Why are mid-century kitchens?

19 min read Aspirational mid-century kitchens inspired the kitchens we live in and love today.

In all seriousness … why ARE mid-century kitchens? We’ve chatted before about the history and socioeconomic drivers of the era. And about the default layout of an MCM kitchen and why it doesn’t work for our modern lives so well. But what were those mid-century modern folks really … going for? One thing that made them what they are was …

The TV kitchens that served as backdrops for our favorite mid-century TV families! These show kitchens often included features missing for the builder basic kitchens of the time (and still missing in many of our ranches!) 

After all, an average mid-century ranch, the kitchen was seen as a one-person space. A kind of a home office for a homemaker. In a TV show kitchen, it had to be a place where two people could hold a conversation! That’s something we like in a kitchen today!

So let’s dig into how aspirational mid-century kitchens influenced – and didn’t – the kitchens we live in and love today.

Psst !!! Before we dig into some SPIFFY and fun MCM kitchens of TV history … quick shout out for your best resource for updating your own mid-century kitchen to mid-century or modern glory. Don’t forget to save your seat for the Mid-Century Kitchen Clinic!

From I Love Lucy to The Brady Bunch, TV kitchens showed off trends, materials and layouts that still influence our modern kitchens.

What made TV Mid-Century Kitchens different?

These shows portrayed the kitchen as more than a work zone. It was a social hub where kids, friends and spouses found mom for heartfelt conversations and life lessons. Many had islands, work centers that faced social areas and of course the trendy kitchen items of the day. Lucy Arnez’s kitchen boasted a high end mixer and too-too pyrex bowl set. Mary Tyler Moore’s character’s kitchen (on the Dick Van Dyke Show) had shiny stainless canisters and pulls with a super space age feel. 

These kitchens worked well for TV because they allowed for interaction between characters – the kind of interaction that many of us expect modern kitchens to encourage in our own lives.

And these features really do allow kitchens to accomodate more bodies and helpers than many kitchens actually built in mid-century homes. 

Let’s talk about: I Love Lucy

During it’s run the I Love Lucy show took us into two different kitchens. In the opening – 1951 – the kitchen looked like this … To my eye this reads very close to a 1940’s kitchen (which checks out, right?)

After little Ricky is born, the Ricardo’s move to an updated apartment. And it comes with a slightly more modern kitchen.

What do we have here?

Yellow cabinets are faced frame style cabinets. The drawers are flat but the doors are lightly shaker framed.  Green formica counters but ONLY on either side of the sink. There ar nifty new appliances: a white refrigerator and an electric freestanding range. But they aren’t not surrounded by base cabinets or work surface.

The hardware and faucet are all simple stainless. The decor is limited to subtle wallpaper around the area over the paints and behind the fridge and in place of a back splash

Showed off mixer, toaster and color themed pyrex

The Ricardo’s kitchen has a freestanding kitchen table in the middle of an open area.  So there’s no island. A made-for-tv move is that the kitchen sink faces an interior wall closed off from the living room with painted shutters. This doesn’t strike me as a trend people would aspire to so much as a convenience of the show.

Things get a little more modern on: the Dick Van Dyke Show

Fast forward in time just a few years and we have a classic Mid-century command center kitchen – with a twist. The “kitchen” part of the kitchen space is bracketed by counters. It’s a spot that Mary Tyler Moore can occupy alone. But instead of being surrounded by walls, it’s open to the rest off the room. So she can work while having lots of dynamic conversations with other members of the TV family who swirl in from the living room, come in from outside or hang out at the table.

It’s like they are innovating the modern kitchen work island in front of us in real time … and it’s because on TV people want to hang out with “mom.”

And then there’s The Brady Bunch

This is an interesting one for a TV kitchen. It’s not a classic nuclear family kitchen. And it’s not a home office for a single homemaker. That’s because with a large blended family of nearly grown kids AND a housekeeper, this kitchen really does need to allow for multiple adults (and teens) to swirl around each other and “do cooking type things”  the same time.  

Plus it’s a TV set.  

So it has a long narrow island with a right angle turn in it that defines a working side of the kitchen from an eat in side.  In this case the island isn’t fencing someone in … it’s maximizing work “surface area.”

There’s also a built in wall oven and barbecue set in a brick accent wall. I LOVE IT!

