Frankfurt Kitchen

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky

The Frankfurt kitchen was the first unified concept kitchen. It was designed to enable efficient work, maximize the usable area of a small space, and to be built at low cost in 1926 by Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky for architect Ernst May’s social housing project ‘New Frankfurt’ in Frankfurt, Germany.

German cities after the end of World War I were plagued by a serious housing shortage. Various social housing projects were built in the 1920s to increase the number of rental apartments for working class families subject on tight budget constraints. As a consequence, the apartments designed were comfortable but not spacious.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s design departed from the then common kitchen-cum-living room. The typical worker’s household lived in a two-room apartment, in which the kitchen served many functions at once: besides cooking, one dined, lived, bathed, and even slept there, while the second room, intended as the parlor, often was reserved for special occasions such as a Sunday dinner. Instead, Schütte-Lihotzky’s kitchen was a small separate room, connected to the living room by a sliding door; thus separating the functions of work (cooking etc.) from those of living and relaxing, consistent with her view about life: ‘Firstly, it [life] is work, and secondly it is relaxing, company, pleasures.’

Schütte-Lihotzky’s design was strongly influenced by the ideas of Taylorism (also known as scientific management), which was in vogue at the beginning of the 20th century. Started by American educator Catharine Beecher in the middle of the 19th century and reinforced by American home economist Christine Frederick’s publications in the 1910s, the growing trend that called for viewing household work as a true profession had the logical consequence that the industrial optimization pioneered by Taylorism spilled over into the domestic area.

Frederick’s ‘The New Housekeeping,’ which argued for rationalizing the work in the kitchen using a Taylorist approach, was translated into German in 1922. These ideas were received well in Germany and Austria and formed the base of German architect Erna Meyer’s work and were also instrumental in Schütte-Lihotzky’s design of the Frankfurt kitchen. She did detailed time-motion studies to determine how long each processing step in the kitchen took, re-designed and optimized workflows, and planned her kitchen design such that it should optimally support these workflows. Improving the ergonomics of the kitchen and rationalizing the kitchen work was important to her:

In 1926, Schütte-Lihotzky explained: ‘The problem of rationalizing the housewife’s work is equally important to all classes of the society. Both the middle-class women, who often work without any help [i.e. without servants] in their homes, and also the women of the worker class, who often have to work in other jobs, are overworked to the point that their stress is bound to have serious consequences for public health at large.’

The trend to rationalize the household was reinforced by the intention to reduce the time spent in (economically speaking) ‘unproductive’ housework, so that women had more time for factory work. On the other hand, emancipatory efforts to improve women’s status, also in the home, called for rationalization to relieve women and enable them to pursue other interests.

Schütte-Lihotzky was strongly inspired by the extremely space-constrained railway dining car kitchens, which she saw as a Taylorist ideal: even though these were very small, two people could prepare and serve the meals for about 100 guests, and then wash and store the dishes.

The Frankfurt kitchen was a narrow double-file kitchen measuring 1.9 m × 3.4 m. The entrance was located in one of the short walls, opposite which was the window. Along the left side, the stove was placed, followed by a sliding door connecting the kitchen to the dining and living room. On the right wall were cabinets and the sink, in front of the window a workspace. There was no refrigerator. Dedicated, labelled storage bins for common ingredients such as flour, sugar, rice and others were intended to keep the kitchen tidy and well-organized; the workspace had an integrated, removable ‘waste drawer’ such that scraps could just be shoved into it while working and the whole thing emptied at once afterwards.

Because conventional kitchen furniture of the time fit neither the new workflows nor the narrow space, the Frankfurt kitchen was installed complete with furniture and major appliances such as the stove, a novelty at that time in Germany. It was the first fitted kitchen. The wooden door and drawer fronts were painted blue because researchers had found that flies avoided blue surfaces. Lihotzky used oak wood for flour containers, because it repelled mealworms, and beech for table tops because beech is resistant to staining, acids, and knifemarks. The seating was a revolving stool on castors for maximum flexibility.

However, the users of these kitchens often had their difficulties with them. Unaccustomed to Schütte-Lihotzky’s custom-designed workflows for which the kitchen was optimized, they often were at loss as to how to use the kitchen. It was frequently described as not flexible enough—the dedicated storage bins often were used for other things than their labels said. Another problem with these bins was that they were easily reachable by small children. Schütte-Lihotzky had designed the kitchen for one adult person only, children or even a second adult had not entered the picture, and in fact, the kitchen was too small for two people to work in. Most contemporary criticism concentrated on such rather technical aspects. Nevertheless, the Frankfurt kitchen became a model for a modern work kitchen. For the rest of the 20th century, the small, rationalized work kitchen was a standard in tenement buildings throughout Europe.

Sociological aspects of the ‘work kitchen’ were criticized only much later, in the 1970s and 80s, when feminist criticism found that the emancipatory intentions that had in part motivated the development of the work kitchen had actually backfired: precisely because of the specialized rationalization and the small size of these kitchens such that only one person could work comfortably, housewives tended to become isolated from the life in the rest of the house. What had started as an emancipatory attempt (although all proponents such as Beecher, Frederick, or Meyer had always implicitly assumed that the kitchen was the woman’s domain) to professionalize and revalue work in the home was now seen as a confinement of the woman to the kitchen.

Kitchens in the 1930s until the 1960s in Germany were often smaller and less comfortable. Housing societies thought that the Frankfurt kitchen was too luxurious. But the principles of this kitchen were adapted in other countries like Sweden and Switzerland and reimported to Germany, and recognized to be the same like the Frankfurt kitchen before. The major difference of most of the later kitchens was that the Frankfurt kitchen used relatively expensive materials and not particle boards.

Most Frankfurt kitchens were thrown away in the 1960s and 1970s, when modern kitchens with easy to clean surfaces like Resopal (Formica) were affordable. Often only the aluminium drawers survived, which aren’t typical of a modern kitchen. When the public interest on the work of Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in the late 1990s was growing, most kitchens did not exist any more. Some homeowners have built replicas; a very few originals still exist. The original house Im Burgfeld 136, Frankfurt was chosen to be a museum because of the surviving Frankfurt kitchen.

In 2005 the Victoria and Albert Museum acquired a ‘Frankfurt’ kitchen for its traveling exhibition ‘Modernism: Designing a New World’ with stops in London, the USA and Germany. The kitchen was dismantled from its original place, restored and repainted.

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