Why Are Kitchen Counters 36 Inches High?

In the era of the adjustable standing desk, we need an adjustable kitchen.

different heights of working surface


A lot of offices now have adjustable height desks, which you can set at the proper height when standing. It's basic ergonomics. As one supplier noted, "Using standing desks correctly may seem like a no-brainer from an outsider’s perspective: You stand. You work. You repeat. However, ergonomics is not an exact science because every human body is different. The optimal height for your desk will be different for you than for someone else." The general rule for standing desk height is that "as your elbows are positioned at a 90 degree angle from the floor, measure the distance from the floor to the bottom of your elbow."

Yet when you go into a kitchen, everybody is the same, and just about every kitchen counter is 36 inches high. Alexandra Lange wrote in Slate a few years ago that it was not supposed to be this way. Kitchen design pioneer Lillian Gilbreth, herself a very tall 5 foot 7 inches, thought the height should vary according to the task and the person. Lange explains:

"Stand in front of your kitchen counter, shoulders relaxed, elbows bent. If you are 5 feet 7 inches tall, your hands should hover just above a work surface set at a standard 36 inches high, ready to chop, slice, or stir. If you are shorter than that (as the majority of American women are), you will have to raise your elbows laterally like wings, to get your whisk into position. If you are taller than that (as the majority of American men are), you will have to lean down in order to apply proper pressure on the knife. In the case of counter height, Lillian Gilbreth did not have her way. Manufacturers found it easier to standardize."

Some have suggested that kitchen counters are 36 inches because it worked for Gilbreth, but an article in Quartz points to a source I had not read before, "Counterintuitive: How the Marketing of Modernism Hijacked the Kitchen Stove" by "cook, food writer, food editor, and short person"
Leslie Land, who also wondered why kitchen stoves and counters are 36 inches tall. It's in a book titled "From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies" that can be downloaded from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Hoosier Kitchen
The Hoosier Kitchen was adjustable. credit: Hoosier kitchen

It wasn't always this way. As noted in my history of the kitchen, the famous Hoosier kitchen was adjustable in height. This was a marketing feature: "Now you can get a HOOSIER that is exactly as high or as low as you need it. No matter how tall or how short you may be, your NEW HOOSIER exactly fits you." Land notes that both kitchen design experts Christine Frederick and Gilbreth favored different heights for different functions.

"Both of them knew perfectly well that the best counter height for kneading dough is not the best for making sandwiches, and they certainly knew that fixing all kitchen counters in the country at any one height would be the antithesis of efficiency—at least as far as the user was concerned."

Lenore Thye, the designer of the wonderful step-saving kitchen and source of our first photo, also noted: “The practice in modern kitchen layouts of having all surfaces on a level, using the 36 inch height of the range as the unit of measure, places more emphasis on appearance than suitability. Different tasks performed in the kitchen frequently require work surfaces of different heights.”

metal kitchen
credit: Modern Steel Equipment Co

Land attributes the rise of the fitted kitchen to fashion and marketing.

"The continuous countertop, child of the Bauhaus and the assembly line, rapidly grew up to be a mighty engine of cross-marketing. Once you were sold on the idea of the continuous counter, once you were safely locked in with the stove, the one essential piece of equipment that you could not hope to build or alter at home, none of your old kitchen furniture fit. But thanks to its locked, uniform height, all of the new stuff on the market was just the right size."

But as we have noted before, the Bauhaus and the modern movement was a reaction to the tuberculosis crisis. It was all about health, or as Paul Overy titled his book, about "Light, Air and Openness." The design of almost everything was about cleanliness and washability, with no nooks and crannies for bacteria to hide. A kitchen had to be hospital-clean.

One architect quoted by Paul Overy wrote in 1933:

"The kitchen should be the cleanest place in the home, cleaner than the living room, cleaner than the bedroom, cleaner than the bathroom. The light should be absolute, nothing must be left in shadow, there can be no dark corners, no space left under the kitchen furniture, no space left under the kitchen cupboard."

Not a smoking gun, but a smoking sink

This, rather than fashion or marketing, was probably the source of the closed and fitted kitchen. But if a kitchen is going to have continuous counters, what height should they be? In her search for the source of the 36-inch counter, Land found what she calls "the smoking sink."

She writes: "In the early ’30s, countertops were generally about 31 inches tall, while the tops of the—freestanding—sinks were a sensible 36 inches...When the mania for continuous counters decreed that everything from the breadboard to the stove burners to the sinktop must be the same height, the sinktop won, and the 36-inch stove was born."

Hotpoint stove

Hotpoint Museum

Appliance design had to fit into this model too. A hundred years ago, most gas and electric stoves had high ovens that were convenient to use, easy to get food in and out of without bending down. But to make everything line up, the oven was moved below the cooktop. Even the famous designer Henry Dreyfuss realized this was a mistake, writing in his autobiography in 1955:

“Our grandmothers used [the high oven range]twenty-five years ago, but it virtually disappeared when the industrial designer came along and created a revolution in the kitchen by making everything counter height, including the stove. Several years ago, how-ever, research indicated a preference for a high-oven range and a manufacturer offered an improved model. Women liked its greater convenience . . . but they didn’t buy it. The table-top stove flush with theother cabinets in the kitchen had become such a style factor that the ladies refused to be budged away from it.”

It's time to rethink the kitchen

Adriano Studio Induction Hobs
Hang Your Hobs on the Wall When You Aren't Cooking With Them. Adriano Studio

Perhaps it is time for the people who design kitchens to reconsider. Today, the stove is changing again. They used to be big and heavy but now we have light induction cooktops. Some designers are not even installing them permanently; this Italian design hangs them on the wall. Ovens are changing too: There are microwaves and steam ovens and convection ovens, often smaller and separate.

Kitchen Carts.


Jokodomus designs beautiful carts that have all the components of a full kitchen, designed for indoor and outdoor use. What we need now is a cross between these carts and adjustable height desks, so that anyone can do their kitchen tasks at the height that is most comfortable and convenient.

Christine Frederick and Lillian Gilbreth both applied lessons learned from the factory, from early 20th-century time-motion and ergonomic studies done to make the workplace more productive and less dangerous. In the early 21st century we should be doing the same thing and learning from our modern offices with their movable, adjustable surfaces and adaptable layouts.

Now that Leslie Land has explained how we got counters at 36 inches, really almost by accident, it's time to scrap our preconceptions and design our kitchens around the people who use them.