The Modern Kitchen (Again)

Grete Schütte-Lihotzky wasn’t much of a cook. Yet this Viennese architect created one of modernism’s most famous cooking spaces: the Frankfurt kitchen, designed in 1926 as part of a massive public-housing effort led by the architect and city planner Ernst May. Schütte-Lihotzky’s machine for cooking was the first mass-produced fitted kitchen—10,000 units were installed—made entirely with built-in, standardized elements. The Frankfurt kitchen was a politicized bid to improve the lives of working-class families, and especially women.

Today, kitchens remain among the most design-intensive elements of any home. Cooking is the subject of advanced design thinking, from deluxe systems conceived for luxury dwellings to experimental prototypes that offer to change not just the floor plan of the contemporary home but its ecological footprint. The Frankfurt kitchen embodied a radical view of domestic space. Progressive kitchen politics now, however, focus less on work and gender and more on energy and waste.

Working at a time when there were few female architects, Schütte-Lihotzky was an educated, bourgeois woman who had witnessed the devastating effects of the housing shortage in Vienna after World War I. She had seen women struggle to care for their families in dark, dangerous, poorly equipped living quarters. Her now legendary kitchen was an inspired—and problematic—amalgam of American efficiency theory, progressive politics, and the formal language of early European modernism.

The Museum of Modern Art, in New York, recently acquired a complete, original Frankfurt kitchen that somehow survived 80 years of use (not too much) and changing fashions (plenty). This landmark in the evolution of domestic living is at the center of Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen, an exhibition debuting at MoMA this month. The show is organized by Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor, two curators in the museum’s department of architecture and design. Experiencing the kitchen in person (even though you can’t cook in it) brings home the narrow dimensions and controlling vision of this innovative endeavor.

With a footprint smaller than 13 by 7 feet, the ultracondensed Frankfurt kitchen is lined with labor-saving equipment, including a gas stove, a foldout ironing board, and a dish rack over the sink. Although users couldn’t rearrange these fixed components, some devices are adjustable—an overhead task light that slides along a track and a variable-height work stool. A sliding door separates the kitchen from the dining area.

The kitchen has a system of slide-out aluminum containers for bulk foods, each one labeled for its intended contents: rice, pasta, potato flour, etc. The drawers ran into immediate problems because they were installed too low in the room, allowing pesky toddlers to dump out their contents. Housewives were known to misbehave as well, storing items in the wrong bins. (Horrors: paper clips in the pasta bin!) After World War II, storing prepackaged food would become a primary function of the kitchen, making specialized bins less useful. Simple, concealed storage came to dominate the seamlessly fitted kitchen. Hiding ugly cereal boxes is central to our fully industrialized food culture.

Yet with today’s rising interest in local and unprocessed foods, techniques for storing bulk provisions are turning up in advanced kitchen concepts. Faltazi Lab, based in Nantes, France, creates technology-intensive designs for a sustainable world. Behind the shiny surfaces and futuristic styling of Faltazi’s Ekokook ecological kitchen are systems that emulate and engage the cycles of nature. A kitchen garden hangs from the ceiling alongside dangling cones for storing bulk foods. Trash compartments transform paper, glass, and metal into reusable materials, converting routine recycling into a hyperorganized process. A two-tiered sink filters and collects waste waterfor washing dishes and watering indoor crops. A worm composter turns food scraps back into usable energy.

Whereas Faltazi’s design focuses on saving energy, Schütte-Lihotzky sought to define and compress space. Early in her career, she argued that women’s work deserved its own well-defined area in the home. “What are the habits of living that all people of the twentieth century largely share and in which contemporary dwelling truly consists?” she asked, writing in 1921. “Above all it consists in work and second in leisure, society, enjoyment.” By separating the space of work from the space of relaxation and socializing, she broke with the customary arrangement of the German working-class apartment: a two-room flat with a multipurpose kitchen. Known as a Wohnküche (living room/kitchen), this room was used for cooking, sleeping, dining, and gathering. Schütte-Lihotzky believed that separating work from leisure would elevate the status of domestic labor as well as enhance its efficiency.

