Darwin’s Kitchen

charlesdarwin When thinking of the modern kitchen and how it got to be what it is today made me think of Charles Darwin, the English naturalist who wrote On the Origin of Species. He realized that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection. ~Wikipedia
I doubt that Darwin ever really thought too much about kitchens as he was born into privilege and it was likely that he hardly ever saw the inside of a kitchen which was reserved for servants and cooks in his day.  Even those of lower social status had kitchen help and they were never usually male.   More than half a century after he passed, it was no longer economically feasible to have household staff for most, but the kitchen was still a utilitarian room that was reserved primarily for womenfolk. manor_history_kitchen_befor
Grandma Moore's Kitchen

This was my grandmother’s kitchen.  (She’s on the left.)  My grandmother, Helen Sloat Moore, was born just 5 years after Darwin died.  This photo was taken in the mid 1950’s (about the time I was born).  That’s my mom on the right making waffles.


Charles Darwin lived in a time before the industrial revolution.  While he was turning the world on it’s ear theorizing about evolutionary biology,  contemporary writers  of his day, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells., were pioneering science fiction writing. 

75549-050-E26AF8FB   0227_fabulousworldjulesverne

verne3              time-machine

Fashionable art and decoration of the day was expressed in the style of Art Nouveau.  This style was characterized by organic floral and plant-inspired motifs that were expressed in highly-stylized and flowing curvilinear forms. It was an approach to design that was applied to everything from architecture to furniture intending to make art part of everyday life.

art nouveau interior Alphonse Marie Mucha 1900   art%20nouveau%20600%20x%20900%20image   Bovy

So, I’m thinking that if Darwin were alive today, his design style (if he cared even a little) would decidedly be “Steampunk” as he would have been influenced by the popular themes of Art Nouveau and the fantastic ideas of evolving technology (though fictional) by contemporary storytellers of the day.  Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction and speculative fiction. The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used — usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era England — but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions. ~Wikipedia

Steampunkish       tin-front DW      steampunk-lightswitch-plates

I want to thank Kelly Morisseau, kitchen designer extraordinaire and author of Kitchen Sync blog, for first making me aware of Steampunk as a design style.  Here I’d been a fan of the Steampunk genre for years and never even knew it!  Now my current obsession, it reminds me of when I was pregnant and it seemed like just about every other person I saw was too.  Everywhere I go I see either deliberate examples or pieces that would “fit” into a space or design of that ilk.  My recent trip to New York was just such an event.  More obvious examples would be movies such as the Harry Potter Series (think Hogwarts Station), the Hell Boy Series and even the movie: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

theworldoftomorrowpubf   skycaptain_1_1%20copy

Steampunk enjoyed a prominence in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.  However, there were earlier influences such as  the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of the 1960’s.  I’m remembering John Lennon’s round spectacles.  There has been a recent resurgence of the genre.  I think we’ll start seeing more of its influence in the year to come as the lines between interior and industrial design are blurred along with the distinction between what is considered “vintage,” an interpretation that continues to evolve between concepts of what is “antique” and “modern.”  While the bulk of kitchen styling in general seems to be moving toward a more modern and sleek look and moving away from excessive ornamentation, there are those who still enjoy the details and the craftsmanship of days gone by that are not taken literally or too seriously.  They appreciate the nod to the Industrial Age combined with a twist of science fiction expressed in the fantasy world of Steampunk.

Recognize these pieces of computer equipment?  Some clever Steampunk interpretations of the ergonomic keyboard, a mouse, and a notebook computer.  As well as the fantastical machine details, notice the Art Nouveau engraved flourishes  and Victorian decoration.

Aside from style, I think Darwin would have appreciated the evolution of the kitchen from what was once the domain of service staff to what is now considered an integral part of a home’s living area.  He would have liked the open-plan concept.  Unlike typical Edwardian gentlemen, and fathers in particular, he was an active part of his household and enjoyed the company of his wife and children.  He suffered a debilitating illness much of his life that confined him to his home where he made best of the situation and enjoyed a special closeness with his family that was unique in his day and circumstances.

