The woman who changed kitchen design forever

Maria Challis, director of James James Kitchens, on how she has been inspired by Lillian Gilbreth, who in the 1920s, despite a male-dominated establishment, sowed the seeds of modern-day kitchen design

I came across American industrial engineer and psychologist Lillian Gilbreth while I was researching the inspiration behind the modern-day fitted kitchen.

As a woman working in the kitchen industry, it was a wonderful moment when I discovered that the transformation of the kitchen into the fitted design we know today, was in part due to Gilbreth’s influence.

During my research I learnt that Gilbreth was instrumental in the development of the modern kitchen, creating the ‘work triangle’ and linear-kitchen layouts that we still often use today. In the late 1920s, she collaborated with Mary E Dillon, president of Brooklyn Borough Gas Company, on the creation of an efficient kitchen, equipped with gas-powered appliances and named the Kitchen Practical.

Inspired by criticisms of her own kitchen, it was designed on three principles: the correct and uniform height of working surfaces; a circular workplace; and a general ‘circular routing of working’, all carefully analysed to reduce the time and effort required in the preparation of meals. It was unveiled in 1929 at a Women’s Exposition.

While Gilbreth was an industrial engineer working at General Electric, she worked on improving kitchen designs and is said to have interviewed more than 4,000 women so that she could find the optimal height for stoves, sinks, and other kitchen fixtures.

This woman really wanted to make a difference and today’s kitchen design just wouldn’t be the same without her innovations.

She also introduced the foot-pedal bin, the concept of adding shelves to fridge doors and wall-light switches – all now standard additions to the modern home. 

What perhaps makes her success story so fascinating is that she was simply ahead of her time in many aspects. Born in 1878, she managed her career alongside life as a mother of 12, long before women even had the right to vote. Although she faced discrimination from within the engineering community, she did not let that defeat her and instead moved her efforts towards research projects in the ‘female-friendly’ area of domestic management and home economics.

Gilbreth applied the principles of scientific management to household tasks in order to improve the design and layout of the kitchen and make the lives of those using it much easier. This was somewhat of a humorous topic to her 12 children – who often took part in her experiments – as Gilbreth herself supposedly had an aversion to housework and actually employed household help.  

In addition to her influence on kitchen design, Gilbreth has an abundance of other accolades to her name. She was the first female faculty member at the University of Purdue, where she gained her PhD in applied psychology in 1915. She was the first woman to be appointed at the National Academy of Engineering in 1963, and she is a proclaimed author in her own right.

When I started out on this research project, I had no idea I would become completely enthralled by Gilbreth’s story. Her drive and passion to make everyday life for women in the kitchen not only as easy as possible, but also exciting, is what we all strive for in the kitchen design arena today.

Just reading about her life has made me look at my own journey in the kitchen industry. It has made me ask the question – if she could succeed in the face of such adversity, what can I achieve if I push limits to empower not only myself, but my entire team?

I’m aware it is still a male-dominated industry, but I believe this is changing. There are some incredible women flying the flag for change and I hope that, with the story of powerful women like Lillian Gilbreth, we can continue to gain that level playing field within the kitchen arena and beyond.

Have you heard the latest episode of the award-winning kbbreview Podcast? Listen now using the player below or search ‘kbbreview’ in a podcast app such as Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

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