Margarete “Grete” Schütte-Lihotzky was an Austrian architect and a communist activist in the German resistance to Nazism. She is mostly remembered today for designing what is known as the Frankfurt kitchen.
Margarete Lihotzky was born on 23 January 1897 into a bourgeois family in Margareten, since 1850 part of Vienna. Her grandfather Gustav Lihotzky was a mayor of Czernowitz, Ducal Bukovina, and her mother Julie Bode was relative of Wilhelm von Bode. Her father was a liberal-minded civil servant, Erwin Lihotzky, whose pacifism made him welcome the end of the Habsburg Empire and the founding of the republic in 1918. Lihotzky became the first female student at the Kunstgewerbeschule, today the University of Applied Arts Vienna, where renowned artists such as Josef Hoffmann, Anton Hanak, and Oskar Kokoschka taught. Lihotzky almost did not get in. Her mother persuaded a close friend to ask the famous artist Gustav Klimt for a letter of recommendation. In 1997, celebrating her 100th birthday and reminiscing about her decision to study architecture, she remarked that “in 1916 no one would have conceived of a woman being commissioned to build a house – not even myself.”
Lihotzky studied architecture under Oskar Strnad, winning prizes for her designs even before her graduation. Strnad was one of the pioneers of sozialer Wohnbau in Vienna, affordable yet comfortable social housing for the working classes. Inspired by him, Lihotzky understood that connecting design to functionality was the new trend that would be in demand in the future. After graduating, among her other projects, she collaborated with Adolf Loos, planning settlements for World War I invalids and veterans. During this time she also worked alongside architect Josef Frank and philosopher Otto Neurath in the context of the newly founded Austrian Settlement and Allotment Garden Association where she developed core houses. Her memories of these and many other Austrian architects and intellectuals are collected in her book Warum ich Architektin wurde (Why I Became an Architect).
In 1926 she was called to the Hochbauamt of the City Council of Frankfurt am Main, Germany, by the architect and city planner Ernst May where she worked on the New Frankfurt project. May had been given the political power and financial resources to solve Frankfurt’s housing shortage. He and Schütte-Lihotzky, together with the rest of May’s assembled architectural staff, successfully brought functional clarity and humanitarian values to thousands of the city’s housing units.
Lihotzky continued her work by designing kindergartens, students’ homes, schools and similar community buildings. Schütte-Lihotzky designed kindergarten pavilions based on the ideas of Maria Montessori. In Frankfurt she met colleague Wilhelm Schütte, whom she married the following year.
As part of the New Frankfurt-project Lihotzky created the Frankfurt Kitchen in 1926, which was the prototype of the built-in kitchen now prevalent in the Western world. Based on scientific research by U.S. management expert Frederick Winslow Taylor and her own research, Lihotzky used a railroad dining car kitchen as her model to design a “housewife’s laboratory” using a minimum of space but offering a maximum of comfort and equipment. The kitchen measured just 1.9 x 3.4 meters. Kitchen surfaces were painted blue-green as scientists claimed the color repelled flies. The Frankfurt City Council eventually installed 10,000 of her mass-produced, prefabricated kitchens in newly-built working-class apartments.
On her 100th birthday Schütte-Lihotzky commented “You’ll be surprised that, before I conceived the Frankfurt Kitchen in 1926, I never cooked myself. At home in Vienna my mother cooked, in Frankfurt I went to the Wirthaus [restaurant-pub]. I designed the kitchen as an architect, not as a housewife.”
As the political situation in the Weimar Republic deteriorated and shifted to the political right, Schütte-Lihotzky joined a team of seventeen architects, the “May Brigade”, led by architect Ernst May and including her husband and Erich Mauthner, also from Vienna. In 1930 they travelled to Moscow by train. There the group was commissioned to help realize the first of Stalin’s five-year plans by building the industrial city of Magnitogorsk in the southern Ural Mountains. On their arrival, the city consisted of mud huts and barracks. It was to have 200,000 inhabitants in a few years’ time, the majority the populace working in the steel industry. Although the May Brigade was credited with the construction of 20 cities in three years, political conditions were bad and the results mixed. May left Russia in 1933 when his contract was up.
With the exception of brief business trips and lecture tours to Japan and China, Schütte-Lihotzky remained in the Soviet Union until 1937, when Stalin’s Great Purge made life there intolerable and dangerous as well. She and her husband moved first to London and later to Paris. Also, in 1933 Schütte-Lihotzky had presented some of her work at the Chicago world’s fair, “Century of Progress”.
