Margarete’s Beautifully Engineered Modular Kitchen… Including the Sink

The years leading up to the Wall Street crash of 1929 were ironically a period of remarkable technological achievement and forward thinking. In America Charles Lindbergh would defy expectation and fly the Atlantic blind in the Spirit of St Louis, the eccentric Mr Ford would replace the Model T with the Model A, and the first Talkies would hit the newly conceived picture palaces like the Roxy Theatre in New York. Across the pond Alexander Fleming would discover penicillin in the basement of St Mary’s hospital Paddington, the BBC would be created and John Logie Baird would successfully transmit the first television greyscale image of a ventriloquist’s dummy nicknamed “Stooky Bill” in a 30-line vertically scanned image at five pictures per second. Meanwhile in France a young architect named Le Corbusier would write a radical treatise on modern architecture entitled ‘Towards a New Architecture’ and describe the house as a machine for living.

But in Germany in 1926 a hardworking and ambitious architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky would accept a job offer from Ernst May’s Municipal Building Department in the city of Frankfurt. At the time the department was dedicated to creating new housing that stood at the forefront of modern architectural design informed by the modular elements and mechanised assembly principles commonly found in contemporary manufacturing processes. In this context, through a series of vast Frankfurt housing projects, Margarete would create the prototype of what we would recognise today as the modern fitted kitchen. It came in different size versions depending on the occupant’s needs, but was notable for being particularly suitable for singles or couples living in an apartment and its purpose was to facilitate speedy and efficient kitchen work and around 10,000 were installed.

No doubt inspired in part by Ford’s assembly line principles and his radical functionalist design ethic, the Frankfurt Kitchen combines extreme spatial efficiency that aimed at rationalising workflow in the kitchen with an architectural aesthetic of simple clean lines and smooth easily cleaned surfaces. A huge visual contrast to the opulent art deco interiors of the Roxy Theatre and much more in keeping with the architecture of one of her first jobs the design of residential estates for World War I invalids along with star-architect and fellow Austrian Adolf Loos. Margarete appreciated that her Frankfurt Kitchen, as it would become known, should be regarded as part of a modernist effort to make all aspects of daily life more rational, efficient and hygienic, and less time-consuming. It was the first fitted kitchen and the prototype for all subsequent built-in kitchens. In its day it was widely publicised in Germany and abroad, and a film was even made about it in 1928.

The detail design of the kitchen was based on the principles of F.W. Taylor’s ‘Scientific Management’, a system that analysed the most efficient ways of undertaking tasks in the home and workplace. And another important design influence was Efficiency Studies in Home Management (1913) by Christine Frederick. These works studied the movement and circulation patterns of somebody engaged in daily work in the kitchen and the conclusions were reflected in the efficient positioning of each element of the Frankfurt Kitchen in relation to others elements and in the provision of features aimed at saving labour and providing physical comfort.

For example, the work table for preparing food was located under a light-giving window and adjacent to the sink, and both positioned vertically a height for using while seated and standing. Storage chutes with handles and pouring spouts for dry comestibles were integrated into the furniture thereby obviating the need for the steps involved in opening cupboards, then jars, and spooning out the contents. There was also the very obvious introduction of the drop-down ironing board, omitting the need for time consuming and often frustrating assembly and storage. And the Frankfurt kitchen also introduced the sink cutting board as well as the integrated yet removable garbage drawer vented externally, and an overall storage organisation system with labelled bins and conveniently placed cupboards and drawers.

The kitchen was made in three sizes, to fit different flats, including those with no servants, and those with one or even two servants. At the time it was possible even for those living in municipal housing to have servants given the low wages paid for domestic help. The small size of the kitchen reflected a pursuit of efficiency, the belief that eating in the kitchen was unhygienic, and a desire to save space for the living areas of the flat.

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Not only was the idea of labour-saving important to the layout of the kitchen, it was central to its construction and cost effectiveness. The kitchen came fully furnished, a novelty at the time, and the small one set you back about 100 Reichsmark. This was when the Model T cost $250 and it converts to approximately $25 after the Reichsmark was put onto the Gold Standard after the hyperinflation of the early 1920s. For reasons of economy and for the avoidance of redundancy, the modular cabinets had no backs and owing to the continuity of the units, there was just one side wall required for each modular unit. Financing was offered to flat residents to enable them to buy a kitchen, which they paid off through their monthly rent.

Margarete stayed in Frankfurt until the early 1930s occupied by her work on engineering small spaces and also designing for other cities such as Vienna where she designed two apartment blocks on the tiniest of footprints. However, with the political situation in the Weimar Republic and Austria deteriorating and Margarete identified as a socialist from her student days, she and a couple of her colleagues went to Moscow on a program designed to attract foreign architects to help build in the Soviet Union. Margarete helped design for the industrial city of Magnetogorsk and stayed until her pass expired in 1937.

Subsequently she and her husband, Wilhelm Schütte, moved to London and then Paris but had trouble finding work there. In 1938 she moved to Istanbul where she met several other Austrian communists who tried to build up a resistance network in what by then had become part of “Greater Germany”. Lihotzky decided to join them and travelled back to Vienna. After some initial success in establishing contact with the small communist underground, the Gestapo arrested her and her companions in 1941. Initially sentenced to death, her husband managed to save her by stealing stationary from the Turkish government and intervening on her behalf. Margarete spend the rest of the war in a prison in Bavaria.

After the war and despite her anti-Nazi activity, the Austrian establishment shunned her by denying her publicly funded work because she was a communist. She was forced to take jobs consulting for housing projects in the GDR, Cuba and China. Only in the 80s did the Austrian establishment decided to honour her for her work but Margarete caused another uproar by refusing an award by then president of Austria Kurt Waldheim because of his past association with several Nazi organisations. She was one of the most outspoken critics of Austrian far-right politics in the 90s, especially Jörg Haider of the Freedom Party, and for her 100th birthday the city of Vienna awarded her the highest honours. She died in 2000 just five days short of her 103rd birthday.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky should be remembered not only as an important architectural pioneer whose influence extends to this day particular with regard to the creation of beautifully engineered and ingenious spaces. Spaces with their own distinctive modern aesthetic of simple clean lines, uncluttered surfaces, muted colours and responsive ergonomic functionality. But she must also be acknowledged as a staunch anti-Nazi activist, a women of considerable moral courage and accordingly one of the most remarkable Austrian women of the 20th century.

The kitchen from the V&A collection is currently in storage. It was recently rescued from a Frankfurt apartment after almost eighty years of use. It had only been repainted once in that time, and has been restored to its original paint scheme. In 2011 the MoMA New York staged an exhibition entitled Counter Space which showed cased another salvaged Frankfurt Kitchen almost identical to the V&A version. The catalogue from this exhibition illustrating the kitchen is available as a download from the MoMA website. For the biographical notes on Margarete’s later years the writer is indebted to spaceinvaderioe.

Tom Frearson