MBB1876019            family-m

Darwin’s daughter wrote the following regarding life with her father:

"To all of us he was the most delightful play-fellow, and the most perfect sympathizer. Indeed, it is impossible adequately to describe how delightful a relation his was to his family, whether as children or in their later life. It is a proof of the terms on which we were, and also of how much he was valued as a play-fellow, that one of his sons, when about four years old tried to bribe him with sixpence to come and play in working hours."

"He must have been the most patient and delightful of nurses. I remember the haven of peace and comfort it seemed to me when I was unwell, to be tucked up on the study sofa, idly considering the old geological map hung on the wall. This must have been in his working hours, for I always picture him sitting in the horse hair arm chair by the corner of the fire."

"Life seems to me, as I look back upon it, to have been very regular in those early days, and except for relations (and a few intimate friends), I do not think any one came to the house. After lessons we were always free to go where we would, and that was chiefly in the drawing-room and about the garden, so that we were very much with both my father and mother. We used to think it most delightful when he told us any stories about the Beagle, or about early Shrewsbury days – little bits about school life and his boyish tastes."

"Another characteristic of his treatment of his children was his respect for their liberty, and for their personality. Even as quite a little girl, I remember rejoicing in this sense of freedom. Our father and mother would not even wish to know what we were doing or thinking unless we wished to tell. He always made us feel that we were each of us creatures whose opinions and thoughts were valuable to him, so that whatever there was best in us came out in the sunshine of his presence." Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters. Darwin, Francis (Editor). New York: Dover Publications, 1992. Pages 90-92.

Darwin’s relation to his wife, Emma, was a very special one, for it was with her that Darwin found his happiness. In a life filled with almost continued illness, the presence of Emma transformed Darwin’s life into one of "quiet and content gladness".

In the evenings Emma and Charles played two games of backgammon in the drawing room, and this routine continued for nearly forty years. Apparently Emma was the better player, as Darwin kept a tally of who won every night. He would often explode in mock anger and lamented his bad luck while Emma smiled at her good fortune.

The manner in which Darwin related to his family was truly special. In fact, based on conversations I have had with other Darwin enthusiasts and with some of his descendants, it is safe to say that for Darwin his family life was far more important to him than his research into the natural sciences. ~http://www.aboutdarwin.com/index.html

I recently had the pleasure of meeting international superstar in the world of kitchen design Johnny Grey who was among the group of us who attended Fashion Week events as guests of Brizo Faucets in New York a couple of weeks ago.  Were Darwin alive today and building or remodeling his home, he would most certainly retain the services and design talent of Mr. Grey.  Not just because Charles Darwin would have been able to afford to retain design and craftsmanship for a luxury kitchen and would be counted among Johnny Grey’s star-filled list of clientele that is shared by the likes of Sting and Steve Jobs, or even that they are both Brits, but because I think he would have appreciated Grey’s design aesthetic and ideals.

Johnny Grey recently expressed his kitchen design ideas while speaking at the Moraga Barn in California’s Bay Area where he spoke of his concept of “The Post Culinary Kitchen.”  (I was not privileged to attend the workshop, but fortunately was able to follow along the thread he created on Twitter.  See @JonnyGrey comments of 2/20/10.)  Grey became internationally known in the ‘80’s when he developed the concept of “The Unfitted Kitchen.”  Since then, he has had a huge influence on the kitchen design community’s perception of kitchen components as furniture pieces and challenges them to think beyond the confines of connected boxes and the “work triangle” that have become cliché in today’s kitchen designs.  What is a post-culinary kitchen?  Grey describes it this way:  “Open plan is the core of the post-culinary kitchen: high communication, easy flow, 360 degree vision, minimal wall space, planning in zones.”  He is known as a thinker and observer of the social interaction of people within their spaces and between themselves. 