In 1938 Schütte-Lihotzky, together with her husband, was called to Istanbul, Turkey, to teach at the Academy of Fine Arts, and to reunite with exiled German architect Bruno Taut. Unfortunately Taut died soon after their arrival. On the eve of World War II Istanbul was a haven for exiled Europeans, a common destination for exiled Germans, and the Schüttes encountered artists such as the musicians Béla Bartók and Paul Hindemith.
In Istanbul Schütte-Lihotzky met fellow Austrian Herbert Eichholzer, an architect who at the time was busy organizing Communist resistance to the Nazi regime. In 1939 Schütte-Lihotzky joined the Austrian Communist Party (KPÖ) and in December 1940, of her own free will, together with Eichholzer, travelled back to Vienna to secretly contact the Austrian communist resistance movement. Schütte-Lihotzky agreed to meet a leading Resistance member nicknamed “Gerber”, Erwin Puschmann, and help set up a communications line with Istanbul. She met “Gerber” at the Cafe Viktoria on 22 January 1941, where they were surprised and arrested by the Gestapo, only 25 days after her arrival. While Eichholzer and other resistance fighters, who had also been seized, were charged with high treason, sentenced to death by the Volksgerichtshof and executed in 1943, Schütte-Lihotzky was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment and taken to a prison in Aichach, Bavaria. She was liberated by U.S. troops on 29 April 1945.
After the war, she went to work in Sofia, Bulgaria, eventually returning to her native Vienna in 1947. Her strong political views – she remained a communist – prevented her from receiving any major public commissions in post-war Austria, despite the fact that innumerable buildings had been destroyed and had to be rebuilt (Wiederaufbau). Consequently, apart from designing some private homes, Schütte-Lihotzky worked as a consultant in China, Cuba, and the German Democratic Republic. In 1951 she separated from her husband, Wilhelm Schütte.
Belatedly, her accomplishments were officially recognized in Austria. She was first recognized for her non-architecture activities: in 1977 she received a medal for her peace work and, in 1978, an honor badge for her work in the Resistance. She received the Architecture Award from the City of Vienna in 1980. In 1985 she published her memoirs, Erinnerungen aus dem Widerstand (Memories From the Resistance). She refused to be honored in 1988 by Austrian Federal President Kurt Waldheim on the grounds of Waldheim’s dubious wartime record. She eventually received the award in 1992. In 1995 she was one of a group of Austrian Holocaust survivors who sued Jörg Haider after a debate in the Austrian parliament on bomb attacks on Romanies in which Haider referred to Nazi concentration camps as “prison camps”.
In 1990 a scale model of the Frankfurt Kitchen was put on display in the Austrian Museum for Applied Art in Vienna.
She celebrated her 100th birthday in 1997, dancing a short waltz with the Mayor of Vienna and remarking, “I would have enjoyed it, for a change, to design a house for a rich man.”
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky died in Vienna on 18 January 2000, at the age of 102, five days before her 103rd birthday, of complications after contracting influenza. She was interred in the Vienna Central Cemetery.
The Australian singer, writer, and director Robyn Archer wrote a play based on Schütte-Lihotzky’s life. Architektin, featuring Helen Morse, Ksenja Logos, Craig Behenna, Duncan Graham, Antje Guenther, Michael Habib and Nick Pelomis, produced by the State Theatre Company of South Australia, and directed by Adam Cook, opened on 2 September 2008 at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, South Australia. The song “The Frankfurt Kitchen” by Rotifer is another tribute to her work.
The Frankfurt Kitchen
The Frankfurt kitchen (Frankfurterkueche) was a milestone in domestic architecture, considered the forerunner of modern fitted kitchens, for it was first kitchen in history built after a unified concept, i.e. low-cost design that would enable efficient work. It was designed in 1926 by Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky for architect Ernst May’s social housing project New Frankfurt in Frankfurt, Germany. Some 10,000 units were built in the late 1920s in Frankfurt. In 1930, the Soviet Russian government requested for May to lead a “building brigade” and implement the Frankfurt model when planning new industrial towns in the Soviet Union.
