Making a Case for Design Research

I first learned about the Universal Kitchen some years ago on a visit to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). A group of students there from industrial design, architecture, and interior architecture, along with their faculty collaborators and professional advisors, were involved in a project that began in 1993. Eventually more than 100 students would add to the research during the five years they studied the next generation of kitchens. Each new class built on the findings of those who went before.

The students cooked meals together in standard American kitchens which were designed on the basis of post-WWII ergonomic research which used the measurements of young men to determine counter heights and shelving as well as the positioning of appliances. They also used time-motion studies to document how long it took to complete a task, and human factors observations of how far they needed to reach for an essential ingredient or a key utensil. In their search for the number of movements needed to complete everyday tasks, the students found that it takes more than 400 steps to make a simple meal.

What these forensic design students and their industry sponsors—Kohl, Frigidaire, and Maytag among them—hoped to find was a better kitchen design that cut back on useless movement and served a broad range of the population, from children to grandparents, and those in between. They came up with many suggestions which, at the time were called “blue-sky” but now we call “good design.” They asked, for instance, what if our kitchens had pop-up dishwashers and devices that track electric-power consumption.

At the end of the project the exclusive rights to the Universal Kitchen were sold by RISD to Maytag. Though the prototype ended up at the Cooper-Hewitt’s 1998 show Unlimited by Design and it was featured in this year’s PBS series Freedom Machines it seems to have stalled at Maytag. But when architect Jane Langmuir, who was a RISD faculty advisor on the project, got the commission to design John Hockenberry’s kitchen, she practiced what she learned with her students some years ago. In designing a kitchen for a young family with a dad who just happens to be in a wheelchair, and whose curious kids surround him as he prepares their favorite meals, she might have come up with a prototype for the new family-centered kitchens. As Americans cope with obesity issues, many kitchen designers suggest that parents involve children in cooking, teaching them the value of fresh and healthy foods. The variable surfaces in the Hockenberry kitchen, for instance, would work well for other families as well.

On a recent visit to RISD, faculty and students from many disciplines talked about the importance of research in design schools. I reminded them of the Universal Kitchen project and its newest manifestation in the Hockenberry home. It was clear to all of us that well-designed, focused, humane research can have a lasting effect on shaping our physical environments.

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