Dark wood slab front cabinet uppers float over orange formica backsplash and counters and light green sliding panel doors on lower cabinets.  

The fridge is a avocado green side by side door unit with a built in ice maker to match the cabinets.  

The big round eat in table has tulip chairs and an orange formica top that matches the counter. I would move straight into this kitchen today given the opportunity.

Would you?

In Today’s Episode You’ll Hear:

  • When the kitchen shifted from work zone to social space. 
  • All about features of some of the OG aspirational mid-century kitchens.
  • How aspirational kitchens of the past can inform your kitchen remodel. 

Listen Now On 

Apple | Google |  Spotify


And you can always…

Read the Full Episode Transcript

When you type mid-century kitchen into a Google search, what you’re actually going to find are a lot of modern ideas of how to update a kitchen in a mid-century-ish style. And on this podcast, I’ve talked before about the common typical builder grade, mid-century kitchen. What that often looks like, you might be deeply familiar with that one yourself. It might look like your kitchen. 

But today, let’s talk about something a little different. Let’s talk about the aspirational kitchen of the mid-century era, which inspired all the kitchens that we live in in America today. In other words, why are mid-century kitchens? Hey there, welcome back to mid mod remodel. This is a show about updating MCM homes helping you match a mid-century home to your modern life. I’m your host della Hansmann, architect and mid-century ranch enthusiast and you’re listening to Episode 1603. 

Before we talk about the mid-century dream kitchen of the past, let’s talk about your mid-century dream kitchen for a minute. The kitchen is the heart of any mid-century update, get it right and you can pretty much apply the style guide choices and even the layout moves you’re making to every other part of your home, get it wrong, and you or the next owner will be climbing the walls wanting to plan a replacement remodel in less than 10 years. Trendy choices just don’t last. So you want timeless. 

Plus, there’s that pesky mid-century kitchen layout. It often just does not line up with the lives we lead today. And that’s why a kitchen is an area that nearly everyone wants to work on. Certainly nearly every client we have gets us involved in updating and upgrading their mid-century kitchen. Now I’ve talked exhaustively about how important this part of your home is to an overall mid mod vibe. And how can you know you’ve nailed it. 

I’ve put together a handy free resource for you. If you have not yet grabbed it, go grab my mid-century kitchen update guide to get the five essential elements you must nail for a mid-century kitchen that looks good and works for your life. Grab it at mid mod dodge midwest.com/kitchen. 

And if you’re really serious about making some changes to your kitchen, this year or next, in the near future anyway, pick your phone up right now and start swiping to get into your browser mode. Go to mid mod dash midwest.com/clinic and locked down your seats for next Saturday. Not this but next Saturday’s mid-century kitchen clinic.

It’s still available for the early bird price until the end of this weekend. And I don’t want you to forget to buy it now and pay full price later. So sign up now so that you can join us to walk through the process of a perfect mid-century update plan from dream to develop. Get both those links plus the transcript and the images of the specific kitchens I’m going to talk about today in the show notes link at mid mod dash midwest.com/ 1603. 

When you Google, the term mid-century kitchen, you’re gonna see a lot of contemporary ideas for updated kitchens in a mid-century style or sort of a mid-century style. And there’ll be a mid-century homes or in any home of any era just pasting in this name of finish and open plan concepts. But actually, there were some very specific drivers of design choices back in the day that are mid-century homes were being built. So let’s talk about that. 

Last week, I was doing a little internet digging and I pulled out a series of Kohler fixture handbooks, sort of kitchen and bathroom design guides meant to sell their toilets, their sinks and their shower units. And you can really see the huge range of changes that take place during those couple of decades. I want to get into with you today, how we can look at the time capsule moments of aspirational kitchen desire that are the kitchens of mid-century era television shows, because just as Nancy Meyers movies have inspired 1000 soft palate farmhouse kitchens with islands that could be dining tables, and miraculously never dusty open shelving. 

We can track what people were drooling over at various moments by checking out the kitchens they were looking at on TV. I’ve spent a bunch of time on this podcast and we all experience on a regular basis. The builder grade kitchen of the mid 1950s. An L shaped layout typically anchored by a freestanding range on one end and a fridge on the other with a little window over a kitchen sink. Sometimes it’s a full EU with a little peninsula with division between the eat in kitchen and the working area.

