Lecture Notes: someone's in the kitchen with Nikita | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Lecture Notes: someone's in the kitchen with Nikita 

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Today conveniences like double sinks and dishwashers are considered standard in most new homes. But in 1959 such amenities were still a novelty, at least until House Beautiful presented its Pace Setter House for that year. Readers already anxious about keeping up with the Joneses were confronted with a centrally located 30-by-12-foot kitchen outfitted with the aforementioned sinks and dishwasher as well as laundry facilities, two ovens, a "utility center," a disposal, a bar, and a mixing area. The house, which featured an avocado-and-teal color scheme, also had an indoor swimming pool with a glass roof; the magazine helpfully noted that the den could also serve as a guest room, office, or cabana.

"In retrospect it seems so ridiculous to have an indoor pool and a kitchen full of every convenience and make the claim that it was the typical American home," says Kristin Fedders, who came across the prototype while researching homes from that era as part of her graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. "The magazine pretends this is a house anyone could afford, when in fact it was not. They made spaces for everything, simply because they had everything, such as the flower-arranging sink. Even in a house like that I can't think flower arranging was an overwhelming priority."

With its built-in furniture, L-shaped design, open kitchen, and recurring motifs (which were repeated even on the model's bath towels), the 1959 Pace Setter was actually an elaborate version of Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian home--a more affordable ranch house he originally designed in 1938.

Wright was enjoying a resurgence in popularity in the late 1950s as the only homegrown architect to challenge the achievement of the European modernists who came to this country after the war. His patriotic ideology was repeated and magnified in the pages of House Beautiful. "He had a whole body of rhetoric to accompany and explain the house and incorporate it into American culture," says Fedders, who's the assistant curator of art at the Union League Club. "He had forged forward even in decades when he was more or less ignored by the American architectural establishment. That sort of pioneering spirit was very appealing to people. He also talked a lot about how great it was to be an American, and you can never overestimate the importance of Americanness at the time."

It was also the height of the cold war and the year that Vice President Richard Nixon made a trip to Moscow to meet with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. The two exchanged political rhetoric in an impromptu debate while standing in a model of a well-appointed kitchen at the 1959 American National Exhibition. During the "kitchen debate" the two leaders couched an argument over political systems in a discussion about household appliances.

"This is our newest model," said Nixon. "This is the kind which is built in thousands of units for direct installation into the houses....Any steelworker could buy this house."

"You think the Russian people will be dumbfounded to see these things, but the fact is that newly built Russian houses have all this equipment right now," Khrushchev replied. "Moreover, all you have to do to get a house is to be born in the Soviet Union....Yet you say we are slaves to communism."

"We hope to show our diversity and our right to choose," said Nixon. "We do not wish to have decisions made at the top by government officials. We must trust the people and let them make their own choice."

The debate was considered a success for Nixon. "It seemed like they were talking about Mixmasters, but they were really talking about bombs," says Fedders. "At the time a lot of people felt left behind in the space and arms races, but we certainly had an edge in style of living and domestic comfort and appliances."

Fedders, whose vintage Lakeview home has a pint-size kitchen and few amenities, will give a slide presentation entitled "Conservatism, Consumerism, Cold War, Kitchens, and Khrushchev: The House Beautiful Pace Setter House for 1959" Thursday at the Graham Foundation, 4 W. Burton Place. There's a reception at 6; the talk begins at 6:30. Admission is $5. Call 312-443-3949.

--Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kristin Fedders photo by Nathan Mandell; unnamed photo by AP-Wide World Photos.

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