Merchandizing the Void
I came late to the Kardashians, for reasons of snobbery and an inability to digest the pacing of reality TV. So I had no point of reference when I first saw the photos of Khloé Kardashian’s pantry. I laughed out loud to see them—it was an astounding space, astoundingly presented. If you’re a Kardashian-head you obviously know the broad strokes of what I’m about to describe. Every Kardashian/Jenner sister loves an eerily oversized interior space, a shade of creamy gray, a geometric rock masquerading as a sofa. “Why Does Kim Kardashian’s House Look Like…That?” asked (and answered) Kyle Chayka in Elle. “Does Kylie Jenner Live in a Level of The Backrooms” queried The Interior Review. Exactly. Khloé’s pantry follows suit: big, beige, and neurotic. Perhaps go look up some photos yourself right now so we’re on the same page.
The pantry is the size of a large garage, and the entire space is suffused with an even and shadowless light. On first glance everything inside appears a different tone of off-tan neutral—Kardashian greige. The long side of the room is lined with a floor-to-ceiling grid of rectangular cubbies stretching the entire horizontal expanse like a spreadsheet (no terminating edge is visible in any of the photos; perhaps they go on forever). The shelves are a muted ash color, almost identical to Ikea’s white stained oak veneer finish, but one must assume they’re either solid wood or at least high-quality hardwood veneer. Recessed in the underside of each cubby is a fluorescent or LED light strip, which casts a cool daylight glow on the contents of the shelf below.
The contents are confusing, at least to the untrained eye. Repeated sets of open top wooden boxes, wide-woven square baskets, small lazy susans, and clear canisters with brushed steel or wooden lids are all evenly spaced across the shelves like someone has selected all and hit “distribute horizontally.” Every container is labeled with all-caps white text in an ostentatious grotesque font, perhaps Century Gothic. Within the vessels (layers within layers) is nestled the food itself, packaged goods on the bottom shelves and decanted bulk items above. The theme is multiples, the theme is repetition. Each can of beans is accompanied by ten doppelgangers, gold and red and kelly green labels blaring out in concert. The brands are mainstream—Del Monte canned veggies, Uncle Ben’s minute rice, five identical bottles of Newman’s Italian dressing. The clear canisters of decanted food repeat themselves too: SPAGHETTI SPAGHETTI BUCATINI BUCATINI.
I’m tired. Writing about a Kardashian interior already feels like writing about the void. It’s there but it’s not. When I think of them I think of blank spaces. Foyers. Rooms without furniture, or rooms with furniture that doesn’t look like furniture. It feels like all I can do is list attributes. Cream. Bouclé. Marble. A plush minimalism that oscillates between Joanna Gaines and Rick Owens. But I want to get to the bottom of the pantry, the specific primal architecture of that gridded room, a columbarium for canned goods. What performance of gender and culinary management plays out on this airless stage?
We know Khloé is a woman who doesn’t need to stockpile twenty boxes of instant rice. She may not even eat minute rice. In fact, to use Khloé Kardashian to make a point about the contemporary performance of homemaking is perhaps like trying to understand the French Revolution by watching Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola. Which is to say, not representative. However, I suggest the design and contents of Khloé’s pantry point to an evolution in the contemporary public role of the American kitchen and the role of the homemaker who labors and performs in this space. The ritualized stockpiling and organizing of goods, the oversized scale and format of the shelves and bins—this is a space where the performance of logistics is as important as the performance of domesticity.
The fundamental architecture of Khloé’s pantry is the grid. In its repetition, seeming boundlessness, and stolid materiality it resembles simultaneously a row of Ikea Billy bookcases (birch veneer finish) and Donald Judd’s enormous untitled 1980 plywood sculpture, which stretches eighty feet across and could accommodate thousands of cans of Del Monte black beans. “It is estimated that every five seconds, one BILLY bookcase is sold somewhere in the world” claims Ikea. There is only one eighty-foot plywood Judd. Both do what gridded spaces do: they repeat, display, and impose order.
“Logically speaking, the grid extends, in all directions, to infinity” wrote Rosalind Krauss in her treatise on the grid in modern art (equally applicable to the grid in modern pantries). The implied infinity of the grid organizes space without telling a story about it. Or perhaps it only tells a story about itself—a story that order is already there, lying in wait. For Judd, repetition is anti-narrative, anti-relational: “simply order, like that of continuity, one thing after another.” The one thing after another-ness provides freedom from hierarchy and difference. This is the freedom granted by the garage-sized pantry grid or the infinite scroll of the digital spreadsheet. There’s space to put everything, and each space is as good as any other. Ramen noodles: cell 4E. Cake stands: cells 2B, C, and D. Eight bottles of Cholula: 5G. The possibilities are endless.
