I want to start by apologising to Katy because she has just renovated her kitchen. If you have recently renovated your kitchen too, just close this window and move on to something else. You won’t like it.
As you know, I am researching my next book, and it also draws on the lost wisdom of the early-twentieth century. I am currently reading a book written by Christine Isobel McGaffey Frederick (1883 – 1970) . She wrote it during an exciting time of technological flourishing, with electric power, radio and gramophones as well as medical advances like the tuberculosis vaccine that promised to make life infinitely better. She had become interested in Taylorism, now known as the earliest form of scientific management, a management theory that focuses on increasing productivity by analysing workflows to determine areas of inefficiency that could be reworked to save time and money. Coincidentally, many of these also improved safety and over time became a basic ergonomic process.
In case you don’t know, Ergonomics, sometimes called Human Factors, is the science of arranging spaces, products and systems to fit people. Not just workplaces, but things like car dashboards and wheeled suitcases too.
What I LOVE about this book, is that Mrs Frederick plainly says that housework sucks, so you might as well get it over and done with as quickly and efficiently as possible so that you can do more fun things a lot sooner. You probably already know that housework is not my favourite thing, so much so that I had to make a plan to deal with it, and still don’t get it “right”. So refreshing to read that 100 years ago women hated it too, and I feel that I no longer need to berate myself for not caring more about it.
Though of course, she had it a lot harder than me, so it’s no wonder that she leapt on the techniques of scientific management for the home. During the book, she compares the difference between efficient, ergonomic, clean, well-lit and ventilated factory kitchens and her kitchen; constructed by thoughtless builders who have probably never used one and is, therefore (by comparison) utterly inadequate in almost every conceivable way.
Which I find interesting.
Why do we oppose the introduction of science into our homes? Are we so very well indoctrinated into the notion that the domestic sphere is a place of refuge that must remain untouched by the cares of the outside world to somehow stay pure? Is it that our working lives are outside and therefore what happens inside is not work and doesn’t require the same level of concern? Or perhaps that we still think that somehow women (in particular) are inherently suited to housework? That housework is such a pure and loving thing that no harm is possible?
Many of us learned to clean by either observing our mothers or making it up as we go along. Consequently, we often clean room by room, lugging our equipment with us as we go, darting back and forwards putting things away in other rooms. It would be so much more efficient and quicker to do all the same tasks across the house; put things away, then dust, then vacuum and so on. Not that I imagine many of us do the whole place every day, but you could still divide the tasks up across the week in whatever way makes sense to you, the same way as you do the rooms.
And if you are still a bit unsure about home ergonomics, thank about nurses. They make dozens of beds every day. They require and use tools and processes that enable them to undertake the task with the minimum of physical risk to themselves.
Anyway, back to the kitchen.
The home ergonomics benefits I am about to show you are not solely the province of the kitchen, you can use the same workflow approach for any room in your house, it’s just that kitchens make a comprehensive demonstration.
If you think about your kitchen workflow, you will see that it generally follows a path from meal preparation, through to cooking and serving, and after eating finishes with clean up. Thus, it is more efficient to layout your kitchen in a “circle” that you physically follow for each meal, rather than trotting backwards and forwards across the room to get all your bits and pieces together. Your circuit should be clockwise if you are right-handed, and anti-clockwise if you are a lefty. You could call these workstations.
Your food preparation will be quicker (and easier) if all your food and preparation tools like knives, mixing bowls, and food processors live in this workstation. Like a factory or restaurant, your commonly used items should all be within easy reach so that you don’t have to bend or reach excessively to retrieve them.
Once you have prepared all your dishes, you can move into the cooking workstation where all your pots, pans and tools are. When you have finished cooking, you advance to the serving station and get the food to the table.
On the way back from the table you continue your circuit with the cleanup zone where you scrape and wash your dishes, then put them away.
Not even washing the dishes escapes Frederick’s eagle eye. She describes her original process as picking up a dish with her left hand, washing it with her right, and then reaching across her body with her left hand to place the dish in the drainer located to her right. She says she saved 15 minutes on a wash of 80 pieces by changing her process, foremost amongst which was swapping her drainer to the left so that she could pick up a dish with her left hand, wash it with her right and then put it on the drainer with her left. Incorporating this into your circuit means that your dish storage will be in the serving station, between the cooking and clean up workstations. You could even do the clean-up anti-clockwise to ensure that everything is tidied up and put away.
Naturally, all these workstations need to be at the appropriately sound height for you, and Frederick recommends around waist height. She suggests the kitchen should be a small room (to minimise steps) with a door you can shut when the clean up is complete. It should be well-lit, decorated in a light colour that enhances light, with appropriate task lighting to ensure that you are never working in your shadow. The room should be well ventilated, as well as quick and easy to clean.
It turns out that my kitchen is a “bad” kitchen, and the fact that I have a cupboard in the way of draining my dishes on the left of my sink is fast becoming an object of obsession. In a way, that’s fortunate for me because I can renovate it, but at the same time, it’s unfortunate because that renovation is some time off. In the meantime, I am going to have a long hard look at my kitchen as it stands and see what I interim steps I can take to improve my workflow.
How do you feel about your kitchen now? Let me know in the comments below what you might do to improve your kitchen process.
 Frederick, Christine. 1914. The New Housekeeping: Efficiency Studies in Home Management. Garden City: Doubleday, Page & Company.