The Frankfurt kitchen’s isolation proved to be its most troubling feature. The room was barely large enough to accommodate one person, let alone a woman and her small children. Work hidden from view can seem more menial rather than less. A number of other modern designs emphasized openness rather than enclosure. Russel and Mary Wright championed open floor plans in 1950 in their Guide to Easier Living. They used a freestanding storage unit with a pass-through opening to connect the kitchen and dining areas. A 1934 house by Frank Lloyd Wright and a 1945 “living kitchen” designed by Allmon Fordyce explored similar territory. In 1966 Joe Colombo introduced the idea of the kitchen island, allowing the room to flow around its equipment.

High-end kitchens today tend to integrate cooking with living. In affluent families, cooking is often a point of pleasure and connection rather than a lowly task. Indeed, cooking at home is a privilege. In the United States, many poor families lack access to fresh groceries and thus rely on fast-food restaurants and convenience items for daily sustenance. Contemporary luxury kitchens celebrate cooking as a leisure pursuit and a defining lifestyle endeavor. Poggenpohl’s +Artesio kitchen, designed by the architect Hadi Teherani, epitomizes the high-style integration of kitchen equipment with posh contemporary living. The +Artesio components aim to merge furniture design with architecture and elements that become walls and ceilings as well as storage units and work surfaces. As Teherani explains, “The kitchen itself is space-creating architecture.” These luxurious pieces—ideal for installation in an open, high-ceilinged loft—create flow between living and cooking areas that is more complex than that of the standard pass-through kitchen or cooking island.

MoMA’s Kinchin acknowledges that the Frankfurt kitchen has been widely criticized for isolating women’s work. “Schütte-Lihotzky never thought of her kitchens as a kind of timeless‚ ultimate solution to a design problem,” Kinchin explains, “but rather the best that she could do at that particular time. Her desire to reform the old-fashioned kitchen was part of designing for new patterns of living and thought, without pushing beyond the bounds of acceptability.”

Schütte-Lihotzky was inspired in part by Christine Frederick’s book Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home, translated into German in 1922. Frederick, an American writer whose work was widely read in Europe, tried to professionalize housework by adopting the principles of Taylorism, which used time-and-motion studies to improve productivity in factories. Frederick’s diagram of a poorly organized kitchen shows how a room that’s too wide or a stove that’s too far from the sink forces the harried housewife to zip around in a zigzag of wasted steps. Not a designer herself, Frederick rearranged existing cabinets, tables, and fixtures into a logical sequence designed to save time and effort. Schütte-Lihotzky merged Frederick’s ideas with a modernist design language to create an original, wholly coordinated kitchen.

Did Schütte-Lihotzky’s revolutionary model succeed? Some inhabitants who relocated to the Frankfurt housing estates resented not being able to bring their own kitchen furniture, and most of the original units have long since been ripped out. Nonetheless, the project’s impact was huge. Frederick’s theory of scientific management migrated back to the United States in the form of modular fitted cabinet systems. Built-in kitchens became standard in postwar building booms across the United States and Europe and remain so today. Ikea’s systems of interchangeable cabinet parts and functional metal rails certainly owe a debt to the Frankfurt kitchen.

The kitchen was important not just for the way it addressed the problems of daily life but for the fact that it addressed them at all. Embracing functional equipment as part of architecture was a new idea, as was the interest in improving women’s lives. The urge to enhance domestic routines through architecture continues today across a range of practices. Expanding the paradigm of the open-plan kitchen, the +Artesio system for Poggenpohl underscores the exalted status of food and cooking among people of means. Such high-class kitchens have moved beyond service to become space-shaping sculpture. Faltazi’s Ekokook is sculptural in its own way, embracing object over space. While the Ekokook is doggedly functional almost to the level of kitsch, it would likely attract complaints from the mom brigade. Its trash-crushing, paper-shredding, water-collecting chutes and hatches would surely incite the curiosity of toddlers while ensnaring adults in a fetishized ritual of labor-intensive trash collection.

As a mom myself, I feel little attraction to any of these kitchens. I don’t long to toil inside a tightly programmed pod or to hold court in a walnut-planked temple more suited to occasional “entertaining” than to everyday home life. Least of all do I wish to be enslaved by a futuristic waste-management facility. As a designer and critic, however, I am drawn to both the Ekokook and the Frankfurt kitchens as utopian manifestos that invest design with the power to change the way people live. The Frankfurt kitchen remains the most compelling of the two, pushing past utopia to become a reality, however flawed, in 10,000 homes.

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