Art historian finds meaning in mid-century model kitchens

Homes and the objects that fill them fascinate Juliana Rowan Barton, a doctoral student in the History of Art Department at Penn.

The daughter of architects and academics, she’s been thinking about domestic spaces all her life. Now in the fifth year of her Ph.D. studies, she is deep into writing her dissertation about mid-century model kitchens.

Barton is also in the midst of an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation fellowship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, focusing on modern and contemporary design. She co-curated a new exhibition at the museum, “Design in Revolution: A 1960s Odyssey.”

“I grew up thinking about the spaces we live in and the objects we live with, and how they shape ideas,” she says. “That is foundational for me.”

Barton grew up in Charlottesville, Va., and earned her undergraduate degree in art history and American studies at the University of Virginia, where her father was an architecture professor. He is currently a provost at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where her architect mother is also a lecturer.

“I was raised by architects who were raised by educators,” Barton says. “The emphasis was teaching and learning, and architecture and space.”

While in college and high school, Barton was a student docent at the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia.

“I started thinking about museums as spaces we can talk about or think about more broadly,” she says. “Giving tours showed me how impactful museums, and galleries, and domestic spaces can be in understanding objects that we live with.”

Her interest in kitchens was piqued when she was a curatorial intern in the architecture and design department at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, where she worked on the exhibition “Counter Space: Design in the Modern Kitchen.”


“That’s the moment that I realized I wanted to be a museum curator,” she says. “That’s when I realized these everyday objects that surround us are valuable for research.”

Graduate school was a logical next step. While working as the exhibitions coordinator at the Center for Architecture in New York City, Barton met Renata Holod, a history of art professor at Penn, then on the center’s advisory board.

“I thought, ‘I want to be like her,’” Barton says. “I want to know so much and talk with such authority about what I’m interested in.”

In addition to Penn history of art professors, Barton says she was attracted to the department’s synergy with PennDesign, which includes an architecture program. She often finds herself at the intersection of art, architecture, and design. Her master’s degree project was on Purist movement and Le Corbusier, a pioneer in modern architecture and design, who was also a painter. Barton completed her master’s degree at Penn in December.

“What really stands out about Juliana is how she combines great braininess and enormous enthusiasm and personality,” says David Brownlee, a history of art professor at Penn. “She’s a great lecturer and will make a great curator. She is a sophisticated and accomplished person in the field of interpreting and presenting architecture to the world.”

Barton’s focus on architecture and design is unexpected in art history.

“It’s thinking about culture through objects rather than other way around,” she says. “Domestic spaces and domestic objects and how we interact with both, that’s where I’m asking questions.”

Barton’s doctoral dissertation focuses on model kitchens in the period between 1933 and 1963. She described her research in a recent History of Art colloquium, “Built to Fit Your Wife: Imagining Populist Design in the American Kitchen at Mid-Century.”

“Exhibition kitchens are unique case studies, designed to model taste, or space, or movement, or relationship to country or family,” Barton says. “All of those behaviors are distilled in these designs.”


One aspect of her research is the Frankfurt Kitchen, which she learned about during her MoMA internship. The model was designed as part of the construction of affordable public housing with modern amenities in Germany and Russia in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Also central to Barton’s dissertation is the Cornell Kitchen, which was designed in the 1950s through extensive research on the average American housewife in a typical farmhouse. Counter and cabinet height, drawer design, appliance placement, and myriad other features were determined by the study of behavior and movement of women in the kitchen.

“My claim is that the rationalization of the space of the kitchen, and the bodies of women, represented not only a philosophy of kitchen labor, but also a populist ideology that worked to produce a modern femininity situated between democracy, consumption, and gender, which took shape in the United States in the 1940s and ’50s,” she said during the colloquium.

Funded by grants, last summer she conducted primary research for her dissertation. Barton says she had a “lightbulb” moment while looking through pamphlets created in the 1940s by Cornell’s home economics department. One made it possible to design a home based on a predetermined scheme with options for room configuration, paint colors, and furniture.


“It was almost like paper dolls for your house,” Barton says. “For me, at that moment it seemed just like a design or lifestyle blog, spouting tips about how to optimize your life.”  

It is natural for Barton to bridge a mid-century idea to today. The exhibition on the 1960s she helped curate at the Philadelphia Museum of Art includes iconic objects from the collection, including clothing, furniture, paintings, posters, videos, photographs, and everyday objects like typewriters and televisions from the period.

“Juliana was really well-prepared, better prepared than almost any other student or graduate student could be to take on this project,” says Kathryn Hiesinger, a senior curator who led the exhibition team. “Her sureness and energy were absolutely miraculous.”

The museum fellowship is part of a partnership with Penn, funded by the Mellon Foundation, specifically for object-based learning.

“I enjoyed the design and exhibition process, planning out where things go, how you can tell stories, with the paintings or the design objects in a vignette, or on a wall,” Barton says. “Placing things next to each other can put the objects in different contexts.”

One of her favorite items in the exhibition is a poster by Seymour Chwast, “End Bad Breath,” a take on the image of Uncle Sam. “It’s evocative,” she says. “My research is also on how art, design, and architecture can communicate ideas of nationalism and national identity.”

Barton’s dream is to work as a museum curator when she completes her Ph.D.

“I’m very invested in the museum,” she says. “As a woman of color, I see museum and curatorial work as a way to push the boundaries of education, and access to art and culture for the enrichment of diverse audiences.”


Juliana Barton