Insight - 12/18/23

 Design Object Series N. 010

4 min

By the IW team

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky and the Frankfurt Kitchen

In our Design Object Series we highlight iconic objects designed by women. Many of the contributions of women to design have been obscured if not erased throughout history. We want to do our part to counteract this effect by celebrating the women behind a wide range of iconic design objects. In this issue, we salute Margarete (Grete) Schütte-Lihotzky and the Frankfurt Kitchen, a revolutionary kitchen design that changed the way we live and work in our homes.

In the wake of World War I, Frankfurt, Germany, faced a severe housing crisis. To address this issue, the city embarked on a monumental public housing project in the 1920s, constructing over 10,000 units of modern architecture. In this groundbreaking housing effort, one room stood out as the most celebrated and influential: the kitchen. The Frankfurt Kitchen, designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, is often hailed as the world’s first modern kitchen, a revolutionary space that introduced numerous innovative features that we now see as standard.

In this issue we explore the history, impact, and legacy of the Frankfurt Kitchen, shedding light on how it transformed kitchen design and women’s roles in the household. While the Frankfurt Kitchen is celebrated as a triumph of modernity, it also raises difficult questions about feminism, design, and the evolving role of women in the domestic sphere.

The Origins of the Frankfurt Kitchen

In the early 20th century, kitchens were largely considered the realm of women and domestic servants. They were spaces associated with drudgery and unpaid labor. Women were burdened with not only cooking but also laundry, childcare, and even factory work, all without compensation. These conditions prompted early feminists to advocate for design solutions that would make women’s lives easier, but just which solutions might work, and how to fund and execute them, was a challenge for decades. Enter Schütte-Lihotzky.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, an Austrian architect, played a pivotal role in reimagining the kitchen’s design. In the 1920s, she joined a housing project in Frankfurt led by city planner and architect Ernst May. This ambitious government program aimed to provide housing to address post-war shortages and stimulate German industry.

Schütte-Lihotzky was tasked with designing a small, affordable, and highly efficient kitchen that would be separate from the living room. Her design was informed by Christine Frederick’s then recently published work on household efficiency. She conducted meticulous studies of how women used kitchens, aiming to minimize unnecessary movements and make cooking as quick and easy as possible.

The Frankfurt Kitchen’s Key Innovations

Schütte-Lihotzky’s design incorporated several innovative features that would become standard in modern kitchens:

  • Compact Layout: The Frankfurt Kitchen’s super-compact layout was designed to fit in relatively small apartments, making efficient use of limited space.
  • Standardization: The kitchen was mass-produced off-site, a novel concept at the time. This standardization allowed for consistent design and efficient, economical construction.
  • Space-Saving Appliances: The kitchen featured space-saving appliances, including a fold-down ironing board and a “cook box” that used residual stove heat for slow cooking.
  • Organization: The kitchen included 12 identical measuring cups with labeled cubby holes for different ingredients, reducing the need for multiple utensils.
  • Efficiency: Schütte-Lihotzky applied principles of scientific management to minimize physical exertion for the person working in the kitchen. Every movement was streamlined to make cooking more efficient.

A Complex Feminist Legacy

Between 1926 and 1930, approximately 10,000 Frankfurt Kitchens were installed in public housing units in Frankfurt. While architects and housing leaders praised its design, it did not always align with residents’ actual needs. Separating the kitchen from other living spaces proved problematic for many women who needed to tend to children while cooking.

Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt Kitchen has a difficult relationship with feminism. While it aimed to lessen the burden of housework for women and introduced innovative design elements, it also raised questions about the role of private kitchens in women’s liberation. In the 1980s, as second-wave feminists revisited the kitchen, some questioned whether private kitchens could ever truly liberate women or if they needed to be abolished. The Frankfurt Kitchen’s efficiency, while groundbreaking, also led to increased expectations of domestic duties.

Today, kitchens remain central to our lives, serving as gathering spaces and classrooms for food culture. Acknowledging the historical burden placed on women, and especially women of color, in the kitchen, discussion today focuses on whether women have a choice in their involvement in cooking and domestic work.

A Pioneer of Modern Design

Despite its mixed reception among residents, the Frankfurt Kitchen had a lasting impact on international kitchen design. In the 1960s and 1970s, Schütte-Lihotzky and her Frankfurt Kitchen gained renewed attention from architects and historians, inspiring endless variations on her time and space-saving innovations. Though she received little credit during her lifetime, she was eventually recognized as a pioneer of modern kitchen design.

Schütte-Lihotzky revolutionized kitchen design and introduced numerous innovations that continue to shape modern kitchens. Its legacy is celebrated for its contributions to efficiency and functionality in the kitchen. However, it also prompts critical questions about feminism, the role of women in the home, and the evolving design of domestic spaces. As we reflect on the Frankfurt Kitchen’s impact, we must consider how kitchen design intersects with gender equality and women’s liberation in the contemporary world. 

If you’re curious to learn more about the Frankfurt Kitchen, there’s a wonderful 99% invisible episode about it.  While not currently on view, it is periodically possible to see a Frankfurt Kitchen in person at the Museum of Modern Art, where you can get a sense of how truly small the footprint of this kitchen is. For a quick and playful summary, listen to this incredible song by Robert Rotifer, a tribute to Schütte-Lihotzky’s genius.

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