The “retro” look of an original kitchen can charm you or turn you off but the important updates needed for a MODERN mid-century kitchen are much more than cosmetic. Let’s talk about how kitchens (and the people who use them) have changed in the past 60 odd years!
The kitchen is one of the most common target areas for people planning a renovation. Make sure that updates of your midcentury kitchen get done the right way. Done right, they will be era appropriate AND serve the changing needs of modern life!
Here’s a handy infographic to run you through the changes in who uses kitchens and how: dating from the 1950’s to today!
The Kitchen of Mid-Century vs a Mid-century Inspired Kitchen
The definition of a true MCM kitchen is not the laminate counter tops and pastel appliances. You can recognize a classic, ranch kitchen at a glance by its layout and by the driving philosophy behind it.
The modern kitchen in a mid-century style is a very different animal. The bold colored tile, stunning plywood fronted cabinets and atomic pendant lamps are part of the story. But it also meets a new set of needs.
Side by Side: Then vs Now
Both of these images show off high end spacious kitchens in a “mid-century” style. You can easily see how the original one is the domain of just mom – she had to turn away from the work surfaces to make eye contact with camera or any companions. On the other hand, the modern mid-century kitchen is set up FOR socializing. Multiple people can use the work area and/or just keep the cook(s) company at the bar.
For more on this, check out the detailed history of the post war kitchen at Apartment Therapy and dig into the WHY of mid-century kitchen design.
People using the kitchen have changed
A kitchen built in the 1950’s was a command center for one person – mom – to spend the day in: cooking, organizing the household and supervising kids. It was a high tech home management center (filled with the latest labor-saving appliances), efficient and attractive.
A modern kitchen has very different DNA, plywood panelling or teal backsplash notwithstanding! The kitchen has gone from mom’s command center to family social center. Everyone in the household may be in and out of the kitchen through the day, from breakfast and packing a lunch to snarfing a midnight snack. The modern kitchen does double duty as both hangout and gathering space. It needs to support school work and working from home while serving as the go-to spot for every party.
The Modern Mid-Century Kitchen: driven by changing demographics
Part of the reason for the schism between midcentury and modern kitchens is less style than substance. Modern kitchens … and houses … serve very different purposes than they did 60 years ago.
Per this study published in Nutrition Journal in 2013, in 1965, 92% of women and 28% of men reported cooking. In 2007, the numbers had shifted to 67.7% and 41.7%.
The time that those who reported cooking SPENT in their food prep changed dramatically too. Women went from spending nearly two hours day in food prep to just over one hour. Men’s cooking time went up from 36 minutes a day to 45.
In short, all members of the household are now in and out of the kitchen at all times of day, from getting ready for work and school in the morning, to midnight snacking. The kitchen needs to be more accessible for everyone’s use.
Changing who Works Means Changing Work Surfaces
The layout of an original midcentury kitchen is typically an “L” or U” of work surfaces – base cabinets with shallower wall cabinets mounted above.
Note: There’s also the occasional galley variant – counter on two sides of a narrow work corridor.
Later or larger midcentury kitchens may have an attached eat-in area, sometime separated from the kitchen by a peninsula or countertop.
This layout was hyper-practical for a solo cook. She could pivot on one foot or take a few steps around the infamous “kitchen work triangle” to move between fridge, stove top and sink, with her back to the center of the room.
Today, work surface preferences have shifted away from wall-engaged base cabinets for two reasons.
- There are fewer walls in the new, interconnected kitchen
- With multiple cooks in the kitchen people want to make eye contact across work surface, not turn their back to the room to chop or mix.
It is now typical to have more counter height work surface with nothing overhead. Even if there are base cabinets along the walls, they may have open shelving or no storage space above rather than the traditional wall cabinets. That storage space has been condensed into full height “pantry” style built-ins which can also contain appliances like fridges and ovens along one dedicated wall of cabinetry.
Floor plans have evolved over 60 years
Here is a plan of a classic mid-century “eat-in” kitchen next to a modern update of the same space.
(This is actually the kitchen of my grandparents’ never-updated 1953 ranch on the left. I’ve sketched how I would update it to a modern mid-century kitchen on the right.)
Note the separation between food prep and eating space in the original kitchen. The wall-facing work surfaces allow a solitary cook to focus, but don’t support conversation while cooking. The choke point between the peninsula and the refrigerator makes opening the fridge door act like closing a drawbridge. There are two windows and three doors but very little actual access to the rest of the house.
The updated version is open to the living room, clusters food storage in a full height pantry wall at the left and allows for multiple cooks to move through the space. With:
- windows by the eat-in area converted to sliding doors, and
- part of the wall to the living area is removed
… the kitchen can connect the house’s social spaces inside and out.
The Way to a Home’s Heart … is through the Kitchen
One thing is true of kitchens both then and now, kitchens have a lot of connections to the other parts of the house. Multiple daily pathways pass by (and through) the kitchen.
In a midcentury era kitchen you’ll find at least two doors:
- access to the garage (or possibly just a side or back entry door)
- open doorway leading to a dining space
There may also be doors to the basement, a pantry and even a bedroom.
My 1952 ranch is a perfect example. My kitchen has four (count them: FOUR) doorways. There is a kitchen exit door, the pass through to dining area, access to the basement and one to the smallest – nursery – bedroom. It’s a space planner’s nightmare. There’s barely room for a work counter or 2 person eat-in table.
The layout of the ideal modern kitchen has changed. A modern mid-century kitchen may need:
- access to mudroom / garage
- either a wide framed doorway or entirely open to living area
- a connection to the backyard or patio
- doors connecting to a basement or pantry
When I get around to updating my kitchen, I’ll separate the work area from the rest of the house circulation with a bar counter. A visually open layout look at but not mix with the new will flow down to the basement, out to the living/dining area or into a mud/laundry room that can catch all the coats and outdoor gear that now pile up on my kitchen surfaces.
So what is the RIGHT answer for your Modern Mid-Century Kitchen?
There is a simmering and/or ranging controversy over the concept of what is appropriate to do with a mid-century kitchen.
Some people delight in their retro time capsules and feel that a kitchen island in a mid-century era house borders on blasphemy. Others want to wipe away the past and start fresh with an HGTV ready kitchen that could be dropped into any house in America.
I take a middle path approach. Two elements are key. The modern mid-century kitchen needs to be tuned into new ways of living and working. It is also inspired by its vintage roots. Era-appropriate kitchen updates let the past influence but not control them.
My attitude is always that it is important to honor the style, while updating the substance, of a mid-century house. That includes the kitchen.
A note on Preservation:
There ARE exceptions to this hybrid approach. Preservation is sometimes necessary; it would be a travesty to overwrite portions of a historic home.
In a recent chat with TJ Pierce, of Mid Century Homes by Moniker Real Estate in Boise, he described managing the sale of a notable home with features worthy of protection. They wrote conditions of the sale stipulating that the house must be registered as a historic property. The new owner also agreed to biannual tours to modern architects and mid-century enthusiasts. This transparency has gone hand in hand with careful, era-appropriate renovation choices over time.
No one would put a modern kitchen into Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water. Some homes – even the kitchens – do need to be preserved in amber. Most, however, can do with judicious updating to meet owner’s changing needs!
Where do you Stand in the great Kitchen Debate?
Let us know in the comments!
Editor’s note: This post, originally published in May of 2018, is completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.