Sam Chermayeff Office’s oven-size microwaves and wheeled kitchens challenge social norms and design standards

Free the Kitchen

Hoping for radical social change through objects often disappoints, as it always turns out to matter more who uses them. Nevertheless, some designs become strongly associated with desires for more freedom, flexibility, or fun, and while it would be naive to imagine that they change social relations all by themselves—just by being there—they can help.

kitchen with stainless steel appliances
Rendered in crisp stainless steel, appliances and islands come together to form striking compositions (Oliver Helbig)

Architect Sam Chermayeff’s “free kitchens” reflect this optimism well. His designs are free in that everything from sinks to ranges is liberated from walls. Many elements have castor feet and can be moved, though practicality dictates they stay close to one another like a huddle of penguins. “I mean, l didn’t invent the kitchen island,” Chermayeff joked, though even his most fixed designs, which are islands, take unusual forms. They juxtapose kitchen components in ways that suggest we have been neglecting even this familiar typology, whose original shock in bringing food preparation out of the closed kitchen and onto a kind of domestic stage has been so normalized that it’s largely forgotten (though whose labor is displayed and whose remains hidden has not changed as much).

kitchen appliances that are oversized and have long table legs
Appliances become exaggerated yet functional kitchen creatures in Chermayeff’s designs (Oliver Helbig)

Chermayeff’s kitchens break up into archipelagos that reflect their owners’ desires more than standards of industrial production. His designs speak the language of industry and its materials, evoking an image of mass customization that has been a dream of functionalism for a long time. Walk through the lofts in Meyer-Grohbrügge & Chermayeff’s apartment building on Kurfurstenstrasse in Berlin and you’ll feel the variations as a personality barometer. The rare apartments in the building that do conform to the norm of linear kitchens attached to the walls stand out like a kid with crossed arms in the schoolyard. They don’t want to play the game.

kitchen appliances from Miele and Kohler by Chermayeff
While the islands and storage units may be custom, Chermayeff incorporates industry-leading appliances from brands like Miele and Kohler (Oliver Helbig)

In this kitchen system, spherical protrusions acts as functional handles as well as a sculptural design (Oliver Helbig)

Chermayeff’s free kitchens continue to develop, and recent commissions for kitchens in restrained plans may test the strength of the concept’s attachment to the loft. Everything in a loft is supposed to be free. Ideally, things can always be picked up and moved around as life changes. But in the kitchen, the promise of open loft living crashes into the stubbornly inflexible electric, gas, plumbing, and ventilation conduits that sit in our homes.

kitchen counter and sink
For a kitchen in Berlin, the counter and sink use a column as the basis for an extended kitchen island (Oliver Helbig)

So, Chermayeff is also thinking about bathrooms, probably the most rigid interface between the home and urban infrastructure. How free can you be on the toilet?