Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

Bathrooms and Kitchens

“The Bathroom, the Kitchen, and the Aesthetics of Waste,” introduction by Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller to the book The Kitchen, the Bathroom, and the Aesthetics of Waste: A Process of Elimination (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992).

Between 1890 and 1940, America’s culture of consumption took its modern form: products were mass produced and mass distributed, designed to be purchased and rapidly replaced by a vast buying public. The same period saw the rise of the modern bathroom and kitchen as newly equipped spaces for administering bodily care.

The bathroom became a laboratory for the management of biological waste, from urine and feces to hair, perspiration, dead skin, bad breath, finger nails, and other bodily excretions. The kitchen became a site not only for preparing food but for directing household consumption at large; the kitchen door is the chief entryway for purchased goods, and the main exit point for vegetable parings, empty packages, leftover meals, outmoded appliances, and other discarded products. By the phrase process of elimination we refer to the overlapping patterns of biological digestion, economic consumption, and aesthetic simplification. The streamlined style of modern design, which served the new ideals of bodily hygiene and the manufacturing policy of planned obsolescence, emanated from the domestic landscape of the bathroom and kitchen. The organically modeled yet machine-made forms of streamlined objects collapsed the natural and the artificial, the biological and the industrial, into an aesthetics of waste.

Towards the close of the nineteenth century, various consumer goods, from packaging, appliances, and furniture to interior architecture, began to acquire a vigorous new physique: the plush fabrics, carved moldings, and intricate decorations of Victorian domestic objects were rejected as dangerous breeding grounds for germs and dust, giving way to non porous materials, flush surfaces, and rounded edges. This “process of elimination” found its most extreme expression in the streamlined styling of the 1930s, which borrowed the conical “teardrop” from aerodynamics and applied it to countless immobile objects, from industrial equipment to electric waffle irons. Streamlining used bulbous forms with tapered ends and graphic “speed whiskers” to invoke the rapid movement of an object through air or water. The mechanical devices of the industrial age, their elements assembled with visible nuts, bolts, belts, and gears, surrendered to the new ideal of the objects as a continuous, organic body, its moving parts hidden behind a seamless shell, appearing to be molded out of a single piece of material.

We suggest that the fluid modeling of streamlined forms reflects the period’s twin obsessions with bodily consumption and economic consumption. Streamlining was born of modern America’s intensive focus on waste: on the one hand, its fascination with new products and regimes for managing the intimate processes of biological consumption, from food preparation to the disposal of human waste, and on the other hand, its euphoric celebration of planned obsolescence and an economy dependent on a cycle of continually discarded and replenished merchandise. Streamlining performed a surreal conflation of the organic and the mechanical: its seamless skins are fluidly curved yet rigidly impervious to dirt and moisture. The molded forms of streamlining yielded an excretory aesthetic, a material celebration of natural and cultural digestive cycles.

The flamboyant product designs of the 1930s were preceded by the more anonymous modernism of the bathroom and kitchen, which earlier had begun to replace heterogeneous collections of domestic equipment with continuous, coordinated ensembles, designed to administer a new technological regime of bodily care.

The bathroom as an architectural space did not exist prior to the late nineteenth century. In the pre-plumbing era, America’s reluctant bathing customs revolved around portable containers-tubs, pails, chamber pots, and washstands-which were used in the kitchen or bedroom. As modern plumbing coordinated the delivery and removal of water and waste from the home, the toilet and tub assumed a necessarily fixed position in the home: they became fixtures. While early plumbed bathrooms maintained the decorative features of traditional domestic spaces-draperies, carpets, carved details-the “modern” bathroom emerged at the turn of the century as an overtly industrial ensemble of porcelain-enameled equipment, with white, washable surfaces that reflected contemporary theories of hygiene.

