How someone who didn’t cook shaped the way your kitchen works


You might not have heard of Lillian Gilbreth, but your cooking might owe a lot to this pioneering woman. She was not a chef or even a talented home cook. Rather, Gilbreth was an industrial psychologist and engineer whose revolutionary work helped make kitchens more efficient.

Gilbreth worked with her husband, Frank B. Gilbreth, and together they invented the practice known as motion study. The duo were pioneers in using and reviewing short films “to watch how industrial processes and office tasks were done, breaking them down into component parts…to determine how to make a job faster and less taxing.”

Even though she wrote or co-wrote many of her husband’s books, Gilbreth often didn’t take any credit because the male executives with whom they contracted wanted to deal exclusively with Frank. Following her husband’s death, however, Gilbreth had to find a way into these decision makers’ offices. That path was through the kitchen, which was seen as a suitable place for a woman.

The irony of the situation was that Gilbreth didn’t do much cooking. As she explained to a group of businesswomen in 1930, “We considered our time too valuable to be devoted to actual labor in the home. We were executives.” Despite this, Gilbreth designed an efficiency kitchenette that found its way into many apartments. The design minimized the number of steps someone had to take to mix a cake, put it in the oven, and clean up the resulting mess.

The next time you consider the “work triangle” or step into your L-, U-, or C-shaped kitchen, you might want to give a nod to Lillian Gilbreth, whose ideas have influenced kitchen designers for the past 80 years.

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