The grid is the ultimate platform for modern economic activity. Anyone who has spent time with the infinite rectangles of the Excel spreadsheet can tell you that. Its extensible format and the flat clarity of the empty cells offers a space of possibility where the user can harness numbers and create order from enormous and unruly sets of information. Unlike the blank page or empty document that are terrifying in their formlessness, the grid gives the sense of a world always already ordered. What relief. Names, dates, invoice numbers, innumerable animals, all contained and ready to be manipulated. “Insofar as its order is that of pure relationship, the grid is a way of abrogating the claims of natural objects to have an order particular to themselves,” writes Krauss. The awkward and diverse attributes of objects are restrained and replaced by the modern logic of the fillable, fungible rectangle. Back to Judd’s repeating rectangular shelves, art historian Anna Chave makes the comparison between the minimalist art object and the space of commerce explicit in her essay about the political legacy of Minimalism. “On the face of it, certainly, Minimalist objects are as interchangeable, as neutral, and as neutered as standard consumer goods,” she writes. Chave argues that this neutralization of difference is crucial to capitalism, a flattening that allows otherwise-diverse objects to be brought into the realm of exchange value.
Of course, it’s hard to talk about the properties and function of the logistical rectangle without calling to mind the omnipresent and the scaled-up rectangle of the shipping container. Stackable, fillable, modular, the container is nothing if not a giant cubby, making the container ship the pantry of global capital. Within its tiled and tesselated spacial logic, a thousand individual objects with individual histories can be organized into submission—containerized—and brought to market. Safely stowed, the contents are abstracted and turned into interchangeable units managed via spreadsheets and enterprise software. Back down at the scale of the private home, Khloé’s innumerous shadowless shelves repeat the same logic in miniature, corralling and containerizing everything from cookbooks to Cheerios. The world becomes manageable, subdivided into rectangles of different sizes. A flow of numbers and cartons and data and cargo across an infinite and masterful grid.
THE LOGISTICAL TURN
At the center of this fantasia of evenly spaced jute baskets and spinning displays of ranch dressing is Khloé herself. “I’m not crazy, I’m just organized,” she tells us in her video series KHLO-C-D. “The most organized, cleanest, most obsessive person I know,” says her mom Kris in a 2019 episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. “Organized as shit,” says Kris’s partner Corey as she tours him around the massive new pantry. The pantry reveal comes in episode eight of The Kardashians, following a weeks-long plot arc where we see Khloé overseeing the construction of her new mansion, obsessing about details and complaining about contractors. Home improvement is a recurring theme in the show—every Kardashian/Jenner seems in a constant state of redecorating. But they all agree that Khloé deserves her moment of glory, safely ensconced in this fresh space where she can nest and nurture her daughter and semi-estranged boyfriend. Of course, there’s no rest for KHLO-C-D. When your pantry resembles nothing so much as a supermarket distribution center there’s always more organizing that must be done.
She’s not alone. Pantries—at least the ones we’re privy to on TV and TikTok—are different these days. Khloé’s pantry, with its morbid architecture and monumental scale, is a just slightly more baroque manifestation of a broader trend. I’d argue that there’s been a turn towards the logistical imaginary in America’s visible kitchens. Contemporary home renovation shows are just as likely to feature couples wanting a walk-in pantry as those in need of a walk-in closet. Over on TikTok, pantry restocking videos have come to comprise a significant subsection of all ASMR and “oddly satisfying” content. Disembodied hands slide packet after packet of Chips Ahoy into clear rectangular containers, decant two pound bags of M&Ms into glass jars, and fill canisters with an REI’s worth of Clif Bars. Every motion comes with a rhythmic thunk or shimmering glissando, the precise edits turning pantry stocking into a domestic symphony that entertains even as it tells a story about how we might run our households today.
