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Lillian Moller Gilbreth (1878-1972) – Architectural Review

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Reimagining both women’s household labour and the home environment, Gilbreth sought an efficient and body-centred kitchen

Illustration by Beth Rodway

Lillian Moller Gilbreth (1878-1972) was famous for being two seemingly mutually exclusive things at once. She was one of the most celebrated mothers and one of the most celebrated engineers in the 20th-century United States. That one self-effacing woman could conquer the cut-and-thrust world of industry while bringing up a dozen children made her the subject of endless public fascination. Her career didn’t suffer either. It spanned six decades, four after the death of her husband and partner, Frank Bunker Gilbreth.

Unlike many professional women of her era, Gilbreth has never been forgotten. Her impact on human environments and design, however, is not much discussed. An exception was Sigfried Giedion who, in Mechanization Takes Command (1948), cited Gilbreth as a founder of industrial psychology and a key figure in modernising kitchens. Yet when Giedion was writing, the work she was most proud of – designing rehabilitation facilities for the disabled – had only just begun.

Credit: Purdue University Libraries

Although Gilbreth regularly headlined at national conferences, served on presidential commissions and featured in the media, she was modest to a fault. Her lifelong pursuit was to memorialise Frank, posthumously keeping the spotlight firmly fixed on him. And then there was the Hollywood effect. Two Gilbreth children would chronicle their experiences of growing up efficiently in bestselling memoirs, Cheaper by the Dozen (1948) and Belles on their Toes (1950), both made and remade into popular films.

The comedy stemmed from the Gilbreths’ application of scientific management to the chaos of large family life and the frequent gaps between rationality and reality. Nothing amused the children more than their mother’s emergence as a kitchen expert, given she didn’t cook at home. In fact, there were many domestic tasks she didn’t do. While played for laughs, Gilbreth’s simplified version of homemaking reflected her belief that human work, especially women’s work, should be valued and not wasted. For women who did cook, a rational kitchen prevented wasted time and energy. In later rehabilitation studies, the rational kitchen became positively enabling, an assistive support for the disabled and elderly, to allow them to remain productive and independent.

‘Gilbreth’s simplified version of homemaking reflected her belief that human work should be valued – and not wasted’ 

Gilbreth’s career began after marrying Frank in 1904. A successful building contractor, Frank published important efficiency studies of bricklaying and concrete construction, and soon moved into industrial consultancy full-time. Together, they worked on jobs and on publications, refining their own brand of scientific management. Unlike Taylorism, which focused on speeding up work, the Gilbreth system focused on motion and on showing workers a less tiring way to do tasks: the ‘one best way’. As Giedion noted, this required they invent visual and analytical tools for capturing and teaching skills. Cyclegraphs, micromotion films, process and SIMO charts were born. They patented a motion notation system, ‘Therbligs’ (Gilbreth backwards).

As the system depended on worker cooperation, Frank encouraged Gilbreth to study the emergent field of experimental psychology. She obtained a doctorate in the subject at Brown and then introduced the idea of the ‘human element’ or ‘factor’ into the Gilbreth system. The proposal that the worker be viewed as ‘a personality’ not an economic unit underlay her book, The Psychology of Management (1914), now recognised as a foundational text of industrial psychology. She wrote: ‘The emphasis in successful management lies on the man not on the work; that efficiency is best secured by … modifying the equipment, materials and methods to make the most of the man.’

In Fatigue Study: The Elimination of Humanity’s Greatest Unnecessary Waste, 1916, the Gilbreths studied the moving of a seven-pound weight and the resultant fatigue of different motions

Although the Gilbreths’ innovations proved controversial, the late 1910s and early 1920s were intensely productive for them. Notably, they conducted pioneering studies of disabled veterans. In 1924, Frank died, leaving Gilbreth with 11 surviving children to put through college. She tried to continue Gilbreth Inc on her own, but as contracts dried up, she shifted focus. Capitalising on media interest in her family life – a female engineer with a plethora of children was ‘good copy’ – she reinvented herself as a domestic authority, publishing The Home-Maker and Her Job in 1927.

We might think the home terrain was well covered, particularly by Christine Frederick, whose The New Housekeeping (1913) influentially applied scientific management principles to domestic life. But as a co?inventor of motion study, Gilbreth’s interventions were regarded as more credible and rigorous, and she did more to secure acceptance for home engineering among North American university researchers, philanthropic funders and government officials.

Lights attached to users’ wrists made visible the time and effort required in the preparation from scratch of a goulash dinner

Credit:Courtesy of George Eastman Museum

The difference is evident in Gilbreth’s ‘Kitchen Practical’ designed for the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company in 1929. Whereas Frederick sought to save steps by routing workflow linearly and eliminating cross traffic, Gilbreth explored ‘circular routing’, compressing the plan and using a wheeled table to bring key equipment and work surfaces as close to the homemakeras possible. In her diagram, the homemaker can easily reach most of the equipment needed for simplified coffee cake making, minimising motions by half and steps by five-sixths.

