The Flexible Heart of the Home: Rehabilitating Homemakers in Postwar America

15 February 2018 | 5.15pm

RCA White City, Room GH109

For the latest event in the V&A/RCA History of Design Research Seminar Series, speaker Barbara Penner (Bartlett School of Architecture, Faculty of the Built Environment) will explore postwar American efforts to rehabilitate disabled homemakers. Central to this are two projects in particular: the Heart Kitchen (1949); and Homemaking for the Handicapped (1955–60). Both were multidisciplinary research programmes, involving large teams of medics, occupational therapists and designers, and were substantially shaped by the philosophy of industrial engineer, Lillian Gilbreth and university-based home economists.

Instead of adhering to the modernist fiction that there could be a singular universal user – implicitly male, young and able-bodied – the designs associated with homemaker rehabilitation had female bodies of all abilities and ages at its heart. These were very explicitly productive female bodies as these projects very much linked to questions of female domestic labour and the desire to prevent what Gilbreth term its 'waste'. While those concerned with accommodating disabled homemakers did not set out to radically challenge normative ideas about domesticity, they were deeply invested in revaluing domestic work and in adapting domestic space and routines in ways that had some radical effects, laying the foundation for the inclusive design and independent living movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

This event has been organised by the V&A/RCA History of Design. If you have any questions, please contact the organisers for more information.


  • Barbara Penner