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Design Lessons From The Gilded Age Kitchen

Design Lessons From The Gilded Age KitchenWhile touring the gilded mansions of Newport, one can’t help but marvel at the kitchens. Larger than most restaurant kitchens of today, the gilded age kitchen was an entirely different animal from today’s home kitchens, yet the same design lessons apply to modern kitchen design and how it has to work.

The Breakers in NewportIn the gilded age, for the gilded set, home life centered around entertaining and show, here and abroad. The gilded age kitchen was its own industry within a home, often taking up a significant portion of the first level basement or separate wing accessed by an efficient maze of discrete secondary staircases and hallways. Times were different then.

  1. They had kitchen staff: someone to light the ovens, polish the copper, manage the refrigeration (cold rooms), do dishes, food prep, etc.
  2. They employed a chef, usually trained in France, some also a pastry chef and secondary cooks
  3. Gilded age kitchens prepared multiple course meals for many, often hundreds
  4. Dumb waiters ruled – kitchens and kitchen smells were kept far from the dining room
  5. Everything was made by hand, through the aid of the latest technology

Keeping these differences in mind, the design of a functional working kitchen is the same today as over a hundred years ago. Other than what they housed in multiple rooms, we do efficiently in one and in full view of anyone who is in the home. Kitchen at The Breakers in Newport

A Place For Everything And Everything In Its Place (Hint: it is not the countertop.) 

In the these gilded mansions, this meant hanging pot racks in the and open shelves, in the French manner, orderly and clean not a hodge-podge of whatever. Efficient kitchen shelves and drawersToday we use lots of drawers, hidden doors, and ingenious cabinet interiors to easily hide and hold everything we need. Open shelves have made a comeback, but only for the hyper-organized and super clean household.

Ample Work Surfaces With Room To Move

Large stove at The Breakers kitchen in NewportSpace isn’t a luxury in a kitchen it is a necessity. To function in a kitchen one needs room to physically move between areas and enough surface area to meet functional needs. Kitchen cabinet with reveal gripsA large sleek surface close to the cooking area is necessary regardless of how many people one feeds. Notice how many modern kitchens have taken on the Victorian attributes of items cluttering up the horizontal surfaces. One can’t cook amongst chaos!

Work Stations Work

It the old days the kitchens were designed around work functions. The baking area was next to refrigeration, often far from the stove. If you think of the processes involved this makes complete sense, you go to and from the oven once, but in and out of the fridge multiple times and prep usually requires cooler temperatures. Screw the work triangle it can sometimes get in the way, kitchens have multiple functions. Good kitchen design takes into account how kitchens work for the household, not the same design regardless of inhabitant.

Sanitary SurfacesMusee Nissim de Camondo - stoveMusee Nissim de Camondo kitchen

Porcelain tile walls and floors, gleaming metal where needed and marble or zinc countertops. Cork countertops were popular in butler’s pantry or next to the scullery as this absorbed noise and saved delicate dishware. While the gilded age did not have the technology or science we have today, they understood cleanliness.

Recently in a conversation with kitchen designers from around the country a number of us commented we achieve well designed kitchens (happy clients) by knowing exactly how the user will use their kitchen, with what components, and their cooking habits. Back in the day, kitchens were designed the same way, not cookie cutter, just a bit bigger.

If you really want to experience a gilded age kitchen, take the Servant Life Tour at The Elms. This fascinating tour delves into how a great house functioned from the back stairs and the inner workings of a gilded age kitchen.


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