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Martha Rosler at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

One of the most common assumptions about the kitchen is that it is a woman’s space. With this in mind, The Main Dish looks at how modern and contemporary kitchenware reflects attributes of the model homemaker. Like the objects that adorn our kitchen countertops and dinner tables, the homemaker is expected to offer a pleasing appearance and handle tasks with ease, all while keeping pace with ever-changing fashions. Drawn largely from the Museum’s notable collection of modern and contemporary design, this exhibition encourages visitors to ask questions about the seemingly inventive and useful features of everyday household items.

Objects in this exhibition—including shiny teapots, ergonomic utensils, food containers, colorful table settings, and white stackable dishes—are arranged according to five characteristics of an ideal housewife: Polished, Efficient, Organized/Contained, Decorative/Entertaining, and Clean/Tidy. Together they evoke an image of a white, middle-class married woman content in her stylish and decidedly modern kitchen. Conversely, they hint at the oppressive and exclusionary nature of this seemingly idyllic vision, and demonstrate how kitchenware design can reinforce the objectification of the homemaker.

Also included in the exhibition is Martha Rosler’s 1975 feminist video Semiotics of the Kitchen, which explores the association between women and kitchen objects. Speaking directly into the camera, Rosler performs a “kitchen alphabet” (apron, bowl, chopper, dish) that alternates between aggravation and rage. She ends the video by slashing the letter z through the area above her modest workspace. As with the object groupings in the exhibition, Rosler’s performance provokes us to consider the potentially frustrating and confined nature of kitchen labor that beautifully designed objects cannot necessarily ameliorate.

Erica L. Warren, Curatorial Fellow in European Decorative Arts

Collab Gallery, first floor, Perelman Building