Le Havre, World Heritage Site

Yellow Casserole Dish by Matthieu Simon.

The importance of domestic science

The fashion for domestic science goes hand in hand with a need for economic boost encouraged by State institutions. Before WWII, a fridge, washing-machine, gas oven, hot plate, hoover would have been rare and expensive appliances. But in America, they are already playing a major part in the home, are also at the origin of a profit-making production system, and are generating new jobs.

Evolution of the domestic space

The Liberation of 1944 is not yet Women’s Lib: on the contrary women are tied ever tighter to their household. The woman is now in charge of the household, she becomes the ideal housewife holding authority over her domain. Paroxystic example of this state of affairs, the Best Housewife Competition (Concours de la Meilleure Ménagère) requires knowing the right room lay-out in order to “rationalize” housework (the kitchen near the dining-room), knowing how to iron men’s shirts well (in a set time) and being an excellent, always cheerful cook, and pleasant to look at to boot.

The Kitchen

In the home, the kitchen has become the most important room – where the housewife must make a show of all her talents.

Yet far away from Cuisine Nouvelle, the culinary art of the time still rests on cooking following a “common sense” principle, as developed in the “Femme au Foyer” magazine (Woman and Home) in 1948: “Cooking makes foodstuffs tender: so they are easier to eat; albuminoïdal substances start transforming when cooking and fat melts so they are easier to digest. Cooking sterilizes food by killing microbes and parasites; last, various culinary combinations satisfy the sense of taste”.

The fastidious solid-fuel stove was doomed, as gas arrived in homes, creating a revolution: the pressure cooker is then the icon of progress, cooking time and energy consumption lessen due to pressurization following the thermo-dynamic formula PV=nRT…. This way Science enters the home more and more thanks to such institutions as the CNRS or the Ministry of National Education which take active part in the Ideal Home Exhibition.

Age of the pressure cooker

No more manometer to keep an eye on, no more pin to take out, the Seb pressure cooker solves all the safety problems: between 1954 and 1955, more than 400 000 copies are sold. However, at the end of the 1950s Raymond Loewy re-designs the traditional cast-iron casserole, still made at Le Creuset. It is the first time a major designer involves himself over such a banal object. This marks a change in how to choose an appliance, the user letting the look take over the need in his choice. Seduction and impulse buys get us to step fully into a consumer society. At the same moment, the hygienic white look of post-war laboratory kitchens is making way for practical and lively looking red, blue and yellow Formica covered furniture.

The origin of the fitted kitchen

Paradoxically, the kitchen is becoming smaller and smaller and some would have it disappear totally to be replaced by a collective kitchen (Le Corbusier) or cooking appliances standing on the table (raclette, pierrade and waffle makers are their descendants).

So the kitchen is smaller and more rational even than the cupboard: the dish-washer makes its appearance but the sink still sits at the heart of the room. Kitchen appliances radiate around it like the gas-cooker and its oven, cupboards for crockery, and a little further away cupboards for food, cans and a fridge…. So just after the war, the idea of the fitted kitchen is making its way. Soon Formica will take over the kitchen. Let’s add too that the laundry room disappears, replaced by a fridge; however well-appointed lodgings still have one as it is an ideal place for drying washing and storing vegetables.

The kitchenette

It represents another revolution for the functional link is obvious (eating), but in older lodgings the kitchen was systematically separated from the dining-room by a corridor or several other rooms, being sometimes even a floor away.

Previously it was considered necessary to separate a place of work (smelly) from a place of rest (hygienic), but mostly a place for servants from that of their masters. Now, servants are on the way out, and the housewife handles both roles, work and rest: she works in the kitchen and takes part in the meal, the kitchenette answers this double need.

Birth of the consumer society

After WWII, buying appliances to gain more freedom becomes current practice: the consumer society is only just starting, as well as rationalization entering the home. It becomes logical to buy goods when the husband works, earns money and wants to “spoil” his wife by giving her the domestic appliance which will help her. She will no longer have to do the hardest, thankless work which used to be done by servants. From then on “there are no more servants” as a French song aptly says (Les Bonnes, sung by the Frères Jacques).

“For the past 25 years the French have, consciously or unconsciously, refused to invest in the setting and keeping up of their homes the same part of their income other more civilized nations have been investing.

Longer still, following their marked taste for “antiquity” they have been living a modern life within an old-fashioned setting, forgetting that older fashions could only have been born from an unending will for novelty and modernity.

Closer to us, the domestic problem becoming ever more acute, they did not seek to adapt their home settings to the needs of the time, did not make better use of available space, did not save time: they purposefully ignored the few appliances which, although not easily available, would have saved them so much hassle”.

Maison Française, French magazine (October 1946).

From Art Deco to Design

These lines, from the editorial of the first issue of the magazine La Maison Française sum up the concern of the French State when confronted with the negative assessment of living conditions in France. It then looked deeper in how to implicitly encourage home owners to become better consumers and improve their homes.

As key figures of the “Reconstruction Style” the “designers of mass-produced furniture” accelerate the transition from the Art Deco style to the Design one: interested in Scandinavian trends, they adapt to modernity by creating furniture made of oak wood, a sturdy and cheap material, hearty and shiny, easily compatible with the tastes and budgets of a large number of buyers.