(Roughly) Daily

“There is nothing nicer than a kitchen really made for a cook. Things that are designed to be used always have an innate beauty.”*…

The Frankfurt Kitchen

In an earlier (R)D, we looked at Lillian Gilbreth‘s hugely influential design for “The Kitchen Practical.” At roughly the same time, a similar, but interestingly different design was debuted in Frankfurt. 99% Invisible has the story…

After World War I, in Frankfurt, Germany, the city government was taking on a big project. A lot of residents were in dire straits, and in the second half of the 1920s, the city built over 10,000 public housing units. It was some of the earliest modern architecture — simple, clean, and uniform. The massive housing effort was, in many ways, eye-poppingly impressive, with all new construction and sleek, cutting edge architecture. But one room in these new housing units was far and away the most lauded and influential: and that was the kitchen.

Many consider the Frankfurt Kitchen to be nothing less than the first modern kitchen. [It did pre-date Gilbreth’s creation by a couple of years, though it’s unclear whether Gilbreth knew of it.] A few of these kitchens still exist, some in museums. And it’s strange to see one there, because to modern eyes, it doesn’t appear to be high art. It just looks like a kitchen.

But so many things that we totally take for granted now as standard kitchen features were pretty unheard of before they showed up in the Frankfurt Kitchen. Things like a cookstove that wasn’t also your house’s heat source; well-planned storage to stash your plates and glasses; a way to wash dishes that didn’t involve hauling a heavy tub of water into the house; and slatted racks for drying dishes over the countertops.

Standardization ruled this design. Before, for example, there weren’t long surfaces that were uniform in height. Most kitchens just had whatever random assortment of tables you could throw in them. The Frankfurt Kitchen, countertops and all, was mass-produced off-site — which was a totally new phenomenon. It was designed to fit in relatively small apartments. So, here is perhaps the most visibly striking thing about the kitchen: it is super compact.

To the woman who designed it, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, the Frankfurt Kitchen was a revolution. Not just because it was part of a huge effort to get people housed, but because of its wildly efficient layout. It was designed to fit, and to bring modern appliances and architecture to the masses — but it was also designed to conserve the user’s energy. To make cooking as fast and easy as possible. And to Schütte-Lihotzky, that ease was political…

Schutte-Lihotzky was methodical and scientific in her planning. She studied how women used their kitchens, and mapped out their movements like football plays or complex dance steps, with little lines across the floor, and streamlined accordingly, until she came up with this very design – a kitchen in which no single step or reach of the arm was unnecessary.

From the 1920s into the present, many architects and home cooks celebrated, even revered the Frankfurt Kitchen. And the echoes of her design are still everywhere. But Schütte-Lihotzky’s feminist legacy is a bit more complicated. She was revolutionary in that she paid attention to the kitchen, a space that had historically been neglected by architects and designers. She laid everything out with the goal of lessening the burden of housework for women. But by the time Schütte-Lihotzky designed this revolutionary kitchen, many feminists had already been questioning whether private kitchens could ever be designed to liberate women. Or whether they were irredeemable, and needed to be abolished. And their stories show just how much design can accomplish… and how much it can’t…

The instructive story of “The Frankfurt Kitchen,” from @99piorg.

* Julia Child


As we save steps, we might spare a thought for M. F. K. (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher; she died on this date in 1992. A food writer and founder of the Napa Valley Wine Library, she published 27 books (including a translation of The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin) and hundreds of essays and reviews. Of her work, W. H. Auden once remarked, “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.”


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