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November 30, 2021
The Compact Beauty of the Galley Kitchen
Thumb-Galley Kitchen

A century after the popular space-saving kitchen layout was invented, it’s as relevant as ever.

Galley kitchens have followed me wherever I go, from the downtown Boston apartment where I grew up to the ranch house in Oregon where I live now. As a kid in the ’90s, I used to yearn for the open kitchens and luxurious islands my friends in the suburbs had, all of us draped across stools, dunking Oreos in milk after school, everyone and everything in sight. But there was something comfortable about the confines of the narrow galley kitchen I came home to in the city: the way I’d brush against my mother’s fleece robe when making cereal in the morning, the lingering smell of my father’s toast, the mild irritation at my brother in my way, and the shared laughter after.

Galley kitchens are so ubiquitous as to seem uninteresting—a price of entry for city living—but that assumption misses how they have endured through waves of changing attitudes and tastes, and it overlooks their particular appeal today. In any given home, on any given night, there is usually one person cooking—one person who might like a wall between them and their families for once during quarantine, or who might simply appreciate the principles of convenience and efficiency through which the galley has always excelled. While they may have been invented as a time- and space-saving innovation for 1920s housewives, galley kitchens couldn’t be better suited to the world we live in now.

In any given home, on any given night, there is usually one person cooking—one person who might like a wall between them and their families for once during quarantine.

Most people know a galley kitchen when they see it: long and narrow, with two lines of built-in cabinets facing each other. This walkway-style layout means there isn’t room for a kitchen table, or usually for more than one person to be cooking at a time. Typically, the sink, refrigerator, and stove are all within reach of one another—part of what gives the space its efficient feel. It’s hard to believe that a design so commonplace was ever new, but we can actually point to a moment in history when the galley kitchen as we know it was born: postwar Europe, when Austria’s first female architect was tasked with designing one of the earliest user-focused kitchens at the dawn of a new, modern era.

Before Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, home kitchens were often slapdash and improvised—a freestanding range here, a chest of drawers for storage there, maybe a table in the corner, and no natural light. Her creation, known as the “Frankfurt kitchen” and designed as part of a mass housing reconstruction project in post–World War I Germany, was a complete departure. It’s considered one of the first “fitted” kitchens, with built-in cabinets, bulk bins modeled after the storage containers used in munitions factories, and a dedicated workstation (with adjustable stool!) beneath a nice-sized window. If that sounds pretty standard now, it’s because standardization was part of the plan. The relatively cheap, easy-to-install design was intended to be duplicated, with over 10,000 units in use within a year.

You can find a Frankfurt kitchen in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, something that has surprised visitors when on view. “You expect to see Picassos and Van Goghs in a museum,” says Andrew Gardner, the curatorial assistant of architecture and design at MoMA. “You don’t expect to see a kitchen. But the kitchen is just as relevant and resonant to the development of modern society as those famous painters.”

As Gardner tells me, “It was the first galley kitchen before we had a name for it, and it signified the very beginning of a new paradigm for women’s labor.” With more and more women getting jobs outside the home after the war, a kitchen design that was intended to increase efficiency signified a newfound respect for and consideration of women’s time. Revolutionary as it was, though, the Frankfurt kitchen was not without criticism. It was tiny—about 6 feet by 11 feet—and the bulk bins were at a perfect height for little hands to grab and deposit their contents all over the floor. By the 1970s, an upswell of feminist critiques characterized the Frankfurt kitchen as a space devised not to ease the burden on women but to isolate them there. It didn’t help that the space-efficient design gave people license to tuck the kitchen in the darkest corner of the house or to forgo the window-lit workstation. Even Schütte-Lihotzky ultimately felt trapped by her own conception. “If I had known that everyone would keep talking about nothing else,” she famously said in a 1997 radio interview just before her 100th birthday, “I would never have built that damned kitchen!”

Twenty years later, in the United States, the galley kitchen would experience another postwar boom with the development of yet another kind of mass housing project: the suburbs. While mid-century tastes were beginning to favor an open-plan concept—“The kitchen is losing one of its four walls,” an article in the June 1953 issue of House and Home magazine declared—the galley design still couldn’t be beat in terms of efficiency and cost. Thousands of galleys were installed in thousands of stand-alone homes across the country, including in my 1957-built ranch in Oregon, to accommodate a new generation of young families with suburban dreams. That said, they were still considered “the make-do option, something that did the job without much expectation of decor or glamour,” Sarah Archer, author of The Midcentury Kitchen, tells me. “The ones you’d find in apartments tended to be rather ho-hum or outdated, tucked behind a set of folding doors.”

“The pandemic has accelerated the desire for separate spaces.”

Galleys have remained in the background of whatever kitchen design trend dominated, a steady presence while pastel florals wallpapered the ’50s, islands entered the scene in the ’70s, and the shabby chic, open-concept designs of the ’90s featured in the latest Nancy Meyers movie inspired envy in most everyone. Today, though, that’s changing. Where once we wanted no walls, now a lot of us could do with more. “The pandemic has accelerated the desire for separate spaces,” design critic Alexandra Lange tells me. “People are podcasting from closets and Zooming from bathrooms in order to get a door between them and their partner and children. If they had a dining room or living room separate from the kitchen, this would be easier.”

On top of that, most people can’t level up to a bigger kitchen even if they wanted to. We are living through one of the hottest real estate markets in history, after all, with properties in desirable urban neighborhoods going for over asking price, sight unseen. For nearly $500,000, you could make your morning eggs in what is clearly a retrofitted closet in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, for example. That price will also get you a nice-enough galley in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, but it may or may not have a bed in it. It’s bad out there, and it’s making the galley kitchen look pretty good.

Galley kitchens, after all, do a lot of things well beyond just being efficient. “They keep cooking mess out of the rest of the apartment,” Lange says. “Music, no music; wash as you go or make a huge pile of pots; smell up the kitchen, not the living-dining-kitchen-office space.” What’s more, a galley kitchen can help to preserve the integrity of adjacent rooms. As architect VW Fowlkes of DC-based Fowlkes Studios tells me, “It’s the American Dream to have an island, but that can be at the expense of having a really nice room.”

And a really nice room is just what I’d call my galley kitchen, as I cut squash into half-moons on its pull-out cutting board and sweep the skins into the trash in one step. There’s the cool refrigerator air in my face when I pull out the ricotta, a gentle heat at my knees as the oven clicks up to temperature. I do my best not to trip over the dog, who always chooses to appear at the wrong time, and sense my husband at my back. He fills his water glass, squeezes my hip, and knows to scram. It’s small, our kitchen. There’s no getting around that. I’d love to have space for my pots and pans, or acres of empty counter, an island I could loll around at with a sleeve of Oreos and a glass of milk. But I’ll tell you this: I’ve never felt closer to cooking than I do in my galley, the whole sensory world of it—sometimes a drag, more often a pleasure, always in reach.

Kristin Griffin

Kristin Griffin writes fiction and freelances as a food writer. Originally from Boston, she now lives in the Willamette Valley and teaches writing at Oregon State University.