The omnipresence of cubbies and single-serve packs didn’t arise organically—there’s a whole industry behind the trend. The container-centric design and layout of Khloé’s pantry was dreamed up in collaboration with The Home Edit, an incredibly successful home organizing brand with a spinoff TV show: Get Organized with The Home Edit. In the world of The Home Edit, containers are a solution to almost any problem, order is created through multiples, and the rainbow is an organizing principle (“the ROYGBIV method”). The white text that labels every container, no matter how self-evident the contents—a Home Edit specialty. The containers themselves? A custom Home Edit product line, available at Walmart and The Container Store. In the Home Edit universe, organization is not just cleaning. It is design, a shift that allows the logistics and labor of contemporary homemaking to be revisioned as a hobby and a lifestyle. “My husband asks why I watch a show where women take stuff out of boxes and then put them in new boxes…😂” comments @simply_sarah88 on a Home Edit Instagram post. I guess some husbands just don’t get it, “it’ being the pleasure of merchandizing your own home. Laughing crying emoji.
This logistical turn in American housekeeping supplants earlier models for conceptualizing the kitchen and the wife-mother-homemaker’s place within it. Back in the 1950s and 60s, with the Cold War in full swing and with US soft power in full effect, the American kitchen was more likely to be conceived as a hypermodern computer than a warehouse. In the summer of 1959, the American National Exhibition in Moscow presented Russians with a vision of American free enterprise, cars and suburbs and technological innovation. One part of the Exhibition centered on the economic engine of the American home: a $250,000 “miracle kitchen” powered by an “electronic brain” designed by RCA Whirlpool. A Look magazine spread about the exhibition describes how “the domestic wonder takes the work out of cooking.” According to Whirlpool, the housewife-operator can prepare a complete meal without leaving the control panel, enabled by a dishwasher that “walks” an electronic track to the dining table, and an oven that can bake a cake in three minutes (all demonstrated in a 1957 Whirlpool promo video). The propaganda was apparently a success—Look magazine quotes the Soviet Union’s deputy premier exclaiming “We have to free our housewives like you Americans!”
Other kitchen computers followed. Honeywell’s enormous 1969 Kitchen Computer promised to help “her” organize a complete menu themed around the entrée “by simply pushing a few buttons.” Neiman Marcus advertised the computer in its catalog with a glossy full page ad. No kitchen computers were ever sold—it was more publicity stunt than actual functional appliance, and was really just a repurposed 16-bit business machine called the H316 minicomputer that required programming skills and a paper tape reader to use. Still, it was a beautiful dream. A computerized kitchen also appeared in The Jetsons, the 1960s space-age Hanna-Barbera animated sitcom. Judy Jetson operates the Foodarackacycle, a machine that prepares and serves food from scratch with the push of a button, and enlists the help of domestic servant robot Rosey the Robot for other kitchen tasks. Throughout, the intrusion (or inclusion) of the computer into the domestic space reflected the status of the kitchen as the hub or control center of the home, as well as the midcentury preoccupation with domestic efficiency. As Ruth Schwartz Cowan describes in More Work for Mother, “modern technology enabled the American housewife of 1950 to produce single-handedly what her counterpart of 1850 needed a staff of three or four to produce.”
Since the heady days of the miracle kitchen, the computer has indeed successfully infiltrated the kitchen. IPads litter countertops, ready to act as kitchen timers and recipe books. Smart fridges connect to the internet for mostly unnecessary reasons. Now that the presence of the computer in the kitchen is so naturalized it’s no longer noteworthy, the computer as a guiding metaphor for the kitchen has fallen out of favor, its work complete. In today’s kitchen imaginary, the computer (automated, optimized, futuristic) has been supplanted by the logistics center (networked, outsourced, abstracted). Still, if the kitchen pantry today is a space of logistics, an Amazon distribution center in the heart of the home, it still requires an operator at the center. And that operator is usually a woman, usually coded as a wife. She is needed to manage the inflows and outputs of products, to display and merchandize and decant, to negotiate other household members’ access and use of the space and the food within.
The endless decanting and unboxing and refilling of cartons and canisters isn’t confined to the Home Edit devotees and the TikTok snack restockers. Performative restocking is an intensification and an aestheticization of the kind of “last mile” product journey activities that have increasingly found their way inside private homes over the past decade. Boxing, stocking, unpacking twelve SKUs from a delivery carton—these activities previously took place in the back warehouses of supermarkets and distribution centers. Now they also take place in our home living rooms or (if we’re lucky) our garages or enormous pantries. I’m not sure exactly when my own entryway turned into a waystation for cardboard boxes in various states of breakdown. I’m not a big online shopper. But since Covid, since the decline of downtown and the exit of so many chain stores from city centers, if I want some Gap underwear or a USB dongle it’s almost impossible to avoid buying it online. And so; the cardboard.
Something weird happens to consumer goods when you encounter them packed in a dingy brown box rather than plucked from a merchandized department store display and tucked into a shiny and embossed store bag. The glamor and vibe some branding company worked so hard to imbue is dulled by the cardboard and tape and shredded packing paper. How am I supposed to fetishize this wrinkled blouse torn only moments ago from a recalcitrant plastic pouch? I wanted to be a shopper, not a warehouse worker.
This is where the aesthetic decanting and TikTok restocking comes in. It’s a piece of theater that allows consumer goods to regain the appeal and shiny product-ness that wore off them in transit. Without the department store, we must stage our own closets. Without the supermarket to enable the child’s formative encounter with the object of desire (the cereal aisle, where Captain Crunch and Count Chocula call out like sirens from child-height shelves), it’s up to mom to reanimate the dead bulk Froot Loops by decanting and displaying them and bringing some spectacle back. When the warehouse is your house, you have to revive the commodity yourself, spank its cheeks a little and turn it back into a product.
I can imagine a world where this newer, more intimate connection with the abstraction and depraved randomness of contemporary supply chains would lead somewhere different. Experiencing the crappy banality of the drop-shipped Insta-purchase might lead to a disenchantment with the commodity, and even an empathy with the other poor schmucks further up the chain to whom you’re inextricably linked via some godforsaken tank top or tub of cookies. That has not been the case, by and large. Instead, with the effortful cultural practices of a thousand Khloés and organizing influencers, the aesthetics and logistical processes of the warehouse, the distribution center, and the shop floor have been embraced and embedded in the domestic spaces of the pantry and the walk-in closet. The commodity remains. But now it’s your job to merchandize it.
This fetishization of logistics itself, the gridded pantries and endless restockings, extends beyond the kitchens and bookshelves of wealthy influencers to the world of art and literature. Critic and theorist Alberto Toscano describes the past decade as “a moment when the fascination with capital’s abstraction is morphing into a widespread aesthetic,” as artists and photographers increasingly hone in on the banal horrors of the container ship, the warehouse, the business park. Contemporary artists and photographers from Bernd and Hilla Becher to Edward Burtynsky have contributed to the popularization of logistics-centered art, turning the mechanisms and spaces of the modern economy into the subject of large-scale pictures. This drawing-attention-to can be a critique, but it can also be an aestheticization that abstracts away the specifics of what’s going on in the frame. Art historian Claire Bishop describes a parallel and perhaps related trend in contemporary art—research-based art—that attempts to contend with a superabundance of information and data rather than commodities. Instead of container ships and factories, the research-art exhibition lays out accumulated research materials for observers to view or leaf through, “obeying a logic of more is more.” The research artist turns the conditions of the artist or information worker in the contemporary moment (“a sense of being immersed—even lost—in data”) into the subject of the work. The complexity of things appears overwhelming, and it’s left to the viewer to eke out meaning (here you go—have at it).
It makes sense that artists and housewives alike would endeavor to wrest back some control from the world of technological administration by appropriating the tropes of that administrative and organizational power. Adorno describes this phenomenon in Aesthetic Theory, writing that “The subject, conscious of the loss of power that it has suffered as a result of the technology unleashed by himself, raised this powerlessness to the level of a program…by integrating it into subjectivity’s own undertaking as an element of the process of production.” Bishop notes a similar phenomenon in research-based art, positing that the slightly paranoid style of archival aggregation is “an effect of internalizing the apparatus through which their research is increasingly conducted” (that apparatus being the internet). Per Adorno and Bishop, the logistics play of the Home Edit pantry could be seen as a reaction to and a reflection of a world already swallowed whole by managerial logic and inscrutable supply webs. It’s a coping mechanism, for sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not art.
To notice that pantries are warehouses and women are warehouse managers is not to say this kind of labor is new. The home has always been a worksite. Prior to industrialization, products intended for market were produced at home by the women and men who lived there. People spun yarn, tended crops, and wove cloth in and amongst the other labors required to feed and clean and maintain a family. In the 19th and early 20th centuries in the U.S., some women already working in the home took on piecework to support the family’s income—tasks paid by the piece and performed at home like sewing garments, folding paper flowers, or rolling cigars. In some households, workers were and still are brought in to perform domestic services like cleaning, cooking, and childcare. Throughout these labor transitions, the work of cooking and shopping and laundering continued, performed mostly by women and often by wives.
