Universal Cooking: Setting Up the Kitchen

Though it is not overtly flashy, Jane Langmuir’s universal-design kitchen for John and Alison Hockenberry is the culmination of 20 years work. She began looking at universal design in the 1980s and, for five years in the 90s, directed Rhode Island School of Design’s Universal Kitchen project, which was featured at the Cooper Hewitt’s 1998 show Unlimited By Design. The Hockenberry kitchen (done in collaboration with Christian Foster and Ken Heskestad) was a unique opportunity to use decades of research and conceptual thinking on a real project. Recently Metropolis executive editor Martin C. Pedersen called Langmuir at her home in Providence, R.I., to talk about the kitchen, the perils of selling universal design, and the difficulties executing it.

There’s a great deal of resistance to the idea of universal design. Why?
I feel like I’ve spent the last fifteen years trying to soften the concept so it becomes more appealing. I think the resistance comes from the personal sense of loss that we all experience when we have to give up something, when we think we’re modifying our lives to compensate for diminished capacities.

I wonder if denial isn’t at work. Because who really wants to face the fact that they’re going to get old?
That’s right. When we were doing the universal kitchen project, we did a lot of research. I remember this rather intrepid 80-year-old woman was living in a small apartment that had a typical U-shaped kitchen. She would proudly demonstrate how she cooked her meals and made excuses for the fact that she couldn’t reach things. But she said, “That’s not a problem, because I have a step-stool in my closet,” and she’d pull that out. So she defended how she functioned by saying she “could do it.” When we replayed the videotape for her, she was astounded by what she had to do to complete what should have been very simple tasks. It became humorous after the fact, but she no longer was denying it. “Oh my God,” she said, “this is ridiculous.”

I think John [Hockenberry, who is confined to a wheelchair] had a similar experience. He’d always considered problems in the kitchen as part of the deal. To admit that he needed help was a huge step.
Huge. He’d made so many other concessions in his life. To make another one meant accepting something he never wanted to accept anyway. All that being said, the day that I met him in his office, he said, “I’ve finally recognized that I can make things better. This is a turning point for me.”

When you started on the kitchen, what were your initial steps?
The first steps were to break down all of the partitions that were causing this lack of accessibility. So we had to address the circulation from the dining room into the kitchen, from the playroom into the kitchen. Once we looked at that, we had to think about how the flow of kids and the peripherals were going to operate in a secure area where John could work efficiently.

Prior to design, did you observe the way John operated in the old kitchen?
Yes. I visited a couple of times. I didn’t videotape him, but we had a lunch at his kitchen table and I watched him move around. It was an impossible situation. There was no storage, no work surface. Before we tore down walls, the kitchen was something like 13 by 15 feet, but it was not all open space. There was about 10 by 11 feet of open space, where they had a big round table, but it was difficult to get into the kitchen, and in and out of the elevator.

Was he also like that older woman in your research? Did he take pride in being able to maneuver in tight spaces, or did he realize when you were watching that he was working harder than he had to?
I don’t think he realized it, initially. We actually weren’t having the dialogue about, “Oh, this could be better…” This goes back to the problem of selling universal design. We are so coded by our experiences—and throughout our lives the kitchen has been the heart of our home. We’re used to the inefficiencies of the standard components—the 36” counter height, the big clunky refrigerator, the range with the oven door that drops down in your lap. John had learned to cope with all those things. Intellectually he knew the limitations, because he’d seen what was possible, but in many ways you don’t know how it can be better until you have that experience.

Given your history in universal design, this must have been the ultimate project, where you had a client willing to apply years of ideas into one project.
It was great. John and Alison were very supportive. John’s very invested in what goes on. He was there right on top of things, questioning and involved. That’s hugely valuable to the design process. At the same time, there were huge frustrations. We’re still in a marketplace where not everything is available to solve all the problems that you’d like solved. So you invent; you’re always trying to come up with solutions that come close to making it really right.

How does your design process work? Do you imagine preparing a specific meal and ask, “What tasks would he complete to do that?”
Yes. But I have a little bit of a jump on that. I cook a lot. It’s a great hobby of mine, so I understand the kitchen. When we were doing our initial research on universal design, one of the first things we did was look at the preparation of a simple meal, analyzing what it takes, isolating all the repetitive tasks. It’s actually very complex. We looked at dysfunctional kitchens, like the one John had. Even in my kitchen, which isn’t as perfect as I’d like it to be, I probably take two to four hundred extra steps to prepare a meal, because I don’t have everything within reach. It’s exciting to think that you can prepare a meal sitting in a chair. In fact, John can pretty much do that.

So a lot of the ideas in John’s kitchen are also in yours?
I have drawer dishwashers, drawer refrigerators, and a pull out cart for trash. I don’t have the vertical pull-out storage, but I have a huge work island that’s lower than the standard kitchen height, because prepping requires a lower surface. When you’re using knives, you need the leverage of just a slight break in your arm.

The first thing you notice when you walk into John and Alison’s kitchen is the different work surface heights. What are the logistics of that as far as customizing, materials, and contractors?
It’s a problem. There is nothing in the kitchen that we could have pulled out of a catalogue, except for the appliances. So from that perspective it’s still more expensive to make those modifications. Even though we used a standard cabinet company, we had to customize the components. It was complicated working with the company and dealer, because he had to do a lot of negotiating with the company and ask for things that were not standard. Even though the company says that they will custom-design anything, it takes time and a lot of nudging and ends up being more expensive. So we had to rethink things, and compromise certain aspects that we would have liked more perfect.

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