Home Ergonomics

Designer Bill Stumpf’s toothsome dive into Julia Child’s famous home kitchen

Written by: Aileen Kwun

Artwork: From the Collections of The Henry Ford

Julia Child working at her kitchen sink, 1977. THF286973

“The kitchen proper was our major concern, because, to us, it is the beating heart and social center of the household,” chef, television star, and gourmand Julia Child once told Architectural Digest. “We intended to make it both practical and beautiful, a working laboratory as well as a living and dining room.”

For a certain generation of Americans, Julia Child was not only a household name, but a teacher and cultural ambassador for a kind of culinary art de vivre: an ambitious, insouciant, and decidedly roll-up-your sleeves attitude that extended from the butcher’s block to the dinner table.

Pegboard wall in Julia’s kitchen, 1977. THF286965
Pegboard wall with marker detail, 1977. THF286967

Upon moving into their Cambridge, Massachusetts, home in 1961, Julia and her husband, Paul, worked with architect Robert Woods Kennedy for minor structural changes to the 430-square-foot kitchen, which the couple famously customized to Julia’s uses—and her 6’3” stature. The kitchen was a workhorse, replete with two pantries, two refrigerators, thousands of gadgets and tools, and countless hours spent in joyful pursuit of her craft. For Julia, more was more. Her infamous array of pots, pans, and lids hung upon a massive, utilitarian pegboard display, each item bearing marker outlines to indicate its rightful place.

Bill Stumpf and Julia Child in her kitchen, 1977. THF286958

Bill Stumpf and Julia Child in her kitchen. (1977)

Bill Stumpf’s sketch of a wall in Julia’s kitchen, 1977. THF286955

Bill Stumpf’s ink and pencil sketches of the kitchen.

The idiosyncrasies of Child’s kitchen caught the attention of industrial designer and ergonomics pioneer Bill Stumpf. In 1977, he published a careful study of the space, and Julia’s manner of working in it, in the Walker Art Center’s Design Quarterly. Stumpf’s assessment came just one year after the release of his groundbreaking Ergon task chair for Herman Miller. The same human-centered approach he took to designing Ergon—and eventually Aeron with Don Chadwick—were at play in his take on the Childs’ kitchen.

Home Ergonomics

Poster from Design Quarterly 104: Julia’s Kitchen A Design Anatomy

He called the space “artless,” elaborating that it was an “ongoing experiment that expresses more evolution than innovation in form and substance.” He praised it for being “evolved through personal initiative, unblemished by commercial commitments, or by the American reverence for technology and over-consumption.” Stumpf found the kitchen “easily observed and described,” and productive: “Her kitchen expresses results as well as process. Julia Child not only can talk about her kitchen, in it she actually cooks truly good food.”

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Issue of Design Quarterly 104: Julia’s Kitchen A Design Anatomy

If the house is a “machine for living,” to follow the Corbusian analogy, Child’s home kitchen was surely the cockpit and the command center of that machine, well-greased and expertly equipped for not just cooking but entertaining and dining; teaching and experimenting; and in the later years of her career, filming and photographing. The gourmand’s batterie de cuisine was “enough to outfit two medium sized restaurant kitchens,” Stumpf surmised, and yet everything was arranged to follow the French principle of mise en place.

Design Quarterly issue 104, Julia’s Kitchen A Design Anatomy

“The harder the utensils are to see, the less you will use them,” Stumpf wrote, noting Julia’s method of displaying items to maximize visibility, rather than tidily tucking them away to be forgotten in a drawer. Whole groups of tools, sorted and arranged by type, were placed near the appliances or workstations where they would be used the most—knives above the sink, and pots and pans within arm’s reach of the stove. Stumpf admired Child’s extensive collection of cookware, which he read not only as a sign of ebullient connoisseurship, but a continued investment in her own craft and an enthusiasm to impart it to others—all in an era when spending more time in the kitchen was not necessarily a popular notion.

Design Quarterly issue 104, Julia’s Kitchen A Design Anatomy

At the center of Julia’s kitchen was a sizable table where the Childs would work, dine, and host visitors. “The first impression is more social than culinary or technical,” Stumpf observed, noting the kitchen’s back door, through which a panoply of friends, guests, and students would enter, all but made the front door ornamental.

Her own dance about the kitchen, of course, was central to its layout and design. As her grand-nephew and biographer, Alex Prud’homme, put it: “Julia didn’t care about establishing the ‘golden triangle,’—a configuration allowing a cook to take as few steps as possible among the stove, refrigerator, and sink—declaring in typical fashion, ‘the more exercise the better.’ But she was adamant that she have as much ‘working and putting-down space as possible.’”

Design Quarterly issue 104, Julia’s Kitchen A Design Anatomy

Illuminating the space was a trio of ceiling spotlights, wall swivels, and strip lights, “so placed that the cook’s hands cast no shadows,” as a New York Times Magazine article detailed. And the kitchen telephone, made for multi-tasking across the substantial workspace, naturally boasted an extra-long cord. That frequently gabbed-upon receiver now lives, along with the entirety of the main kitchen space, in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, to which Child donated the room in 2001.

“It’s ironic to think of the postwar housewife and her family perhaps sitting down with TV dinners to watch Julia Child, but I think that’s the heart of it,” muses curator Juliet Kinchin, who organized Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010. “Julia was sharing a different way of being modern and reengaging with this idea of the sensual and sensory pleasures of working with food, really pioneering ideas of slow food, as well as nutritional approaches to food. She embodies that sense of pleasure in the whole process.”

Home Ergonomics

Reverse side of the poster from Design Quarterly 104: Julia’s Kitchen A Design Anatomy

Perhaps what most thrilled Stumpf was a chance to observe a master at work. “Julia’s kitchen is not a monument, but a place that reveals process and personal involvement, failure and success.” Utter catnip to a designer who was less interested in abstract form than in how actual people actually behave.

“This kitchen, like the classic farm kitchen, is friendly, open, and it is the core of the Childs’ household,” he wrote.

Julia Child in her kitchen, 1977. THF286977

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

-Julia Child

“It is apparent that the kitchen is a part of Julia and Paul’s life but not the whole of it. Our conversations quickly revealed broad interests and a sensitivity to current social and political concerns,” he continued. “Julia is quick to debunk any sense of loftiness or snobbery about food or her recognized position as one of America’s foremost culinary artists. Though she is known primarily for her expertise in things French, she and her kitchen are distinctively American.”

The kitchen project team, 1977.  THF286963

The Kitchen Project Team: Julia Child, Nicholas Polites, Dick Swift, Paul Child, Jean Beirise and Bill Stumpf, 1977. 

Julia may have extolled the virtues of fine French cuisine, but she was relatable to the end, reveling in small moments and epiphanies, and insisting that you can only ever know your onions—and yourself—through practice, experience, and a little joy. “The only real stumbling block,” she once said, “is fear of failure. In cooking, you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

Full issues of Design Quarterly, including Julia’s Kitchen, are available for download on the Walker Art Museum’s design blog The Gradient.