Learn where the unfitted kitchen came from, how the unfitted kitchen was laid out in the early 1900s, and why I am using those ideas in my own kitchen.
Necessary disclaimer: I. AM. NOT. A HISTORIAN. I’m just a girl who spends way too much time diving in to internet rabbit holes for my own good.
As I’ve been working on our kitchen design plan and layout, you may have heard me harping about the unfitted kitchen design. And more specifically you probably heard me waxing absolute poetic to the MAX about unfitted kitchens.
Because they are THE BEST. Seriously. The actual certifiable best. First, let me tell you why.
Check out this week’s video on unfitted kitchens!
What is an unfitted kitchen?
An unfitted kitchen is almost self explanatory. It is simply a kitchen in which the pieces are not built in to the room. There are no custom cabinets, no stationary island, no built ins, no vast expanses of countertops.
In fact everything in the room that can be is free standing. So this means (in theory anyway) that the room can be rearranged to fit whatever needs to be done that day just by switching around a few tables.
Since I change my mind on the daily so the idea of moving my kitchen around on a whim is HIGHLY appealing.
But also these kitchens get bonus points because “remodeling” just involves swapping out the swapping out the furniture instead of replacing all the cabinets, tile, lights, and appliances. How do you like them apples, renovation industry?
What did an unfitted kitchen look like?
Now after defining our unfitted kitchen, we ask where did they come from? As best I can tell, no one DECIDED that unfitted kitchens were now a thing. That is just how kitchens naturally evolved from the early fire pits.
To start they likely had a few implements for hanging pots or cauldrons, if one was feeling particularly witchy. Next let’s add a few tables for the cauldrons to sit on for funsies. Third build another table to actually eat the cauldron food on and lastly, a shelf to store the cauldrons. BAM. You have a kitchen.
By the mid-1800s, kitchen stoves were a pretty common household appliance. Though built in cabinetry was beginning to be more common, the kitchens seem to be still relatively unfitted.
Similarly, in the 1887 book An Ideal Kitchen by Maria Parola, she shows the layout of an idealized kitchen, pantry, and china cupboard. Though the china cupboard presumably had cabinetry and the pantry likely had shelves, the kitchen itself is still largely free-standing.
Side note: if you have a pre-1800 house…this aesthetic is LIFE.
Obviously, kitchens didn’t stay looking this way forever. So what changed?
The Rise of Fitted Kitchens
Like with most design trends, nobody woke up one day and decided all the free standing furniture was out. The transition from unfitted kitchens to fitted kitchen was gradual.
In her 1914 book, The Efficient Kitchen, Georgie Boynton Child devotes an entire section to selecting fixed equipment. She also points out:
“In many cases the available space in a kitchen can be utilized to far better advantage by building a cabinet than by using a ready-made one.”
To me, that looks like a pretty good start of fitted kitchens. Actually, this is the why unfitted kitchens died out.
While researching this I came across an outstanding article from Starcraft Custom Builders about the history of kitchens. They point out that unfitted kitchens had a different work flow than modern kitchens. The cook prepares the food on the perimeter of the room before moving to the middle.
Which is actually quite similar to how kitchen islands function today. They are a central landing space for food and other kitchen activities. So what do 1720 and 2020 kitchens have in common? They’re…huge.
Seriously. Look at the kitchens of today. Now think about the size of rooms in pre-Victorian houses. They’re both massive. Most importantly, having a large kitchen with ample room to move around, plenty of wall space for pots, pans, and clear work tables is very functional.
However when the Industrial Revolution hit (the second Industrial Revolution, did you know there is more than one??) houses became more affordable. But because they were more affordable, they also became smaller. Therefore to best maximize the space, you need more built in cabinets.
Ok Paige, so you’re saying unfitted kitchens are inefficient and built ins are the best way to maximize storage space?
Is an unfitted kitchen right for you?
Contrary to what all these turn of the century books will tell you, there is no ideal kitchen. Furthermore, designing a kitchen for an old house (or one to look like it could be in an old house) will always be a combination of historic influence and personal preference.
If you have a small kitchen, built in cabinetry could give you more efficient storage. However, the same does not immediately hold true for large kitchens.
In fact, filling up a bigger space with cabinets may result in simply too much storage. (Oh yes. It’s a thing. The previous kitchen at this house as a NIGHTMARE.) If you have the luxury of a reasonably sized kitchen, you have more room to play with the free standing aesthetic.
For me personally, I am a sucker for multi-functional space. I try to think of every possible use that might happen and plan for it. But I can’t think of everything. I like having the options and flexibility to adjust my kitchen as I need it.
In summary, I don’t ever want to remodel or buy new cabinets. Let’s do it once and do it right. I can change it in the future if I need to.
And an unfitted kitchen is just the ticket for this house. So. What do you think? Would you ever consider an unfitted kitchen?