It's 1957, and as the Disney camera focuses on a rack of shiny dishes rising from a kitchen console in the just-completed Monsanto House of the Future, an enthusiastic announcer suggests that, in the future, "Dishwashing chores will be a pleasure. Especially when this ultrasonic dishwasher does the job."
The millions of American moms who tromped through Disneyland's futuristic kitchen between 1957 and 1967—oohing over a refrigerator hidden behind paneling and ahhing over a dishwasher popping out of a credenza that doubled as a communications center—came out of there lusting for a kitchen that looked, well, less like a kitchen. In short, they wanted a kitchen that was both practical and stylish, with Lazy Susans, ornate floor-to-ceiling cabinets housing spice drawers and tambour doors camouflaging toasters and coffee percolators.
Germany—where for decades manufacturers have focused on components that are visually appealing as well as portable since, unlike Americans, many Europeans take their kitchen furnishings with them when they relocate.
Haute kitchens are slowly catching on here, though, as evidenced by a number of European-oriented design studios such as Boffi in Santa Monica and Snaidero in West Hollywood. "People are much more aware of good design these days," says Chris Tosdevin of L.A.'s Bulthaup, a German-based manufacturer of free-standing kitchen components, most constructed of aluminum and stainless steel. "They buy classic pieces of furniture for their living room—something by Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe, for instance—and they want their kitchen to look the same way. It's not only about cooking, it's about a lifestyle."
Bulthaup's System 20 kitchen components—which provide storage and appliance housing in modules propped on casters or feet so they can be moved—are aesthetically appealing and as practical as a cutting block. "This is a kitchen you could own for life," Tosdevin says. As a result, he explains, Europeans are willing to pay more—sometimes a lot more—for pieces made of aluminum and stainless steel instead of particle board because they expect them to last a lifetime. With each free-standing module costing $2,000 to $4,000—plus the cost of the appliance—many modular kitchens start at $25,000, and the price rises quickly from there.
Americans have been slower to adopt Europe's "take-it-with-you" approach to kitchen design, admits Kevin Henry, director of Küppersbusch USA, a German appliance dealer headquartered in Florida with eight L.A.-area dealers. "It's an evolution," he says. "It's a fashion statement. The market is for sophisticated consumers who are influenced by design."
The sophisticates who are paying top dollar for a high-tech Miele oven or Gaggenau cooktop usually want the rest of their kitchen to look upscale as well, says Max Chafir of Poliform Los Angeles, in West Hollywood, whose new Christian Liaigre-designed Bacchus collection houses a kitchen pantry in armoires that would look right at home in the living room or bedroom. Which is exactly the point. "It's a kitchen that basically looks like living room furniture," Chafir says. "The idea is that you have a beautiful furniture piece instead of just some built-in cabinets."
Some lines from Poliform's Varenna collection—such as the Alea kitchen, with its frosty white surfaces and sleek rolling shutters hiding microwaves and mixers—echo elements of Disneyland's House of the Future, but the plastic counters and doors have been replaced with scratch-proof laminate, anodized aluminum and stainless steel. Which is not to suggest that modular kitchens only look beautiful. They're also practical.
"Most good cooks will tell you that to cook for 20 people, you don't need huge ranges and two or more refrigerators," Tosdevin says. "You just need well-designed components that are made of the highest quality."
And then, if you decide to take your dishwasher with you, you can. Which won't make washing dishes any more pleasant—just more stylish.
Bulthaup, 153 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 288-3875; Küppersbusch USA, (800) 459-0844; Poliform Los Angeles, 8818 Beverly Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 271-2107.
METROPOLIS / SPECIAL HOME DESIGN ISSUE