How One Kitchen Design Changed The World

Before modern conveniences and space savings techniques, there was the Frankfurt Kitchen

Think of your kitchen in your house or apartment – maybe it’s sprawling, maybe it’s tiny – but have you ever thought of where it came from? Not the stove or the fridge, but the design of the room itself. Chances are, you’ve got Margarete Schutte-Lihotzsky, the creator of the Frankfurt Kitchen, to thank for it.

D'annunzio's house. Kitchen, by Giovanni Vanoglio, 2013 (From the collection of Vittoriale degli Italiani)

Before Margarete’s radical concept, kitchens were integrated as complex living spaces, and a little bit of everything took place there: from cooking, to eating, to sleeping, to catching up with your family.

Kitchen (From the collection of Eisenhower National Historic Site, National Park Service)

But, as Margarete took the reins, redesigning the kitchen as its own self-contained room built for maximum efficiency and minimal waste of space, the whole ethos around cooking and food preparation – the very purpose of a kitchen – changed irrevocably.

A Compact Kitchen is a Happy Kitchen

Margarete’s design was incredibly inventive, inspired in part by train car kitchens and galleys buried in the belly of ships. Cleverly, she made use of easily accessible storage bins, a slot for food waste to be swept smoothly into the trash, a darker paint color to dispel annoying flies, and beech wood for countertops, since it was particularly resilient and resistant to scratches and accidental stains. The anarchy of chairs was replaced by a stool on castor wheels, allowing it to zip around the kitchen, or to be tucked out of the way as needed. With this revolutionary redesign, compactness became the top priority to make the work in the kitchen easier, and giving it the respect it deserved.

G.E. Kitchens, by Nina Leen (From the Collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Her compact design caught on and she soon oversaw the creation of over 10,000 of them. Suddenly, aluminum bins had labels, everything was reachable from the sink, and there was a window to allow for bright light, fresh air, and for cooking smells to waft out into the breeze. The domestic space had earned respectful treatment at last. Sound familiar yet?

A Space Too Solitary to Entertain

Of course, this new kitchen design wasn’t without its pitfalls. In the rush for efficiency, some people thought Margarete’s design was too isolating, designed in essence for one person to work in it, a massive change from the hub of life that earlier kitchens had been, with more than enough space for the family to mill around, chatter, and dip their fingers into the soup. The kitchen had lost its place as a center for life, as well as its reputation for gossip.

Richmond Fire Department kitchen, Colonial Studio, 19957-01-03 (From the collection of The Valentine)

As people embraced the Frankfurt Kitchen, simplified households caught on, and gradually became the standard for apartment dwellers and small houses alike — all thanks to Margarete’s smart thinking. Through her innovative work, Margarete showed how trailblazing a designer could be, working alongside architects and designers, to reconceive something that had been taken for granted.

Cook in the kitchen, Elio Luxardo, 1940 (From the collection of Fondazione 3M)

No matter how often you use your kitchen, whether you whip up hearty stews and sauces or use your stove for extra shoe storage, without Margarete’s insightful willingness to think outside of the box, the modern kitchen wouldn’t be nearly the smartly appointed, efficiently designed, and useful space we now know and love.

So, raise a glass – or a soup ladle, whatever you might be holding – to Margarete, the design godmother of kitchens from Frankfurt and beyond.

Frankfurt Kitchen, by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, 1926/1930 (From the Collection of Minneapolis Institute of Art)
Words by Jesse Aylen
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