Designing the Ultimate User-Friendly Kitchen

Designing the Ultimate User-Friendly Kitchen

In an unprecedented partnership between academia and industry, more than 100 RISD students in Architecture, Interior Architecture and Industrial Design set out to challenge 50-year-old assumptions about residential kitchens, an everyday example of poor design.

Spurred by the knowledge that routine kitchen tasks force people to bend, stoop, reach and lift—repeatedly compensating for weak design in uncomfortable ways—the team began with research. Making a succession of dinners together in typical kitchens, they used careful time/motion studies to document how inefficiencies in kitchen design require more than 400 discrete steps to make a simple dinner. Ultimately, the goal was to redesign the kitchen environment and help as many potential users as possible function independently—from the young to the old.

During the course of their research, students literally deconstructed existing elements of the kitchen, debunking the myth of the kitchen triangle as they blew apart stoves, refrigerators and dishwashers. They tested existing standards for work heights and reach, researching human factors, demographics and trends. Through their ergonomic studies, they developed the parameters of a key concept they called the “comfort zone”—the area within easy reach for each individual.

A series of studios generated thousands of innovative blue-sky ideas: a utility mouse, continuous wet surfaces, pop-up dishwashers, grey water irrigation systems, countertop waste channels, toe-kick suction, electronic consumption tracking, built-in retractable appliance cords, misting bays, steaming bays, retractable burners and more. In the end, the team conceived of its Universal Kitchen as a “kit of parts,” with interchangeable modular components for refrigeration, cooking, water delivery and storage.

Over the course of the five-year project, various leaders in the industry provided support, including Kohl, Frigidaire and Maytag. After presenting two prototypes at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s 1998 show Unlimited by Design, RISD sold exclusive rights to its Universal Kitchen to Maytag Corporation.

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