German cities after the end of World War I were plagued by a serious housing shortage. Various social housing projects were built in the 1920s to increase the number of rental apartments. These large-scale projects had to provide affordable apartments for a great number of typical working-class families and thus were subject to tight budget constraints. As a consequence, the apartments designed were comfortable but not spacious, and so the architects sought to reduce costs by applying one design for large numbers of apartments.
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s design of the kitchen for the Römerstadt thus had to solve the problem of how to build many kitchens without allowing it to occupy too much of the apartment’s total space. Her design departed from the then common kitchen-cum-living room. The typical worker’s household lived in a two-room apartment, in which the kitchen served many functions at once: besides cooking, one dined, lived, bathed, and even slept there, while the second room, intended as the parlor, often was reserved for special occasions such as a Sunday dinner. Instead, Schütte-Lihotzky’s kitchen was a small separate room, connected to the living room by a sliding door; thus separating the functions of work (cooking etc.) from those of living and relaxing, consistent with her view about life:
Erstens besteht es in Arbeit, und zweitens in Ausruhen, Gesellschaft, Genuß.
“Firstly, it [life] is work, and secondly it is relaxing, company, pleasures.”
— Margarethe Schütte-Lihotzky in Schlesisches Heim 8/1921
Schütte-Lihotzky’s design was strongly influenced by the ideas of Taylorism (i.e. “Scientific management”), which was in vogue at the beginning of the 20th century. Started by Catharine Beecher in the middle of the 19th century and reinforced by Christine Frederick’s publications in the 1910s, the growing trend that called for viewing household work as a true profession had the logical consequence that Taylorism-pioneered industrial optimization would accordingly be applied to the domestic area. Frederick’s The New Housekeeping, which argued for Taylorist rationalization of kitchen, had been translated into German under the title Die rationelle Haushaltsführung in 1922. These ideas were received well in Germany and Austria and formed the base of German architect Erna Meyer’s work and were also instrumental in Schütte-Lihotzky’s design of the Frankfurt kitchen. She did detailed time-motion studies to determine how long each processing step in the kitchen took, and redesigned and optimized workflows accordingly to support these workflows. Improving the ergonomics of the kitchen and rationalization of kitchen work was important to her:
Das Problem, die Arbeit der Hausfrau rationeller zu gestalten, ist fast für alle Schichten der Bevölkerung von gleicher Wichtigkeit. Sowohl die Frauen des Mittelstandes, die vielfach ohne irgendwelche Hilfe im Haus wirtschaften, als auch Frauen des Arbeiterstandes, die häufig noch anderer Berufsarbeit nachgehen müssen, sind so überlastet, daß ihre Überarbeitung auf die Dauer nicht ohne Folgen für die gesamte Volksgesundheit bleiben kann.
“The problem of rationalizing the housewife’s work is equally important to all classes of the society. Both the middle-class women, who often work without any help [i.e. without servants] in their homes, and also the women of the worker class, who often have to work in other jobs, are overworked to the point that their stress is bound to have serious consequences for public health at large.”
— Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in Das neue Frankfurt, 5/1926-1927
This quote succinctly sums up the reasons for the appeal of Taylorism at the time. On the one hand, the trend to “rationalize” the household was reinforced by the intention to reduce the time spent in (economically speaking) “unproductive” housework, so that women would have more time for factory work. On the other hand, emancipatory efforts to improve women’s status, also in the home, called for justification to relieve women and enable them to pursue other interests.
The small kitchen of the Bauhaus designed Haus am Horn, built 1923, with specific storage and drawers for specific items was also a source of inspiration for Schütte-Lihotzky.
Schütte-Lihotzky was strongly inspired by the extremely space-constrained railway dining car kitchens, which she saw as a Taylorist ideal: even though these were very small, two people could prepare and serve the meals for about 100 guests, and then wash and store the dishes.
To this day, in Germany Schütte-Lihotzky’s elaborate kitchen unit workplaces have remained the model for built-in kitchens in public housing.
The Frankfurt kitchen was a narrow double-file kitchen measuring 1.9 m × 3.4 m (6.2 ft × 11.2 ft). The entrance was located in one of the short walls, opposite which was the window. Along the left side, the stove was placed, followed by a sliding door connecting the kitchen to the dining and living room. On the right wall were cabinets and the sink, in front of the window a workspace. There was no refrigerator, but there was a foldable ironing board visible in the image folded against the left wall.
