K+BB Collective | The Designers' Corner

Feb 29 2016

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Revisiting the Kitchen Debate

IMG_1437                             The American National Exhibition in Moscow

This past weekend I had the opportunity to preview Make-Believe America, a new exhibit at the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA). The exhibit explored U.S. cultural exhibitions following the Cold War and how design was used to rebuild international relationships.

It’s been ages since my last history class, and I honestly didn’t even remember that the U.S. went to any effort to get along with the Soviet Union. Turns out we did quite a lot – including showing off to the Russian public.

IMG_1433New York Times Magazine article on the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959

It started with an official trade show where different countries would display primarily cultural items to explain more about their own societies. The American pavilions showed off its architectural designers, like Herbert Bayer, Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson and R. Buckminster Fuller, with complex exterior structures. Inside was everything from a moon rock from the first moon landing to Babe Ruth’s baseball jersey.

Of course, the most interesting part for me was the kitchen displays. As all of these exhibits happened in the mid-century time period (1955-1975), there’s not too much to brag about compared to today. But the Russians – who were used to having no choice in what color refrigerator or dishwasher or whether they wanted laminate counters or stone – were awed by the choices Americans had and that they could afford them in the first place.

IMG_1438  A domestic appliances section in the American Exhibit

My favorite display talked about the “Great Kitchen Debate,” when Vice President Richard Nixon and Premier Khrushchev toured the U.S. exhibit in Moscow together. The model home in the exhibit was dubbed “Splitnik” because it was split down the middle to allow visitors to walk through (talk about underlying spite). Tensions had already been rising between the two when this exchange happened:

Nixon: American houses last for more than 20 years, but, even so, after 20 years, many Americans want a new house or a new kitchen. Their kitchen is obsolete by that time. The American system is designed to take advantage of new inventions and new techniques.

Khrushchev: This theory does not hold water. Some things never get out of date – houses, for instance, and furniture, furnishings – perhaps – but not houses. I have read much about America and American houses, and I do not think that this is exhibited and what you say is strictly accurate.

Nixon: You can learn from us, and we can learn from you. There must be a free exchange. Let the people choose the kind of house, the kind of soup, the kind of ideas that they want.

Khrushchev obviously need a remodel.

IMG_1436            Nixon and Khruschev in the kitchen exhibit

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