But the basic DNA of a builder grade kitchen is quite similar and sometimes quite frustrating. Still, though there were other ideas floating around at the time and the best place to go check out what those were is to look at magazine ads, and to look at contemporaneous TV shows. 

So the kitchens that we see in mid-century advertising content are often much more modern feeling they often show someone in a U shaped or peninsula or an island based kitchen with the mom the household engaged in conversation or smiling at some other members of her family in the kitchen.

She’s usually wearing a very dressy vintage dress, but there is a sort of a concept of her as socializing within her kitchen And what those advertising images sometimes mask is that the core idea of a mid-century kitchen was as a workspace as a food production zone, and really as the home office of the homemaker, if you will. 

That’s why they were so focused on the fixtures in their advertising workspaces, I mean, actual counter surface, all tended to be facing a wall. And it was a practical, efficient workspace for one person to turn around, and literally take as few steps I saw in several bits of advertising copy from the mid-century era while I was researching this episode, step saving as an advertisement concept for mid-century kitchens. Today in the era of Fitbits, it’s not that we actually want to take more steps while cooking. But the idea of a step saving kitchen isn’t actually the most appealing quality of a kitchen. 

Now we want a kitchen that feels like the heart of the home, or the hub of social activities. But kitchen, the mid-century were meant to be efficient workspaces. Now, we have to remember that they were comparing themselves to the kitchens that were designed before the mid-century. And for more on this, go back and check out my episode interviewing Sarah Archer, or check out her amazing book mid-century kitchens. But she talks a little bit about what had come before. 

The kitchens before the mid-century didn’t have built in elements. For the most part, they had freestanding appliances. And they had one cleverly designed freestanding piece of furniture that served as kitchen storage like a who’s your cupboard. Basically a cabinet with a small built in counter some upper glass dish storage and some lower bins storage for flour and other non perishable pantry goods. They were not particularly effective to work in, and probably not particularly comfortable hot to cold smoky, depending on what was happening inside of them. 

So in the mid-century, we suddenly have this new focus on efficiency on labor saving, we’ve got the factory idea of applying sort of engineering aspects to the mid-century kitchen, we’ve got the idea of the kitchen work triangle, and we’re constantly circling back to the idea of a kitchen as a place to prepare food for home. The deep irony though is that part of the idea of getting women standing up and working at counters rather than sitting at tables was or sitting at that, you know, eat in kitchen table was sometimes considered part of the prep space, the workspace of the kitchen, when they had the idea that we should do all of our workspace at counters. 

The driver behind that was the ergonomics of the actual morphology of women’s bodies, they figured out what was the right height of a workspace compared to the height of a person doing the work. But that only works if the kitchen counter is appropriately sized for the actual height of the person. So if you like me happen to be approximately six feet tall, you’ll probably find kitchen counter space to be slightly lower than what you want. But actually, the average kitchen counter height is also not the appropriate size for the average height of the American woman. It’s a little high for her. So anyway, that’s a beside the point. 

What I want to get into is what were people dreaming of what were people looking at as they look at the kitchen space and their homes. And it kind of tells us what type of food they’re preparing and how they’re spending their time and their space. So the first moment in history that I decided to pull from and talk to you about was the kitchen of the I Love Lucy set, this show ran from 1951 to 1957. 

And it actually to me looks like what I think of as a kitchen from the 1940s. And this makes a lot of sense, because we always have a little bit of a lag in our sense of historical timelines, we always are sort of remembering back a little further when we think of a fashion as 90s. If you go and look at the contemporaneous TV shows, you’re like, oh, actually, that was that was not early 90s. That was late 90s.

But I’m looking at this kitchen which I encourage you to go to the show notes page and check out a couple of photos of it that I’ll put there. It’s got a very retro looking Of course it was the latest in modern technology at the time refrigerator freestanding sink that looks oh my god exactly like mine, double barrel, double basin, white enamel sink with a very low simple faucet.

It’s got very little counter space actually there’s just a little bit of counter space on either side of the sink. The fridge is built into a wall of mostly floor to ceiling upper and lower cabinets with a little bit of open storage to display the very high end Pyrex and mixing stand. And then the range is a freestanding unit with no work surfaces on either side of it fascinating.

It’s also interesting to note that the I Love Lucy set originally was an apartment or the place that she was imagined to be living was an apartment.

