If you are looking for the ironies of design, start with the kitchen counter (platform). Consider this: The kitchen is where the most demanding and skilled work in the house takes place. Yet it is generally the smallest (barring the bathroom) and least thoughtfully designed space in the modern Indian home. Though it is the space where at least one person (usually a woman) spends hours working hard, it is often the room with the worst light, ventilation and view. It’s not surprising, then, that the kitchen counter remains inadequately studied by designers.
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Why we have it
There are some obvious advantages to the common stand-up kitchen counter compared with the older way of cooking while sitting. If you are standing, you can move quickly from washing to cutting to cooking. It also helps in case of the smallest of fires—you can move out of harm’s way before things get dangerous. But the stand-up platform comes with its own problems. Interestingly, though the single-level kitchen counter is an American innovation, many women in the West too have problems with it.
Leslie Land, an American food and design writer, believes the single-height counter is a bad idea because its height has been fixed (at 36 inches in the US) with reference only to the kitchen sink. This height is inappropriate for many other activities in American cooking. In an insightful essay called “Counterintuitive: How the Marketing of Modernism Hijacked the Kitchen Stove” (in From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies, edited by Avakian and Haber), she describes how the single-height counter was sold to women in the 1930s largely on the basis of its cutting-edge modernist style. The standardization, Land says, also benefited the multi-billion dollar kitchen furniture industry. The costs of style and standardization were borne by the women’s bodies, which (and this was a big secret, of course) come in different heights. Moreover, ovens (available at different heights till the 1920s) were all pushed under the counter after the 1930s, making women bend often and uncomfortably. And all this in the name of efficiency. Tough luck, baby: Business and style come first.
A study conducted in Ludhiana by scientists from Punjab Agricultural University was published in the Journal of Human Ecology in 2008. P. Sandhu and colleagues reported that one-fourth of women felt pain after working long hours at the counter. More significantly, many women across height groups reported stress in the legs from a counter too high for kneading and cooking. They also cited other research which concluded that most women suffer shoulder pain when counters are too high ; and back pain when they are too low. It is also known that standing for long hours overburdens the heart.
Of course, many millions of women from different classes who spend 3-4 hours in the kitchen every day don’t need all this research. They already know its conclusions from experience. They also know a few more things. For instance, that everyone does not like to face a wall while working. The kitchen counter is usually fixed to a wall, also a great way to keep the woman out of any conversation, in the kitchen or elsewhere.
Unfortunately, I don’t know of much meaningful innovation in this regard in India. Counter heights are generally a hit-and-miss affair. Often, even basic toe space under lower cabinet shutters is absent, adding to postural problems. Research is scattered and appears not to have affected design and construction practices significantly.
The only memorable solution I have come across has been the work of an architect in Nagpur, Ashok Joshi. From what I remember of a presentation he made in the 1990s in Mumbai, Joshi had designed a very different kitchen counter—you sat astride it for all the preparatory work. It apparently worked for his wife, who had orthopaedic problems that made continuous standing difficult.
Women and families themselves improvise, of course. A dining table in the kitchen is a great way for the person cooking to cut and clean sitting in a chair, chatting with guests or family members. The thin silver lining is that a small number of men are slowly moving from the 18th century into the 21st. While many sulk when the salt is low, that minority is willing to cook. Sharing counter pain is perhaps one solution till we get better at design.
The author is a Goa-based architect and writer. Write to him at email@example.com