The First Functional, Modern Kitchen?



This was kind of a big deal: one day in 1912 a consulting editor at Ladies' Home Journal put down her sewing to listen to her husband and his friend talk about a new concept called efficiency. It gave her ideas! Soon after she wrote an essay about applying the ideas of industrial efficiency to the home to give middle-class women more time for the stuff they actually wanted to do. Lots of people read Christine Frederick's essay, including Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (Shoot Li-hot-skee), who took it to heart when she created the most famous archetype of the modern, built-in kitchen: the Frankfurt Kitchen.

Schütte-Lihotzky was born into a Viennese family. She was the first female student at what's now known as the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. After reading Frederick's essay, translated to German in 1922, Schütte-Lihotzky wrote her own article on the subject and sent it to the editor of Das Schlesische Heim, a Breslau architectural journal. He happened to be Ernst May, an influential architect and city planner who would remember her essay and ask her to join his team in Frankfurt five years later. He assigned her various projects including this one in 1926: design an impossibly cheap and tiny kitchen for the city's public housing and make it awesome.

Schütte-Lihotzky created the Frankfurt Kitchen, and the little prefabricated masterpiece was quickly installed in more than 10,000 apartments. It was full of urban design marvels. An adjustable stool for sitting and working or for reaching top shelves. Aluminum drawers that double as canisters for flour, rice, sugar, and lentils. A cutting board with a drawer for scraps. A sliding lamp for precise lighting. Though her original designs might have included a table for eating, May's space restraints made it impossible. This was not a kitchen for lounging with a book and a cup of coffee. It was a complete professional work space, separate from the rest of the home.

It wasn't perfect. At 1.9 by 3.44 meters, it could really only hold one adult at a time, completely isolating the cook from the rest of the house. The neat little drawers full of flour and sugar were at optimum height for curious toddlers to empty onto the floor, or themselves. Also, in 1927, women needed to be convinced that gas stoves were the way of the future—watch the grim marketing video, Die Frankfurter Küche, which explains that coal-burning stoves are time-consuming and unhygienic.

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Wikimedia Commons

Still, the Frankfurt Kitchen was a huge commercial success and very influential on later designs. Though it was not the first built-in kitchen, mass production made it the most famous. And although Schütte-Lihotzky went on to live quite an exciting life and design many other buildings, you wouldn't know it. On the night she turned 100, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky waltzed with the Mayor of Vienna, and around the same time, she conducted an articulate interview. "If I had known that everyone would keep talking about nothing else," she said, "I would never have built that damned kitchen!"

A brilliant music video by Viennese-born artist Robert Rotifer pays homage to the architect's entire oeuvre with black ink illustrations of Schütte-Lihotzky's other works in the background, affectionately praising her undying genius (and her lightweight aluminum drawers), all the while dressed in Schütte-Lihotzky's black tie and white shirt uniform. (Rotifer's grandmother, celebrated Jewish communist and feminist Irma Schwager, was friends with Schütte-Lihotzky.) Schütte-Lihotzky's feisty quotation scrolls through the video at the end.

The Frankfurt Kitchen might have been efficient, but the thing about being human is that you can work inefficiently anywhere. You can waste time or stress out or walk around aimlessly, in any kitchen. Pay close attention to Rotifer's illustrations and note that the dotted path to minimize motions and industrialize the kitchen finally ends with ... the cook's defenestration.

New York's Museum of Modern Art recently acquired a complete Frankfurt Kitchen; it is the centerpiece of a modern kitchen design show beginning in September. Visit the MoMA site for more information.

Robert Rotifer's music video in honor of Schütte-Lihotzky: