This 100-Year-Old Kitchen Design Looks Better than Ever
Almost 100 years ago, in 1926, a team of architects set out to design the home of the future. In the wake of the first World War, Frankfurt, Germany experienced a huge housing crisis, and the team, headed by Ernst May, was tasked with creating 10,000 new units of worker housing. It was the perfect opportunity to show off the new ideals of modernism, and to create a home that was a shining example of minimalism and efficiency. The perfect modern home needed a perfect modern kitchen, and for its design May turned — unusually at the time — to a woman.
That woman was Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, Austria’s first female architect. Although the kitchen she created retains its loveliness, even almost 100 years later, her main goal was efficiency. In her mind, creating a kitchen where women could best work was the first step towards their independence.
The kitchen was small — only thirteen feet long and seven feet wide. Today’s kitchens are conceived as gathering spots, a place for family and friends to congregate, but at the time, the approach to the kitchen was much more practical: it was a space for making meals only. As such, a smaller kitchen was actually desirable, since it reduced the number of steps the lady of the house would have to take while going about her business. (At the time of the building of the worker housing estates, poorer German families were in the habit of gathering in the kitchen, and even sleeping there, since it was usually the warmest room in the house. But the architects of the new order meant to discourage this practice, which they saw as unhygienic.)
Schütte-Lihotzky was inspired by the work of Christine Frederick, who translated new ideas about industrial efficiency into recommendations for efficiency in all kinds of household tasks, including cooking. She took notes from real-life examples of small, efficient kitchens, in ship galleys and railroad cars. And she was also inspired by the kitchen Benita Otte created for the Bauhaus’ Haus am Horn in 1923, which had something that was then considered quite radical: a long, continuous countertop.
The Frankfurt kitchen had a wall of cabinets on one side, which included the sink, with a built-in dish drainer above. On the same wall you’ll see another one of Schütte-Lihotzky’s thoughtful and efficient touches: a set of built-in aluminum storage bins for dry goods, each with a handle, a spout for pouring, and a label to indicate its contents. (Some housewives chafed at the rigidness of the pre-labeled bins, but they sure did look nice.)
On the opposite side of the kitchen was the stove, and the ‘cook box’ for keeping things warm. In front of the kitchen’s window was a worktable, with a stool so the lady of the house could sit while doing food prep. The worktable had a built-in ‘garbage drawer’ (which would’ve been considered sufficient, since most folks generated substantially less garbage back then). In front of the worktable, an ironing board folded down from the wall, when needed.
One thing the kitchen did not include was a refrigerator. At the time, home refrigerators were still relatively new, quite expensive, and considered an extravagance in a place like Frankfurt where most people shopped every day.
You may not long to put your rice into little bins, and you almost certainly haven’t dreamed about going without a refrigerator, but even so, almost 100 years after its inception, the Frankfurt kitchen still feels strangely modern. Through countless publications, it was hugely influential on succeeding kitchen designs on both sides of the pond — and like all good designs, it has stood the test of time. It is, essentially, the prototype for the modern kitchen.