While form is unique in Grey’s kitchens (and certainly not an afterthought), his painstaking attention to ergonomics, work-flow and function transcend the commonplace design of today’s kitchens.  As the open concept kitchen melds with the functionality and human experience of the spaces connected to it, one wonders if the very word “kitchen” has become archaic and serves only to describe the “kitchen-like” activities that happen therein.  Says Grey: “We are looking for models for sociable spaces that influence the way we live at home. The kitchen is becoming like a cafe.”

Charles and Emma would certainly have liked Johnny Grey’s ideas.  They might have read his books: The Kitchen Workbook, The Hardworking House, The Art of Kitchen Design, and his most recent (which includes the design ideals I’ve described here and much more) Kitchen Culture: Reinventing Kitchen Design.  They could look up his website http://www.johnnygrey.com/index.html on their Steampunk notebook computer.  While I can’t say for sure, having only met Mr. Grey on one very dreamlike day in New York, I’m pretty sure he would have enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with the Darwins in developing their “social spaces.” 

“In 1977 Grey set up a design studio and furniture workshop. He wrote a manifesto on design and began to explore a new way of designing kitchens after a chance encounter with a client who wanted a Gothic "punk" kitchen.” ~Wikipedia   He might still have a little fun with Steampunk. 

Heeeeeer’s Johnny-

johnny-grey-2     Showtime Dexter Kitchen

Recent photos from the NY Showtime Showhouse “Dexter” kitchen. 


5 responses to “Darwin’s Kitchen

  1. Great post on Steampunk and Darwin. I also loved the pic of your Mom and Grandmom. Makes me want to dig up pics of my grandma’s kitchen in Arizona. I think she got her white powder coated stanless steel cabinets cabinets from Sears.

  2. Thanks Kit and Laurie for your comments. This kitchen of my grandmother’s was actually in a large boarding house my grandparents had. Can you imagine? She cooked three meals a day for the family and boarders every day in there! Their next (and last) house was a much smaller two bedroom ranch that had a similar galley kitchen it it. I recall the window on the back wall was a bit larger and they had built a little eating bar below it where my grandmother took her breakfast daily. She would scatter breadcrumbs and bird seed on the back patio and enjoy the birds of every shape and size that would come to eat their breakfast there every morning. Still, all other meals were taken in the large formal dining room whether she were by herself or had a dozen family members for a holiday. Her house was the only one in the family that I don’t remember being relegated to "the kid’s table" for holiday meals –though overall her house was smaller than most.

  3. Super post, Pam! You and Kelly (and Johnny) are further along than I am. I am still thinking over steampunk design and how so many people want "brand new" – especially when it comes to appliances.

  4. No name, I agree with you entirely that most people want new which is why kitchen styling is trending more toward the sleek and modern. It’s a whole lot easier to choose surrounding details (cabinets, counters, flooring, lighting and plumbing fixtures, etc.) that come in a variety of styles fit the one item that (usually) doesn’t. There are few appliances that look anything but high tech and modern. So, many designers when creating a kitchen that is intended to have a character other than modern, will cover up the door fronts and sides of dishwashers and refrigerators with matching cabinetry panels. Another tactic is simply to let the appliances stand on their own as a contrast (which is why I think stainless is going to be around for a long, long while). While Steampunk is certainly an acquired taste, the cost of creating such a custom look would likely be a possibility for the few who could actually afford to have this kind of luxury and not the masses. In recent years we have seen the rise and fall of the intricately carved woodwork of the Old World look that (still) has filled the glossy pages of magazines for the past decade or two. Where a single corbel costs thousands of dollars in a room filled with them. If you look at the detail of Steampunk pieces, they would likely be expensive to interpret in a kitchen as well as difficult to maintain. Will I ever get to design a Steampunk-themed space. I seriously doubt it, though I’m up for the challenge! Any takers? =)