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Mess please. While I'm talking kitchens, others philosophise it..

Messy kitchens, happy living? I think so. The first time I go into a house the sight of the kitchen reveals much about the owner’s world view. Exaggerated tidiness can mean little cooking, too much time spent cleaning or simply not much use of the space, with coffee-making hidden behind cupboard doors. Kitchens wear many hats these days, the most attractive to me being like workshops for living instead of woodwork or metal-bashing. Here the whole family can perform their lives pleasurably, with the kitchen as one of the remaining zones of creativity in our homes along with teenage bedrooms or the outside shed, except that it is also a scene of communal activity. Neatness exacts a price and takes up too much time ,especially when young children are involved. Adults too need to find the child in themselves and escape from bossy notions of perfection.

In A Perfect Mess, Eric Abrahamson reveals the hidden benefits of disorder, and The Comfort of Things by anthropologist Daniel Miller argues that personal clutter makes lives happier, with people who enjoy their objects also caring better for each other. Should we not be designing kitchens with these behavioural requirements in mind? I often wonder why magazine features always show them spotless, bereft looking? Maybe kitchens should be appreciated not when they are tidy but when in use, even all messed up?

I find myself missing mess in the kitchen. Our three older children are away at university or abroad and although the youngest, an enthusiastic cook, makes up for it, he is away at school for long hours. When Tim Dowling described his boys’ nighttime cooking in last week’s Guardian Weekend I felt a surprising amount of nostalgia! He says, ‘Downstairs I find the archaeological remains of some kind of ransacking: the contents of the refrigerator seem to have exploded across the kitchen. But I also discover evidence of a primitive form of cooperation: an attempt has been made to empty the dishwasher, and also to make brownies. Both, sadly, have failed’.

For years Becca and I cooked while the kids played, waited, watched, but now it’s sometimes the other way round with us awaiting their cooking, or we all do it together. Either way, flour lands on the floor, vegetables mix on the chopping block, four pans bubble away at different speeds, oven and dishwasher fans whirring to music from a democratically-decided queue of iPod tracks. This is when I love the kitchen most.

A kitchen that accommodates mess would get my vote in a design competition, not a minimalistic, glossy, stainless steel package. The winning design would include colour, texture, furniture from more than one source, signs of occupation with un-matching chairs, open shelves with displays of accumulated objects from visits to junk shops – as well as some highly functional furniture to support the cooks. It is better, surely, to think of kitchens as busy hardworking spaces rather than status symbols.

I posted the above a few weeks back but since then have discovered there is a growing movement, Philosophers of Mess, you might call them. The New York Times ran a story, Saying Yes to Mess

Illustration Penelope Green NYT

Stop feeling bad, say the mess apologists. There are more urgent things to worry about. Irwin Kula is a rabbi based in Manhattan and author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life,” which was published by Hyperion in September. “Order can be profane and life-diminishing,” he said the other day. “It’s a flippant remark, but if you’ve never had a messy kitchen, you’ve probably never had a home-cooked meal. Real life is very messy, but we need to have models about how that messiness works.” I am off to buy the book. It’s a justification for not clearing up all those Christmas meals to get back to the table, the fire or the telly. Our family Christmas just got a whole lot more relaxed.


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