The Frankfurt Kitchen: Small, Cool 1926

Retrospect

In honor of this year's Small, Cool Contest, let's take a look at the celebrated Frankfurt Kitchen, designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in 1926, where reduced space meant increased efficiency, and was key to the kitchen's transformation into a rationalized modern domestic laboratory.

Schütte-Lihotzky was hired to plan the kitchen for a new housing development in Frankfurt, Germany. After World War I, Germany experienced a severe housing shortage, and new apartment buildings rose to satisfy a dire middle-class demand.

Schütte-Lihotzky's design was enormously successful, and around 10,000 so-called Frankfurt kitchens were built in the late 1920s. Her main inspirations were the dining cars in railway trains, a model of efficient use of space, and Frederick Winslow Taylor's idea of Scientific Management, or Taylorism, first published in 1911.

Taylorism sought to rationalize work by determining the tools and techniques that would yield the greatest efficiency. Taylor's ideas were originally applied toward industrial production methods, but were quickly adapted to apply to other types of work, as well. In 1919, the American home economics expert Christine Frederick used the concepts of Taylorism to rationalize the domestic kitchen. She used empirical data to determine how to plan the kitchen work area with maximum efficiency (image 3). Her writings were extremely influential to Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, who also sought efficiency in the kitchens she designed.

The Frankfurt Kitchen was small, partially because the mass-housing apartments were small, and partially to reduce the number of steps a housewife had to take between tasks. Until this point, kitchens were typically large mixed-use rooms — people would eat, play and even sleep there, since it was often the warmest room. Not only was there a new sense that this was not especially hygienic, but by making the kitchen a self-contained, hermetic and rational space, Schütte-Lihotzky (and Christine Frederick) sought to elevate household chores to the status of 'work,' a step towards the emancipation of women.

The Frankfurt Kitchens each had a window for light and air, a stool where the housewife could perch to comfortably perform tasks like chopping and ironing (you can see a fold-up ironing board on the left-hand wall in images 1 and 2), and a track light that she could pull across the ceiling for task lighting. The dish racks and shelves were within easy reach of the sink, and there were 18 labeled aluminum drawers for supplies and pantry items (images 4 and 5). Schütte-Lihotzky painted the cabinets blue, because research at the time suggested sky-colored surfaces would resist bugs (if only). The oven came with the kitchen, since all the components needed to fit neatly together (image 6).

The Frankfurt Kitchen echoes many of the ideas implemented by Benita Otte, a designer at the Bauhaus, whose model kitchen appeared in the school's Haus am Horn exhibit of 1923 (image 7). Like Schütte-Lihotzky, Otte wanted to emancipate the housewife by giving her a comfortable workspace whose rationality reflected the importance and seriousness of her job. In the Bauhaus kitchen, we can see level countertops, drawers and cabinets for neat and accessible storage, and a big window for light and air.

Despite the modern and Modernist appeal of this rationalized, efficient workspace, the Frankfurt Kitchen was not universally liked by its owners. Ironically, instead of emancipating housewives by respecting their jobs, these small single-task spaces isolated them from the rest of their home, and virtually precluded the possibility of any other family member being able to help with the kitchen chores. Some housewives complained about the labeled aluminum drawers, as well, which presumed to know what people wanted in their pantries.

Nonetheless, the concept of a compact, efficient and rationally organized fitted kitchen became the modern standard, though often, thankfully, with somewhat more flexibility than Schütte-Lihotzky's version allowed.

Though we might not always celebrate our tiny urban kitchens, they carry on the tradition of these great domestic reformers of the early 20th century, thoughtful pioneers who, like Le Corbusier, wanted the home to be a "machine for living," as rational and efficient as a gleaming new factory.

Images: 1 A 1989-90 replica of the Frankfurt Kitchen at the MAK (Museum of Contemporary and Applied Art) in Vienna, via Wikimedia Commons; 2 Original photo of a 1926 Frankfurt Kitchen, via the Victoria & Albert Museum; 3 Christine Frederick's sketches of efficient and inefficient kitchen arrangements applied ideas of scientific management to the domestic sphere in her writings on household economics. This image is from her book Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home (Chicago: American School of Home Economics, 1920), reprinted in the Industrial Design Reader, edited by Carma Gorman (New York: Allworth Press, 2003), page 95; 4 The original pantry drawers, in situ, via Wikimedia Commons; 5 Original aluminum drawers, via Wikipedia; 6 The Frankfurt Kitchen stove, via Wikimedia Commons; 7 Benita Otte's Kitchen from Haus am Horn (1923), photo from a wonderful article by Mary-Elizabeth Williams in BU's Brownstone Journal.


(Re-edited from a post originally published 04/08/10 - AH)