Tag Archives: 1939 Worlds Fair

A Child’s Kitchen

Kitchen, n.  Middle English kichene, from Old English cycene, from W.Gmc. *kocina (cf. M.Du. cökene, O.H.G. chuhhina, Ger. Küche, Dan. kjøkken), probably borrowed from V.L. *cocina (cf. Fr. cuisine, Sp. cocina), variant of L. coquina “kitchen,” from fem. of coquinus “of cooks,” from coquus “cook,” from coquere “to cook.” First Known Use: before 12th century

Okay, I am standing in a glass booth, a kind of vertical faceted bay window poking into a doorway at either end – looking into a kitchen. The first thing that hits you, is it is vast, large enough to roller skate around. It is a sea-foam blue with golden wood tones: some, not all, of the cabinets are painted a Colonial blue that, with age and the patina of cooking, have become almost aqua, and in contrast, the shiny copper pans and pots, hung in rows, reflect even more friendly glow into an already warm space. It is, no doubt, efficiently laid out but it invites with an informality of the familiar.

This is not just any kitchen. This is Julia Child’s kitchen. Squint, and you can see Julia puttering around in it. It is the real cook’s kitchen.

We all have curiosity about other peoples’ kitchens, especially of one of the most famous chefs in our lifetime, a woman who became a TV celebrity when she entered our homes (via another smaller glass booth) to demonstrate what French cooking was about, at a time when American food was at its lowest ebb. Her career spanned fifty years, her voice was unmistakable, her combination of love of food and expertise in its preparation made us all want to watch her shows. She was a cooking phenomenon, and her command of her kitchen and its utensils was awesome to watch. The thing is, it was her kitchen, really. Apparently, her husband designed the kitchen in their Cambridge home specifically for the TV cameras, breaking the barrier of the fourth wall and creating the original reality show. Having seen her show many times, I never paid much attention to the set, only to her. And here it is, beyond the glass.

Three years before Julia’s death in 2004, her now-famous kitchen was moved to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Somehow it took ten years for me to catch up to it. Maybe I just never thought it would be so interesting. But it is. Of course, it has historical significance, but that doesn’t guarantee it having placeness. It does, though, so much more so than I had anticipated. It is a large kitchen, even by today’s standards. Funny, it doesn’t have that magic triangulation that defines distances between workstations, but it does have very nice flow. The color scheme is sort of timeless, yet of a time. There are distinct areas for specific tasks but they aren’t front and center – there is a unity to it all. And it is quite homey, not institutional in the slightest. It keeps that perfect balance of appearing cared for but not clinically pristine; it is not just for show but rather for use, despite having been a stage set. There are even a few items sitting in the dish drainer.

My first awareness of a kitchen, obviously, was my mother’s, the original dating from the 1930s but updated in the Fifties, and by the time I was paying attention, it already looked retro to me. It was not what you would call a real cook’s kitchen, but it was fully functional, whether it served lunch to kids, breakfast and supper on a daily basis, or large adult dinner parties. Growing up, I spent time in other mothers’ kitchens and, although some were larger or had more currency than my own, they never felt quite as comfy to me. Not like my own. And both of my grandmothers’ kitchens seemed, by comparison, archaic and quaint; they were not as cabinet-covered with more free-standing furniture, but with a country-style coziness factor.

My own adult kitchen was designed by me; our house, having been a commercial building, did not have one. The result is a hodgepodge of low cost and high design (high design being the 1930s to me). I claimed the original cabinets that had been replaced in my parents’ home (they had, for years, sat repurposed in the basement) and transported them 600 miles to my soon-to-be kitchen. Using my favorite touchstone for design, the 1939 Worlds Fair, I wanted the kitchen to have an Art Deco look and feel, in mostly white and black, with splashes of jade. It is not a modern kitchen now and it wasn’t when it was built – modern only in the sense of its design period. It is a large room, but it has that homey-ness that comes age-appropriately with its style. At least to me.

As kitchen design has streamlined and modernized, the warmth factor has suffered. Cozy eat-in kitchens are undesirable, country kitchens have become code for old and outdated. For a long while, people tried “warming up” a kitchen by putting dark wood cabinets on the walls. In the 21st century, a sleek Euro-modernism has prevailed and there seem to be very few kitchens, mine being one of the few, in the lower forty-eight that do not have stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. This trend is to simulate a professional chef’s kitchen in the home. It’s rather ironic to think that as domestic kitchens have become more like restaurant kitchens, people have opted to eat out more than cook at home. Many modern kitchens look clean and empty, maybe a bit institutional, but not warm or homey.

