the oven, hob, and grill might be completely separate, self-contained units. Modularity has allowed consumers to mix and match gas and electric cooking units to suit their individual needs or preferences. The German manufacturer Neff has been particularly noted for its modular cookers. The Italian company Zanussi has focused more on offering a range of colors, finishes, and style details. For example, the Zanussi ID cooker (1999) could be tailored in terms of types of doors, handles, and knobs, as well as color and finish, to achieve a customized specification. Another trend, associated with a revived interest in cooking as an art rather than a necessity, has created a consumer market for the cooker built to professional catering standards and usually high-tech in design. The latest development in hob technology is the induction hob, which dispenses with heating elements in favor of magnetic heat induction coils. While a British company, the Falkirk Iron Company, experimented with induction cooking in the 1920s, the idea lay dormant until the 1990s. Price, familiarity, and availability of types of energy were the prevailing influences on choice of cooker in 1900, but today the equivalent factors are more likely to be price, performance, convenience, and design. These factors mean that gas and electric cookers are likely to co-exist on more or less equal terms for the foreseeable future.