NEW YORK CITY – When students and teachers at the Rhode Island School of Design began to examine what, exactly, makes a kitchen function, they came to some unique ideas about what “universal design” really is. They also came up with some startling ideas about what it is not, many of which were are still prevalent of today’s kitchens, despite being outdated and even harmful to users’ health and well being.
In fact, after looking at the typical kitchen, and the typical kitchen user, doing time and motion studies and otherwise observing the science of kitchen usage, the Rhode Island School of Design students and faculty concluded that the traditional kitchen work triangle might be better off being eliminated entirely, in order to simplify kitchen duties and cut down on wasted motion. In addition, the students and faculty members noted many other problems with common kitchen usage that causes difficulties not only for the disabled, but also causes added stress on the bodies of those who are fully abled.
The Rhode Island School of Design Universal Kitchen project began five years ago when a team of faculty, alumna and students questioned why the kitchen’s layout hasn’t changed since the 1940s, especially in the light of the fact that the kitchen has been labeled “the new hearth of the home.” They noted that, with the elderly population growing at an astounding rate, children being left home alone at younger ages and baby boomers facing the aging process without interrupting their lifestyle, kitchen design needed to be made more inter-generational.
Hence, students at the Rhode Island School of Design, under the direction of faculty members Marc Harrison, Jane Langmuir, Peter Wooding and an advisory group that included Julia Child, set out to create a kitchen that better meets the needs of people of all ages and abilities.
The first thing the team did was to identify existing problems in today’s kitchens. In a time and motion study designed to look at the number of steps required to make a spaghetti dinner in a typical kitchen, they found that it took more than 400 steps, with lots of repetitive movements – a number they believed could be drastically reduced.
Through these time and motion studies, project director Jane Langmuir realized that, “Today’s kitchen does not work well for anyone fully abled, much less for anyone with any kind of disability. Most users do not realize how they adapt to poor design: continually reaching down, reaching up or leaning over.”
In addition, she notes, “Those with arthritis or low vision, or someone extremely tall, can find a kitchen not just inaccessible, but dangerous. And people in wheelchairs are forced to have their kitchen retrofitted with appliances that are unattractive and stigmatizing,” a problem she believed could be improved upon through the use of adjustable components, as well as integral, flexible, efficient and aesthetically appealing design.
But the goal of the project was not just to find out what wasn’t working in current kitchen design, but to create “an integrated kitchen system for the broadest possible base of users,” Langmuir notes. According, the design team created two scenarios that focused on different users and situations, which would not only simplify kitchen movement, but would also allow that same spaghetti dinner to be made in just 100 steps.
The design team then created the two full-size presentation models of these kitchen concepts, which are currently being showcased in the Unlimited by Design museum exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City,
The first, MIN, is a small kitchen designed for studio apartments, dorm rooms, independent living centers and the like. The second one, MAX, was a gourmet cooking kitchen and dining area for large families
The two “kitchen of the future” concepts were conceived as a “kit-of-parts,” according to Langmuir, including refrigeration units, dishwashers, ovens, countertop burners and countertops that can be customized for different users, all designed to minimize movement and effort and keep activity in “a zone of comfortable reach.” They are “especially workable for those who are elderly, disabled, height-challenged or otherwise challenged by typical kitchen designs. However, even fully abled people can benefit from this kind of kitchen design,” Langmuir insists.
“The heights and placement of items we currently consider normal is anything but,” she says. “The human body is not designed to [best] function at these heights. And everyone benefits from better lighting, decreased lifting, simplified design that eliminates wasted movements. It just makes sense.
“The key design principles for the project include the use of modular units which promote interchangeability and adjustability for custom installation, eliminate the need to reach, lift and bend, reduce the redundancy of movement, promote energy efficiency, support recycling of water and waste, introduce new design elements for operations such as controls, door functions and communications, and facilitate a meal preparation process that integrates ‘clean as you go,” Langmuir further notes.
Although the prototype does not exist outside of the museum, Langmuir notes that “All the technology is there. With their [the manufacturers’] help and support, we could build this tomorrow. This is the kitchen of the future.”
A project of this size and scope rarely gets off the ground without the support and expertise of many industry professionals. To that end, the project attracted a number of manufacturer sponsors, who contributed products, technology and knowledge. This allowed the project to access “the best of both worlds” – getting valuable input from both academia and the manufacturing arenas, Langmuir notes.
“For sponsors, this has been an opportunity to collaborate with businesses outside of their usual sector,” Langmuir says, though, “ultimately, it is the consumer who will benefit most from this project.”
Company sponsors for the Universal Kitchen included: Nevamar (Decorative Products Division of International Paper Co.), Notch Design Group, Schott Corp., Justras Woodworking, Fountain-head, Dow Chemical Co., Broan – a Division of Nortek, Item Products Inc., Suspa and Hafele.