But, back to Julia’s kitchen: One thing that is particularly nice about it is that the kitchen table sits right smack dab in the center of the room. My understanding is that, for the cooking shows, there was a center island with two stovetops. I prefer the setup in the museum, where the eating takes center stage instead of the cooking. I believe that Julia felt that way too. It is so welcoming, just as Julia was on-the-air, this kitchen bearing the same casual elegance as its proprietor did. In design, Julia’s kitchen is a harmonious composition of positive and negative space, natural and applied color, line and geometrical shape, metal and wood, form and function. Placeness. A kitchen should be the center of a home, the site that is both literally and figuratively a place of fueling up, of doing what is life-giving and where most time is spent; so it should be the most natural and comfortable of places. Julia’s kitchen is all of that, it seems, despite its being a studio – a place in which it must have been easy to spend one’s life and life’s work. Bon Appetit! 

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Remembering the Future

Whatever happened to the future?

There is every reason to be confident, at any given moment, that it will happen, but we no longer embrace its promise and possibilities the way we used to, certainly not in the long-term: Our future is measured, it seems, in just weeks or months, the metric being the release dates of upcoming new electronics or software upgrades, or the disappearance of ozone or ice. These days, we more easily dwell in that foreign country of the past, finding comfort even in its anxiety, and vice versa. The past is soothing to us because we have made it through it more or less intact, and that’s where our loved ones will always be alive. The present demands choices, and the future is not predictable, and often, not even imaginable.

Philosophically, now – this very split-second – is all that is real, and yet, in early 1939, the future was just as real, and, in one specific location, past, present and future were all lived at once: a temporal convergence not seen before or since and likely never again, that resulted in an explosion of pure optimism or, at the very least, great pleasure. It was a grand place to be; in imagination, it still is.

That the 70th anniversary of the New York World’s Fair slipped by most of us last year around this time is something of a shock, considering its place in American history, its signal influence on invention and design, and its symbolic balancing on the precipice of hope and war’s crashing bleakness: In terms of the road of faith in progress’ benevolent patrimony, it was the last stop before tolls.

Twenty years ago, for the Fair’s 50th anniversary, a celebration and memorabilia sale was held at the site of the ’39 exposition, in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens. In the existing park, there wasn’t much left of that fair, or the one in 1964 put up on the same spot: just the huge globe called the Unisphere from ’64; the time capsules set in place in the ground at each fair, 25 years apart, to be opened by our descendants 5 centuries from now; a few recreational facilities; and what was once the New York City pavilion used for both events, but which is now the Queens Museum, home of a spectacular room-size, 3-D replication of New York City, and, in 1989, ground zero for the anniversary festivities. Attended by some who built the Fair, others who’d attended it, and most who only dream about it, are moved by it and curse the unfortunate timing of their births that caused them to miss the experience of it.

Being there, as we were, despite the near-barren grounds, one could try and succeed (squinting a little helped) in envisioning this Oz within view of the larger Dream City just beyond to the west, this now-ghostly Fair: the Promenade, and all the excited folks strolling down it (in the past, people strolled – it was a favorite form of perambulation, not a waste of time); the dancing waters of the Lagoon of Nations; all the streamline moderne and kitsch corporate buildings, some looking like the products they were pushing (although it was progress, not sales, that they claimed to be espousing). And, of course, the Fair’s theme building and centerpiece, the continually seductive, classically inspired, and still-ahead-of-its-time symbol of the new age/space age/scientifically enlightened age to come: the elongated pyramidal Trylon soaring to the sky, and the grounded, bulbously tactile Perisphere. Today, none of it there, yet magically present.

That was 20 years ago. Last year, for the 70th anniversary, what passed for a celebration took place in an airport hotel near LaGuardia. A comedown, certainly of style — and, after all, wasn’t style what 50 percent of the Fair (and, generally, life) was all about? As the fair recedes in time, and living memories die, the dream of this Camelot, this congenial spot of happy ever-aftering, made legendary by its programmed impermanence, devolves — except in the hearts of a few loyalists — into little more than fluctuating price lists for collectibles.

And now we are approaching the 70th anniversary of the fair’s second season, one of the most disappointing of sequels. Perhaps a more direct harbinger of the real future, much of what made the Fair a joy in ’39 was gone in ’40; the focus shifted to the amusement park and sideshow areas that had once been the secondary, seamier but popular side of the enterprise. By spring of 1940, when what remained of the ideal future reopened to try to squeeze more money from the curious or idle to help defray the losses incurred by Season One (who said art pays?), the Nazis had taken Poland, Europe was descending into fear and darkness, and the moral and political undertow of involvement was dragging us out beyond safe shore. In bitter irony, the metal substructure of the Trylon and Perisphere would soon be melted down to make the stuff of wars. Also ironic: even as our symbols of great expectation became scrap, we were never so unified as a nation as in our war efforts.

A place in the mind is as much one dwelled in as any other, and maybe more so, because it is what you want it to be, or need it to be, and you can walk it, and smell it, and taste it, and be there with whomever you want to be, whenever you want. We are not in such dark times now, as then, but we are not in such bright ones, either. The 1939 World’s Fair was, by its own reckoning, The World of Tomorrow. We could use one today.

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