So you can see that this kitchen is inserted into a modern update of a kitchen into an older building and you can see it in the doors and the enter the space that they have actually very fancy corner block molding at the outside of the door trim, and so it’s it’s got modern appliances, the sort of latest and sink and refrigerator and stovetop technology, but very vintage general building that it’s set into.

There is, and again, this is probably partly at least for the purposes of being on a TV set, there is some application that there is a place where you can sit in the kitchen and you can pull up seats to a little bar, which would allow the characters in the show to pull up seats facing directly out into the camera into the live audience. 

But it also interestingly, and again, this might be just a factor of the show. It has the range in front of the kitchen window and the sink faces on towards an inward wall which has a shuttered opening that opens up into the living room so that conversations on the show can be had between people in the kitchen and the living room if they need to be jumping forward in time. 

The next kitchen I took a look at was the original deck Van Dyke set kitchen and that show ran from 1961 to 1966. So we’ve jumped forward by almost a decade in kitchen set design. And this kitchen is interesting, it’s got a lot of very modern details. This to me, we’ve almost hopscotched over what I think of as a 50s kitchen into a 60s kitchen. 

There’s an eating table with tulip chairs and a pedestal table. There is an island and this island is set up as if basically there’s a galley kitchen without upper walls, so it has an relatively open plan kitchen space. Mary Tyler Moore gets to stand inside of a unit that’s only for her. It’s got the sink on one end, and then a little island that has an L shape that has a jog in it so she’s got worksurface that she can set things out on and also the cooktop is built into that. But it does have a built in wall oven that sits in a little niche next to the built in. Refrigerator not actually a built in unit but it’s set into a little niche itself. 

And all of them are done in this lovely powder blue i i find it very enviable. In this point we’ve got slab front cabinets unlike the almost like modern farmhouse shaker cabinets that we had in the I Love Lucy kitchen, and very simple stainless everything for handles. This is definitely a command center workstation kitchen that also has a hangout space in it, but the hangout space is for family and the workspace is for Mary Tyler Moore. 

If we jump forward, one more leap in time we look at let’s talk about the Brady Bunch kitchen. So this ran from 1969 to 1974. And it’s an interesting one for a TV kitchen because it’s a kitchen intended to hold a large blended family with housekeeper. So this really does need to allow for multiple adults and teenagers be able to swirl around each other in one space and do cooking type things at the same time. Plus, it’s a TV set. So it’s set up with a long narrow island just two foot deep so it’s not the kind of island you can pull up chairs to. 

But the island has a right angle turn in it. Unlike Mary Tyler Morris kitchen where the right angle enclosed her and made a smaller space for her to stand in and save steps. This one turns outwards towards the kitchen. So there’s a long sort of storage and work table space behind the island on one side and then on the other. There’s a the back of the fireplace with a brick built in, into in kitchen grill it looks like and then a built in wall oven with the cooktop free standing on the opposite side. 

And what’s interesting is if you look at the pictures of the Brady Bunch of kitchen from various eras, they switched, I’m not sure which one came first and which came second but they switched from an electric sort of circle spiral cooktop to a gas at some point in the filming of the show. But the materials and this are incredibly mod they have dark wood cabinets with a burnt orange Formica cabinet and backsplash that again, like I would absolutely live in this kitchen. It’s great. And then the contrast to the burnt orange countertops is that the seats of the chairs again tulip chairs so we got to look chairs and two generations of shows. It’s a great design. Thank you, Saarinen. And the chairs, the toaster and the refrigerator are all avocado green. Just absolutely love it. 

So what does this tell us? I mean, we are obviously seeing the planned obsolescence and fashion of kitchen coloring that comes in. For more on the planned obsolescence in kitchen colors, definitely go check out episode 502 in which I talk with Sarah Archer about her book, the mid-century kitchen and how we got into this idea of marketing kitchens and making them have fashion and colors which makes us need to make them go in and out of style. 

But we also see that some of the ideas that we think of as modern as things that we need to modernize a mid-century kitchen into having like eat in areas like kitchen islands, like having a lot of outward facing work. Space were floating around, at least on the TV sets of contemporaneous kitchens.

So to me, this underlines the idea that we can have a lot of leeway within the concept of a mid-century kitchen, you really can turn the time dial forward and back and choose the moment you want. The vintage twee of a 1940s kitchen is quite different from the Space Age of a 1960s one, but both could fit within the ethos of your mid-century house. 

