Americans these days line up to buy iPhones, but half a century ago, they were flocking to see gleaming, futuristic prototypes of kitchen appliances. General Motors's Kitchen of Tomorrow, part of a traveling exposition of the company's products, featured an Ultrasonic Dishwasher and an Electro Recipe File. Cooking technology was a matter of geopolitical importance. President Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev argued about whose nation had better dishwashers during the president's 1959 visit to Moscow.

Things that seem mundane now excited our parents and grandparents' imaginations. Their enthusiasm is understandable: rapid technological progress had made their lives easier, as new inventions eliminated hours and hours of menial labor. Many of them would have been used to hauling and chopping firewood for cooking. Stoves and electricity gradually entered U.S. homes over the first half of the 20th century, according to data compiled by W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm. The refrigerator transformed the American kitchen even more quickly, replacing the icebox. In 1930, fewer than 10 percent of households had a refrigerator. Nearly all did by 1960.

Since the introduction of the microwave in the 1970s and 1980s, though, kitchens have changed little, despite the advertisers' promises. Industrial designers are still thinking carefully about the future of the kitchen, but the contrasts between their prototypes and older ones show how much Americans' outlook has darkened.

A case in point is IKEA's Concept Kitchen 2025, which went on display earlier this year in Milan. The designers incorporated a 40 percent increase in the cost of food into their prototypes, along with constraints on energy, water and living space. They wonder whether the world will be able to sustain its eating habits, especially its taste for meat. General Electric's designers had similar concerns in mind when they unveiled a model kitchen two years ago. Instead of a world of leisure, these corporations are preparing for a hungry, thirsty, crowded future.


Courtesy of IKEA.

The Swedish furniture manufacturer collaborated with design students and the design firm IDEO to design a sink that separates wastewater for the sewer from gray water for reused for washing dishes and irrigation. Their miniature refrigerators communicate with transmitters printed on the food's packaging to regulate the temperature, so that the appliances don't waste energy keeping food inside colder than necessary.


Courtesy of IKEA.

Like the Kitchen of Tomorrow of an earlier generation, some aspects of IKEA's Concept Kitchen seem disconnected from real cooking. The most precious resource in any household isn't food or water, but time. Convenience is an important reason that families eat so much meat and processed food, even though they require more resources to produce and are more expensive as a result. Vegetables require soaking, washing, and careful planning -- they don't keep well, no matter how intelligent your refrigerator. If they spoil, a family will have to make another trip to the grocery store.

And a kitchen that is designed to help save money on food, water and energy might not change the kinds of foods that families buy, unless the design saves them time as well. Research and survey data suggests that families with more material resources do not spend much more on produce than those with less means.

[Read more: Only a rich person would buy what Gwyneth Paltrow bought on her food-stamp challenge]

IKEA's answer to this problem is the digitized "Table for Living," which uses a camera to identify ingredients placed on it and suggests recipes. The design seems about as useful as General Motors' Electro Recipe File. Looking up a recipe online seems like it might be easier, or even just using the index in a cookbook. And the designers expect that drones will solve the problem of fresh produce by delivering groceries quickly and in minutes, which is optimistic.


Courtesy of IKEA.

That said, there one crucial point of progress is evident in IKEA's kitchen. American manufacturers previously assumed that women would be the ones using their prototypes in the kitchen, and women were the targets of their advertising. "What we want to do is to make more easy the life of our housewives," Nixon told Khrushchev, who denigrated "the capitalist attitude toward women." IKEA's design, by contrast, imagines the kitchen as a place that members of the family share, with parents working from home.

[Read more: The unfulfilled promise of the Crock-Pot, an unlikely symbol of women's equality]

Refrigerators and dishwashers made women's drudgery in the kitchen obsolete. Yet economists argue that instead of spending that extra time with their children or twirling around in dance shoes, as commercials from the period implied, women instead entered the workforce.

Economists debate how technology will change the ways we spend our time in the future. Some say that technology is saving us more time than ever, even if the changes are hard to measure. Others argue that the most important inventions -- the ones that, along with changes in the law and the culture, allowed women to work outside the home -- are all in the past. On this view, our children's lives will resemble our own more than our grandparents' lives resembled our great-grandparents', and the kitchens of 2025 might not look that different from those of 1985. And we won't be well equipped to deal with the environmental challenges reflected in IKEA's design.

Correction: An earlier version of this item misspelled the last name of Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushschev. This version has been corrected. We regret the error.