A woman stands in a small, 1940s-era kitchen with white cabinets and a dining table.
A woman cooks in a small 1940s-era kitchen. Bettmann/Getty Images

There are “dream kitchens,” and then there’s the Frankfurt Kitchen, designed by architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in 1926.

We often think of apartment kitchens as problems to be solved. They’re likely to be short on counter space, storage, and light, or they’re stubbornly out of step with trends in interior design. As renters, we may try to spruce them up with extra shelves and unusual drawer pulls.

Dream kitchens, by contrast, are the light-filled, airy, marble-clad workspaces where movie characters sip tea before an open laptop. They’re situated well outside the city limits, inside large houses on landscaped grounds. The ideal view over the horizon of the kitchen sink is a tall hydrangea shrub, not a brick wall. The ideal American kitchen has long had an implicit pro-suburban bias, positing city kitchens as the domain of the young, single, and struggling.

The contemporary “dream kitchen” is spacious, light-filled, and implicitly suburban. (pics721/Shutterstock)

This isn’t accidental: Suburban kitchens were designed to appeal to families settling in the new suburbs in the decades following the end of World War II, and were marketed as a reprieve to the (supposedly) cramped urban kitchens that people were leaving behind.

Viewed through a 21st-century lens, kitchen politics usually fall along the fault line of gender and domestic labor: We debate who does their share of the housework and cooking in a family, and what that means for women’s professional development and personal well-being. The fault line prior to the mid-20th century wasn’t gender, but class. We’re used to thinking of kitchens as a universal kind of room that almost everyone has—as essential as a place to sleep, or a bathroom. Our great-great-grandparents were not.  

As Cait Etherington points out in an essay about New York City apartment kitchens, one reason that many urban apartments today have such odd or deficient kitchen setups is that they weren’t designed with full kitchens in the first place:

[Newer] kitchens were either added on long after the apartment’s construction or were originally built to serve multiple purposes (for example, to serve triple duty as a kitchen, bathing area and bedroom). The result is a hodgepodge of kitchen facilities that range from cramped to outrageously dysfunctional.

A family in a tenement kitchen in Cincinnati. Even as late as the 1930s, some poor families did not have discrete kitchens or dedicated kitchen furnishings. (Photograph by Carl Mydans/Library of Congress)

This approach makes sense when you consider that the only fully-outfitted kitchens were, prior to the 20th century, true workspaces where household staff labored in the service of a well-to-do (or even middle-class) family. For the poor and working class, dwellings generally had no discrete kitchen. In a one- or two-room home, be it an apartment or a farmhouse, a large cast-iron stove was likely to be the only major appliance, and might also be a family’s primary heat source. A table or set of shelves might serve to house utensils and tools, but there were no standardized cabinets or kitchen “furniture” as we know them today.

Images from photojournalist and activist Jacob Riis’s 1890 book How the Other Half Lives showed families and boarding-house residents in tight quarters that were poorly lit and lacked adequate workspace and running water. At the other end of the class spectrum, as Gwendolyn Wright notes in her 1981 history of American housing,  during the Gilded Age, there were posh “apartment hotels” for the wealthy, such as the Grosvenor Apartments on lower Fifth Avenue, that didn’t offer individual kitchens. Well-heeled residents would simply order food brought up, as though they were staying at the Ritz-Carlton.

***

The idea of a dedicated space to cook, which might also be stylish and even fun to spend time in, was only possible because of two major impacts of industrialization. First, mass production, along with municipal gas, water, and electricity, made modern appliances affordable, and more broadly, it triggered an enormous social upheaval that transformed social class in the western world. In other words, the 20th-century kitchen was a new kind of room designed for a new kind of person.

Second, after World War I, women who had formerly worked in domestic service began pursuing better paying kinds of work, like teaching, nursing, retail, and factory labor. The Great Depression wiped out much of the recently accrued wealth of the 1920s, and many families learned to do without housekeepers and cooks, sometimes for good.

As if on cue, manufacturers had just the thing: appliances that were advertised, as in one especially glamorous Westinghouse print ad from 1922, as “invisible servants.” In the 1920s and ‘30s, modern appliances were sometimes seen to substitute for household staff in families that could no longer afford help, or they could make domestic life easier for families that had never had help in the first place. Julia Child would later refer to these people (which is to say, the vast majority of humanity) as “servantless”—an idea so novel in the context of gourmet cooking that it needed its own special term.

The suburban dream kitchens of the 1950s took this idea to the nth degree, positioning the kitchen not only as a high-tech realm of push-button ease and efficiency, but also as an attractive, cozy, and even festive living space where families could spend time and enjoy meals together—a far cry from How the Other Half Lives.