Gilbreth’s plan was much praised, but she did not demonstrate the ‘work triangle’ principle as is often claimed. This principle, a staple of postwar domestic planning, dictated that kitchens be arranged around three key pieces of equipment – fridge, sink and stove – in a triangular formation a total of 21 feet, 6 inches apart. It put equipment rather than bodies at the centre of planning, which Gilbreth did not do. She believed kitchen equipment should be ‘made-to-measure’, tailored around the homemaker’s height and ‘work curve’, shoulder and elbow reaches. She even taught visitors to take their measurements to hack kitchens back home, raising sinks on blocks, sawing off kitchen-cabinet legs and using moveable furnishings. As this flexible approach was at odds with commercial manufacturers’ drive to standardise, the ever conciliatory Gilbreth advised them to produce kitchen equipment at different heights: low, medium and high.

In a plan from New York Herald Tribune Institute Presents Four Model Kitchens, 1930, a service table on wheels creates a circular work space

Credit:Purdue University Libraries

Gilbreth’s re-envisioning of women’s household labour went beyond kitchen planning. She had no patience with women wearing themselves out to meet impossible standards of cleanliness and maintained that if tasks that could be ‘handed over’ to outside help or businesses, they should be. Useless chores like ironing sheets should be eliminated altogether; any remaining should be simplified and done cooperatively by all family members including the husband according to aptitude. The time and energy saved would allow the homemaker time for self-cultivation or even a career.

Gilbreth’s consistent belief in the human need to work meant she was increasingly concerned by what happened when people were unable to do so due to age or infirmity. During the war, she worked on rehabilitation projects for the US Navy, and collaborated on a 1944 book Normal Lives for the Disabled. After the war, she turned to disabled homemakers, who had been ignored in vocational rehabilitation. Gilbreth believed this was a mistake: paid or not, homemaking was productive work without which the well-being of the household, community and nation would suffer.

A table on wheels, with a cut-away work surface, is easily moved around ‘The Kitchen Practical’ at the Women’s Exposition, 1929

Credit:Purdue University Libraries

Over the next three decades, Gilbreth developed the idea of homemaker rehabilitation through two major projects. The first was ‘Heart Kitchen’, designed for the New York Heart Association in 1948. Here, efficient body-centred planning and moveable furnishings became the means to spare patients dangerous exertion. The kitchen was presented as a kind of prosthetic device, no doubt why it was so enthusiastically received in rehabilitation, medical and therapy circles. Significantly, it would be reinstalled at the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in New York, placing her work at the centre of the emerging civilian rehabilitation field.

The therapeutic potential of such spaces was investigated further in an ambitious federally funded study undertaken at the University of Connecticut between 1955 and 1960, for which Gilbreth, entering her eighties, served as chief consultant. The main goal was to establish a process by which environments could be adjusted to suit the individual homemaker and their disability. This required a major shift in the Gilbreth philosophy; ‘the one best way’ could not be sustained when faced with a full spectrum of users of varied abilities.

The Gilbreths’ efficient family life was documented in Cheaper by the Dozen written in 1948 and remade as popular films

Credit:Everett Collection Inc / Alamy

Rather than singular, ‘best’ solutions, flexibility, adaptability and experimentation prevailed, along with Gilbreth’s rough-and-ready approach to customisation. The book which summed up the study’s findings, Homemaking for the Handicapped (1966), featured photo after photo of disabled homemakers doing tasks with the aid of home-made devices, from reach extenders to stable flat-bottomed mixing bowls, and of wheelchair users comfortably performing domestic jobs in height-adjusted work spaces. Homemakers were shown creatively misusing standard elements of their domestic environment, such as a one-armed person opening a bottle cap in a door hinge.

Of course, these projects were not without problems. Critical disability scholars now challenge the underlying assumption that productivity and normalcy should be goals for people with disabilities. Gilbreth arouses controversy in other ways too, especially when assessing her legacy for women. She was undoubtedly dedicated to advancing women’s status and championed their right to careers. Yet these more ambitious aims were often lost in translation. Second-wave feminists read female body-centred kitchen plans as straightforward attempts to keep women at home, literally enclosing them in cabinets and appliances. Simplification charts of cake and meatloaf making were seen as the ultimate in triviality, totally inadequate to bring down the patriarchy.

In Handicapped Homemakers, 1966, a wheelchair user deploys a home-made reach extender

Credit:Purdue University Libraries

Today there is room for a more generous assessment of Gilbreth’s work. Her practice may not have been feminist per se, but it set out to value normally invisible female bodies, labour and time. Her close scrutiny of female bodies drew attention to how life cycles, ageing and disability impacted home environments when such concerns were barely a blip on the radar of architectural modernism. Her rehabilitation work opened up design to bodies, needs and routines of all users of all abilities, and was key to the rise of user-centred and inclusive design.

Her long-term impact on kitchens is less clear-cut. Though commercial manufacturers often deployed energy-saving rhetoric in advertising, Gilbreth never convinced them to produce equipment in small, medium and tall sizes. Quite the opposite. Despite consistently being deemed too high for average-sized women to work comfortably, the uniform 36-inch-high (90cm) countertop prevails in fitted kitchens across the US. As writer Rachel Zandt eloquently puts it, women today are ‘misfits’ in their own kitchens, even though statistically they still do a disproportionate amount of work in them. Adaptable body-centred kitchens remain just out of reach.

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