The modernization of the kitchen followed that of the bathroom, whose aesthetic of obsessive cleanliness resonates in the non-porous materials used for kitchen floors, walls, and work surfaces in the 1910s and 20s, and in the gradual shift from free-standing appliances and storage units to boxy, built-in forms. Like the bathroom, the modern kitchen came to favor fixtures over furniture: the slender legs supporting individual units were absorbed into monolithic, built-in slabs that linked mechanical devices to work and storage cabinets. The modern kitchen emulated the unforgiving sparkle of the bathroom; it also reflected the production ideal of the modern factory, whose linear sequence of work stations enabled an unbroken flow of activity. This norm, which we call the continuous kitchen, was established by the end of the 1930s and remains powerful today.

The changes in kitchen design were preceded by the rise of food packaging, a phenomenon that accelerated in the 1880s and soon dominated urban and suburban grocery sales across the US. The food package enclosed the product in a smooth, continuous skin, giving the organic, shapeless substance inside a clear geometric shape. The package resists dirt, air, and moisture, sealing off the product within, just as the shells of modern kitchen cabinetry and appliances would later enclose the tools and materials of the kitchen behind a seamless surface.

Packaging was a major force in the shift from locally-based agriculture to corporate food production around the turn of the century. By 1910, many brands names which remain “household words” today were the trademarks of nationally distributed products, including Quaker Oats, Kellogg’s toasted Cornflakes, Heinz Ketchup, and Campbell’s Soup. Such manufactured personalities ease the transition between the traditional food store and the modern retail outlet, where packaging replaced the shopkeeper as the interface between consumer and products with a graphic identity and a corporate address held accountable for defective goods.

Packaging provided a model for the early industrial design profession, whose pioneers extended the principles of advertising and packaging to the product itself. The redesign of an object in the 1920s and 30s commonly involved its external package rather than its working parts. To ”streamline” a product often mean to enclose it within a hard new shell.

Streamlining metaphorically invoked a body gliding through fluid; it also served to accelerate a product through the cycle of purchase and disposal, stimulating sales and hastening the replacement of objects not yet worn out. The built-in disposability of food packaging became a paradigm for consumer goods more generally in the 1920s and 30s, extending a logic of digestion to durable objects. The policy of “planned obsolescence” pictured the economy itself as a “body,” whose health depends on a continual cycle of production and waste, ingestion and excretion.

Advertising became a crucial lubricant for keeping this cycle regular, emerging as a powerful partner of mass distribution in the early twentieth century. Although it raised the cost of conducting business, advertising was defended as a laxative for hastening the flow of goods through the economy. Advertising created desire for new products and generated emotional differences between otherwise indistinguishable ones. It helped spread the emerging standards of hygiene, housekeeping, and nutrition by promoting new products that promised access to the rigorous ideals of modern bodily care.

A “consumer economy” sells manufactured goods to a large populace through high volume production, making individual items cheaper by selling a greater number. American designers and advertisers in the 1920s and 30s used the term “consumption” in reference to “durables” such as radios, furniture, and clothing; the term’s more literal reference, however, is to the food cycle: to consume is to devour, to eat in a voracious, gluttonous manner, as fire “consumes” a forest. The advertising executive Ernest Elmo Calkins wrote in 1932 that an urgent task of marketing is to make people “use up” products that they formerly “used”: cars and safety razors must be consumed like tooth paste or soda bisquits. Calkins thus compared the continual movement of goods through the economy with human digestion. To consume is to ingest and expel, to take in and lay waste. It is a process of elimination.

Giving voice to the ethos of disposal, the domestic theorist Christine Frederick employed the oxymoronic term “creative waste” at the end of the 1920s to describe the housewife’s moral obligation to rhythmically buy and discard products. Her phrase “creative waste” elevated the garbage of consumer culture into a form of positive production, valuing the destruction and replacement of objects as a pleasurable and socially instrumental act. Frederick and other promoters of consumerism conceived of “waste” not merely as an incidental by-product, a final residue, of the consumption cycle, but as a generative, necessary force. In the consumer economy, “production” finds a place inside the process of consumption, a cycle that reiterates the body’s own form of “creative waste,” excrement.