And you also don’t have to feel like islands built in appliances or cozy nooks are out of period for your home. I love to think of the idea of a remodel not as an update necessarily, although in some utilitarian wastes certainly will be. But as an upgrade of the quality of your mid-century house to what it might have been at the time hadn’t had access to a bigger original budget or a bigger vision on the part of the original builder. 

As always, you’re going to use the style guide system to stand you in great stead as you set up your remodel plans. And one of the keys to that process is to name your exact mid-century moment. So go to the show notes for this episode and take a spin through them to see which of these vintage TV sets inspires you. Or if something else entirely does. 

I can’t wait to talk to you next week about what we’re going to see in modern versions of mid-century kitchens. Even if we look at a show that is perhaps set in the mid-century era, it won’t show us the exact same kitchen as one that was made during the mid-century era. And we’ll talk about why that is. 

Before we wrap up the episode here are your words of weekly encouragement. Remember that while the goal of having a master plan is to set out your own desires, clearly enough that you can work with people who don’t share your mid-century vision. But it is wearing to be the only person who has that vision to be the only person who agrees with yourself that this is the right set of choices for your house. 

So do also seek out a team or a group or a friend circle of people around you who care about your mid-century choices as much as you do. They don’t have to be the people who are doing the work on your house or supplying the materials to make it happen. But having friends who reinforce your vision your love for mid-century is always a good idea.

So I want you to keep an eye out this week for people to add to your Mid Mod Re Mod Squad. That of course is me. Hi, I’m Della. I am member number one of your mid mod ReMod Squad.

And you could always engage more with the Instagram with the podcast join ready to remodel and find people in that way. But you can also find people at your local vintage store. Look around for fellow neighborhood members who actually liked their mid-century home and are making mid-century choices for it. The more people you’ve got in your corner, the easier it’s going to be to make great choices for you. And for your mid-century house. You’ve got this friend. 

And here’s your level one quick fix Home Improvement idea.

By the way, another way to look at these quick fix ideas are that these are all things you could even do in an apartment. And you can easily do in your home in the same way in that they can be undone or redone or they can be applied to multiple situations. So this is definitely falls into that category. And the proof of the pudding there is that I did this for myself when I lived in apartments and it has also served me very well in my not remodeled mid-century kitchen. 

The biggest challenge in most mid-century kitchen layouts that are of a builder grade nature is that all the work surfaces face a wall and an island is the idea today for modern kitchens. But islands don’t fit into every space and to build an island into a kitchen is often a pretty substantial remodeling move. So you may be able to solve this problem completely or at least partially in your kitchen right now with a piece of furniture. My secret weapon for this situation is a freestanding butcherblock unit. It doesn’t need to be large to change the way you cook and socialize in your kitchen.

If you have the classic L shaped kitchen, or even a U that’s at least seven feet from cabinet base face to cabinet base face. You can fit in a small square butcher block unit, a two foot by two foot or a 20 inch by 20 inch. If you have a little more room you can find a little more practical workspace the more common two foot by four foot freestanding butcher block. IKEA has several options. Etsy can always hook you up and there’s a 12 inch thick butcher block maple option from rejuvenation for well over $1,000 That makes my heart beat fast. It is a high end piece of furniture. 

But here’s the thing. This is a solid unit that’s going to cost some cash but way less than a full kitchen remodel. And it can be the perfect addition to a kitchen that was designed to hold a tiny eat and table you can’t work at but really what it needs now is some extra extra prep space that two people can chat across. So if you get frustrated by the amount of workspace in your kitchen by the limited options you have to work and talk to someone. Think about squeezing in a small freestanding butcher block counter temporarily or permanently. It might change your kitchen. 

Next week on the podcast we’ll be talking about the mid-century dream kitchen of today and what that looks like and contains. I’m sure you’ve got your own opinions on this too. But here’s what I’ll leave you with. There is so much fun to be had in planning out the perfect timeless tailored to your life upgrade for a mid-century kitchen. And at the same time, it’s a lot it’s easy to find this overwhelming. 

So let me make it much more simple for you come along to the mid-century kitchen clinic and I will walk you through the steps of planning a perfect update together in real time on Saturday, February 3. So grab your tickets right now for the early bird price. It is expiring on Sunday, and I will see you there a week from Saturday. Here’s to making your mid-century kitchen everything that ever could have been.