Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Pattern 139: The Farmhouse Kitchen

“…In many cases, especially in houses, the heart … is a kitchen or an eating area since shared food has more capacity than almost anything to be the basis for communal feelings.”

kenison's kitchen

Source: nh.com 

The above kitchen is from the home of Katrina Kenison, one of my favorite authors. Her memoir, The Gift of an Ordinary Day is about so much more than building a house, but also describes her family’s journey from living in a suburb of Boston to living in the country, and building this home. Look at those windows and those sunny counters! Do you think she’s read A Pattern Language? I get the impression she has read everything!

“The isolated kitchen, separate from the family and considered as an efficient but unpleasant factory for food is a hangover from the days of servants.”

servants kitchen

Source: PBS “Dowton Abbey” and the blog Cahier du Jour

The problem Pattern 139 describes:

In traditional societies, where there were no servants and the members of a family took care of their own food, the isolated kitchen was virtually unknown. Even when cooking was entirely in the hands of women, as it very often was, the work of cooking was still thought of as a primal, communal function; and the "hearth," the place where food was made and eaten, was the heart of family life.


As soon as servants took over the function of cooking, in the palaces and manor houses of the rich, the kitchens naturally got separated from the dining halls. Then, in the middle class housing of the nineteenth century, where the use of servants became rather widespread, the pattern of the isolated kitchen also spread, and became an accepted part of any house. But when the servants disappeared, the kitchen was still left separate, because it was thought "genteel" and "nice" to eat in dining rooms away from any sight or smell of food. The isolated kitchen was still associated with those houses of the rich, where dining rooms like this were taken for granted.


[…] there is in this kind of plan…the hidden supposition that cooking is a chore and that eating is a pleasure. So long as this mentality rules over the arrangement of the house, the conflict which existed in the isolated kitchen is still present. The difficulties which surround the situation will only disappear, finally, when all the members of the family are able to accept, fully, the fact that taking care of themselves by cooking is as much a part of life as taking care of themselves by eating. This will only happen when the communal hearth is once more gathered round the big kitchen table, as it is in primitive communities, where the taking care of necessary functions is an everyday part of life, and has not been lost to people's consciousness through the misleading function of the servant.

Did Alexander lose you there? It’s my favorite line in the book, so I think it deserves repeating. Basically, we keep designing kitchens as if the cooks of our families were servants, tucking them out of sight. We just want to focus on the eating. We bring light and attention to beautiful dining rooms instead of the workspace of the kitchen. This isolates the cook and deadens what would normally be the center of the home. The servants’ kitchen of Dowton Abbey might not be a great example, as the money spent on design have made it a work of art---but it is still more factory than hearth.

The solution is for “all members of the family…to accept, fully, the fact that taking care of themselves by cooking is as much a part of life as taking care of themselves by eating.”

Yes! It took me an embarrassingly long time to come to that realization. I started to share that story, but I’m going to move it to a separate post, a part 2 on Pattern 139, so that those who are just interested in design can skip it.

And the solution:


Source: thekitchn.com

We are convinced that the solution lies in the pattern of the old farmhouse kitchen. In the farmhouse kitchen, kitchen work and family activity were completely integrated in one big room. The family activity centered around a big table in the middle: here they ate, talked, played cards, and did work of all kinds including some of the food preparation. The kitchen work was done communally both on the table, and on counters round the walls. And there might have been a comfortable old chair in the corner where someone could sleep through the activities.


Make the kitchen bigger than usual, big enough to include the "family room" space, and place it near the center of the commons, not so far back in the house as an ordinary kitchen. Make it large enough to hold a good big table and chairs, some soft and some hard, with counters and stove and sink around the edge of the room; and make it a bright and comfortable room.

When I first read the title of this pattern, I pictured my mom’s kitchen, which had a country/farmhouse theme and lots of ceramic chickens. She lived on a farm in Ireland for a few years as a child, and I think her design preferences often recalled those years.

homemaking 1

Source: my mom’s beautiful kitchen

However, Christopher Alexander isn’t recommending blue gingham curtains. He has distilled what works from numerous and diverse kitchens, and found the commonalities among the best. And by best, we aren’t talking about the prettiest. We’re talking about a room that works, that gives back to the people who live there.

Everyone always ends up in the kitchen at parties anyway, right? You might as well design the space to entertain. A table big enough for crafts and homework. Lots of light and plenty of chairs. That’s a kitchen that would delight both the farmer and the cosmopolitan!

31 Days button

This post is part of Myquillin Smith’s Write 31 Days challenge. You can find all my posts on A Pattern Language      linked here, and other blogs participating in the challenge (and writing on different topics) here.


  1. I'd LOVE to have a kitchen exactly like the Farmhouse Kitchen.......same everything! Drooling here!

  2. Do you remember our remodeled kitchen on Roder Ct.? We took out all the walls that divided the kitchen, dining room and living room -- and made it into what they called a "gathering room" . I thought that was a great name for this open area but I don't think it "stuck". I never hear that term anymore.

    For me the idea of a formal living room is a waste of space. I always wanted to do something else with our tiny living room on Rosewood. I chose to call it a greeting room because basically that is what it was used for, greeting people as they entered the house. To bad we didn't live there long enough to redesign it. Can you remember the kitchen in The Bridges of Madison County. A country kitchen with the table right in the middle. I like that idea.

  3. Katrina K. kitchen is white cabinets, lots of light and black counters...

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