Reflecting and reinforcing the consumer culture’s positive valuation of waste was the shift of cooking, bathing, and defecating from positions of invisibility to dominance in the home. Formerly relegated to the cellar, exiled to the outhouse, or merged with the bedroom, these functions came to command the most expensive and technologically advanced features of the modern dwelling, their disciplined aesthetic radiating outward as a standard for the rest of the home and its inhabitants. The new governance of the house by the marginalized functions of the bathroom and kitchen reflected a shifting relationship between architecture and what Reyner Banham has called “another culture,” comprised of plumbers and consulting engineers-a culture “so alien that most architects held it beneath contempt.” Banham describes a historical rupture in the discourse of design in the eighteenth century that divorced the “art” of architecture from the making and operating of buildings. We add to Banham’s second culture the consumers-often female-who increasingly came to influence the shape of domestic space; the modern technologies of consumption directly address women’s roles in domestic life, a fact that both empowers and manipulates them.

In his essay on “Infantile Sexuality,” Freud suggests that during a child’s development, the sexual zones move from mouth to anus to genitals: the body is an open, relational field to be mapped and remapped into regions of desire. Although the genitals commonly are viewed as the “natural,” healthy focus of sexual life, the mouth and the anus are the initial sites of erotic pleasure. Desire, Freud argued, leans on the alimentary functions; desire always works in conjunction with-and in excess of-need, which lends it energy and justification. Desire latches on to the biologically vital functions of digestion; at the same time, physical needs are transformed by their collaboration with desire, and can never again be reduced to simple utility.

We suggest that twentieth-century design gradually articulated the bathroom and kitchen as the erotogenic zones of the domestic body. While the parlor or living room is the home’s symbolic heart-its ”proper” architectural focus-this center was displayed by the utilitarian regions of the bathroom and kitchen, which became concentrated zones for built-in construction details, costly appliances, and on-going maternal maintenance.

The new standards for personal and domestic hygiene, born out of scientifically-based health reforms, rapidly exceeded the demands of utility; the functional “need” for clean bodies and clean houses has fed the culture of consumption, by mapping out the human and architectural body as a marketplace for an endlessly regenerating inventory of products. Just as sexual pleasure is propped on the utilitarian processes of digestion, the restless desire for new goods builds upon the fetishized routines surrounding biological consumption.

In her reading of Marx’s Capital, Elaine Scarry describes the relation of manufactured goods to the human body as a relation of reciprocity: every artifact recreates and extends the body. In a zero-degree state of production, human beings consume only enough fuel to regenerate their physical tissues. The body takes in food in order to build and maintain its own structure; the organism itself is the product, yielded through the process of consumption. Production at a more advanced sate involves consuming a broader range of materials in order to further extend the body: chairs supplement the skeleton, tools append the hands, clothing augments the skin. Furniture and houses are neither more nor less interior to the human body than the food it absorbs, nor are they fundamentally different from such sophisticated prosthetics as artificial lungs, eyes, and kidneys. The consumption of manufactured things turns the body inside out, opening it up to and as the culture of objects.

For the product world of the early twentieth century, human digestion served as a metaphor for the economy as well as a territory to be colonized and rewritten by a wealth of new commodities. The consumerist body ingests and expels not only food-the prototypical object of consumption-but the full range of images and objects that pass through the cycle of manufacture, purchase, and disposal. In the process of elimination, the body itself is remade.

1. On the rise of corporate food industries, see Alfred d. Chandler, The Visible Hand: the Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1977). On the American diet, see Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.)
2. On the industrial design profession, see Arthur Pulos, American Design Ethic (Cambridge: MIT Press 1983).
3. The ideology of consumerism is summarized and cerebrated in Daniel J. Boorstin, “Welcome to the Consumption Community,” Fortune 76 (1967): 118-38. On social critiques of consumerism, see Daniel Horowitz, The Morality of Spending: Attitudes toward the Consumer Society in America, 1975-1940 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985). For essays on the development of American consumerism, see T. Jackson Lears, ed., The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980 (New York: Pantheon, 1983).
4. Consumer Engineering, A New Technique for Prosperity, Roy Sheldon and Egmont Arens, (New York: Harpers and Brothers, 1932),32.
5. Christine Frederick, Selling Mrs. Consumer (New York: The Business Bourse, 1929), 81.
6. Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969, 1984), 9.
7. Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 1962), 39-72.
8. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).