The narrow layout of the kitchen was not due solely to the space constraints mentioned above. It was equally a conscious design decision in a Taylorist attempt to reduce the number of steps needed when working in the kitchen as well as reduce the walking distance between the kitchen and the table in the adjacent room via the addition of a sliding door.
Dedicated storage bins for common ingredients such as flour, sugar, rice and others were intended to keep the kitchen tidy and well-organized; the workspace even had an integrated, removable “waste drawer” such that scraps could just be shoved into it while working and the whole thing emptied at once afterwards.
Because conventional kitchen furniture of the time fit neither the new workflows nor the narrow space, the Frankfurt kitchen was installed complete with furniture and major appliances such as the stove, a novelty at that time in Germany. It was the first fitted kitchen. The wooden door and drawer fronts were painted blue because researchers had found that flies avoided blue surfaces. Lihotzky used oak wood for flour containers, because it repelled mealworms, and beech for table tops because beech is resistant to staining, acids, and scratching. The seating was a revolving stool on casters for maximum flexibility.
Schütte-Lihotzky actually designed three different variations of the Frankfurt kitchen. Type 1, the one described here, was the most common and least costly. She also designed “Type 2” and “Type 3”, which were larger, had tables, and were spacious enough for one or even two additional persons to help in the kitchen. These two latter types, however, did not have the impact her “Type 1” model had.
Erna Meyer responded to the criticisms of the Frankfurt kitchen with her Stuttgart kitchen, presented in 1927. It was slightly larger and had a more square ground plan, and used unit furniture in an attempt to make it adaptable to both the future users’ needs and different room shapes.
Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt kitchen was installed in some 10,000 units in Frankfurt and as such was a commercial success. The cost of a single kitchen, fully equipped, was moderate (a few hundred Reichsmark); the costs were passed on to the rent (which reportedly increased the rents by 1 RM per month).
However, the users of these kitchens often had their difficulties with them. Unaccustomed to Schütte-Lihotzky’s custom-designed workflow-centered kitchens, they often were at loss as to how to use the kitchen. It was frequently described as not flexible enough—the dedicated storage bins often were used for other things than their labels said. Another problem with these bins was that they were easily reachable by small children. Schütte-Lihotzky had designed the kitchen for one adult person only; children or even a second adult had not entered the picture; in fact, the kitchen was too small for two people to work in. Most contemporary criticism concentrated on such rather technical aspects. Nevertheless, the Frankfurt kitchen subsequently became a model for a modern work kitchen. For the rest of the 20th century, the compact yet rationalized “Frankfurt kitchen” became the standard of tenement buildings throughout Europe.
In the 1970s and 80s, feminist criticism found that the emancipatory intentions that had in part motivated the development of the work kitchen had actually backfired: precisely because of the design’s “specialized rationalization” and its small size that allows only one person could work in them comfortably, housewives tended to become isolated from the life in the rest of the house. What had started as an emancipatory attempt by all proponents (such as Beecher, Frederick, or Meyer, who had always implicitly assumed that the kitchen was the woman’s domain) to optimize and revalue work in the home was now seen as a confinement of the woman to the kitchen.
Kitchens in the 1930s until the 1960s in Germany were often smaller and less comfortable. Housing societies thought that the Frankfurt kitchen was too luxurious. But the principles of this kitchen were adapted in other countries like Sweden and Switzerland and reimported to Germany, and recognized to be the same like the Frankfurt kitchen before. The major difference of most of the later kitchens was that the Frankfurt kitchen used relatively expensive materials and not particle boards.
Most Frankfurt kitchens were thrown away in the 1960s and 1970s, when modern kitchens with easy to clean surfaces like Resopal became affordable. Often, only the aluminum drawers, which are themselves atypical of a modern kitchen, survived. They were also sold separately for a few years by Haarer, the manufacturing company and chosen by architects and cabinet makers for their furniture.
By the time public interest on the work of Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in the late 1990s was revived, most kitchens did not exist anymore. Some homeowners have built replicas; a very few originals still exist. The original house Im Burgfeld 136, Frankfurt was chosen to be a museum because of the surviving Frankfurt kitchen.
In 2005 the Victoria and Albert Museum acquired a “Frankfurt” kitchen for its traveling exhibition “Modernism: Designing a New World” with stops in London, the US and Germany. The kitchen was dismantled from its original place, restored and repainted.