In Khloé’s case, the pantry and the associated performances of restocking and merchandizing serve a dual purpose. When she stocks the shelves, she’s doing the work of homemaking: setting out actual food for her actual kids and siblings and assorted hangers on (whether or not anyone actually eats the four massive jars of double stuffed Oreos is another question). But the pantry, along with the rest of her house, is also a different kind of worksite. It’s a stage.
Khloé’s real work (or should I say her paid work) is to be herself in front of cameras, in front of millions. Her pantry’s job in this formulation is to be a place where food can be seen on screen. This explains a lot. The tiered racks where cans of corn sit proudly in their own stadium seating. The repeating fluorescent strips shining a hard white light on every cubby like a Dan Flavin nightmare. It’s a display case, a jewel box, a home shopping set. Khloé’s selling that corn, on behalf of the brand partnership managers who organized the deal and whichever other entities are taking a cut. One poster on the r/Anticonsumption subreddit complains that Khloé is “Definitely someone who worships a retail environment rather than someone who desires a home.” But her home is a retail environment—one designed to signal both extreme wealth and relatability to viewers. Khloé’s retail pantry exhibits wealth not by displaying the most luxurious brands or exclusive products, but by showing impeccably organized accumulation. It follows the logic of the warehouse, the distribution center.
Back in 2019, I took a tour of Amazon’s Sacramento fulfillment center. This was the era when Amazon’s poor treatment of warehouse workers was in the press, and in response the company sent an armada of “brand ambassadors” to defend their honor on Twitter and opened up fulfillment centers to very limited tours. After relinquishing our phones and hearing the spiel about Amazon’s great job training from the effervescent tour leader, my group was ushered past a series of alarming motivational slogans (“We’re obsessed with our customers”) and onto the floor to watch the pickers and stowers work. They looked sad. Their tasks looked familiar. Huge storage caddies lined with a grid of yellow plastic cubbies wheel themselves around on robotic bases and park within reaching distance of a worker. The workers pull items from a cardboard box, scan each item, and place it into one of the forty-ish cubbies as instructed by the computer system. The stowing logic was opaque to me. Some cubbies contained a number of items, one lipstick one book one mechanical keyboard. Within the plastic gridded forms they became entirely fungible, each item an abstracted traceable unit in a facility-wide (world-wide) logistics system.
At one point during the tour I saw a box of Cholula hot sauce come down the line. Khloé has Cholula in her pantry. I suppose it could have been the very same sauce. Those bottles stowed into a caddie at the warehouse, then retrieved weeks later by a picker responding to the computer ping of an order that was placed by Khloé’s assistant. Into the box they went, box taped closed, along a conveyor belt, onto a truck, eventually delivered to a mansion in the Santa Monica Mountains. The box received, cut open. The bottles removed, held in the pristinely manicured hand of an entirely different kind of worker performing an entirely similar task. Cholula stowed into a new cubby grid, shiny long acrylics tap tapping on the bottle’s glass sides, as they plunk down on the lazy susan one by one. “I’m not crazy, I’m just organized.”
Thank you to the folks who shared thoughts and resources when I was first thinking through this topic on Twitter and elsewhere: Jay Owens, Nicky Andrews, Brad Borevitz, Cath Land, Siobhan Leachman, Anna Pendergrast, Melanie Kahl, Alexandra Lange, Shannon Mattern, Elisabeth Nicula, Adriana Widdoes.
 Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” October Vol. 9 (Summer, 1979), 61.
 Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” in Contemporary Sculpture: Arts Yearbook 8, ed. William Seitz (New York: The Art Digest, 1965). Full essay available here: https://juddfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Specific_Objects_1964.pdf
 Krauss, 50.
 Anna C. Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” Arts Magazine 54, no. 5 (1990), 51.
 Gereon Zimmerman, “What the Russians will see,” Look Vol. 23, Iss. 15 (July 21, 1959), 52.
 Zimmerman, 54.
 Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books), 100.
 Alberto Toscano, “The Mirror Of Circulation: Allan Sekula And The Logistical Image,” Society & Space, July 31, 2018, https://www.societyandspace.org/articles/the-mirror-of-circulation-allan-sekula-and-the-logistical-image
 Claire Bishop, “Information Overload,” Artforum Vol. 61, No. 8 (April 2023), 123, https://www.artforum.com/print/202304/claire-bishop-on-the-superabundance-of-research-based-art-90274
 Bishop, 128.
 Theodor W. Adorno and Robert Hullot-Kentor, Aesthetic Theory, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 24.
 Bishop, 125.