But there’s a missing piece in the heritage of the dream-kitchen narrative, and it’s the apartment kitchen. In a sense, its roots lie in the tenement kitchens of mid-20th century nightmares, because it was designed as an antidote to their Old World counterparts. It was modern, colorful, geometric, efficient, and stylish. Like Modernism itself, it came from Europe, and it changed everything.

You might not have heard of the Frankfurt Kitchen, but if you have neatly organized cabinets, an easy-to-clean tiled backsplash, and a colorful countertop, in a sense, you already cook in one.

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Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897–2000) was the first Austrian woman ever to qualify as an architect. Following World War I, she was tasked with the design of standard kitchens for a new housing project by city planner and architect Ernst May. The Great War left rubble and a desperate housing shortage in its wake, but it also opened the way for new ideas and new designs.

There was a pervasive sense among Europe’s leading designers, from Le Corbusier in France to Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus in Germany, that the need to rebuild in the 1920s, though rooted in tragedy, offered a society fresh start, and a chance to leave behind the class distinctions that were baked into 18th- and 19th-century architecture while they were at it. Very much in this mold, Ernst May was a utopian thinker, and his International Style design for the Frankfurt project, known as New Frankfurt, featured egalitarian amenities for the community like schools, playgrounds, and theaters, along with access to fresh air, light, and green space.

For her part, though she was a career woman herself, Schütte-Lihotzky believed that housework was a profession and deserved to be treated seriously as such. This counted as feminism in the 1920s, and although we might find it essentializing or insulting today, making housework easier was considered a form of emancipation for women.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky pictured in 1997 in Vienna. She died in 2000, shortly before her 103rd birthday.
(Ronald Zak/AP)

This belief echoes that of American domestic scientist Christine Frederick, who conducted a series of experiments and studies to determine the optimal layout of appliances, work surfaces, and storage in a domestic kitchen. Frederick had studied the methods of mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, who innovated the modern practice of scientific management. Taylor’s time and motion studies helped designers devise the optimal position of equipment and people in factories, by breaking down tasks into their component parts. That Frederick thought to emulate Taylor’s system speaks to a fascinating shift in how domestic work was understood in the early 20th century.

Schütte-Lihotzky conceived of the Frankfurt Kitchen as a separate room in each apartment, which was a design choice that had previously applied only to the cavernous kitchens that served great houses. She used a sliding door to separate it from the main living space. She read Frederick and Taylor’s works translated into German, and even conducted her own time and motion studies.

And presaging the work of American designers Norman Bel Geddes and Raymond Loewy, who drew inspiration from trains and cars in designing their streamlined kitchen appliances in the 1930s, Schütte-Lihotzky found a model of culinary efficiency in the kitchens of railway dining cars designed by the Mitropa catering company. Though tiny, the cars served scores of diners using an extremely small galley space—a term we still used to describe apartment kitchens today.

A reconstruction of the Frankfurt Kitchen in the Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna. Schütte-Lihotzky took inspiration from the efficient “galley” kitchens of railway dining cars—a term for small kitchens that has stayed with us. (© Lois Lammerhuber/MAK. Courtesy of MAK – Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna)

The Frankfurt Kitchen featured an electric stove, a window over the sink, and lots of ingenious built-in storage including custom aluminum bins with a spout at one end. These bins could be used to store rice, sugar, or flour, then pulled out and used to pour the ingredients into a mixing bowl. The kitchen lacked a refrigerator, but in almost every other way, it was thoroughly modern. There was no clunky cast-iron stove, and no mismatched pieces of wooden furniture that had been drafted into kitchen duty. Even its small size was in part a nod to Taylor’s and Frederick’s principles: The lack of floor space meant fewer steps.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky introduced design ideals that still hold sway over our living spaces. Recognition for her design spread slowly but steadily. The kitchen itself traveled to fairs around Germany in the 1920s, but like so much of Modernist design, its influence was temporarily thwarted by the collapse of the Weimar government, the global economic depression, the rise of Nazism, and World War II. (Schütte-Lihotzky was active in the Nazi resistance and was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941, then imprisoned in Bavaria until the end of the war.)

But in 1927, three different versions of the design were shown at a major Frankfurt exhibition. In the ‘30s, it was written up in the German, English, and French press, and attracted the attention of France’s housing minister, who decided he wanted to commission 260,000 units inspired by its design.

As scholar Antonia Surmann explains, one reason the Frankfurt Kitchen didn’t proliferate as widely as it might have otherwise is that Schütte-Lihotzky’s design catered to modern women who cared for their families and worked outside the home, and thus needed an ultra-efficient space to cook and clean. By contrast, Surmann writes:

As a result of a different view of womanhood in the National Socialist period based on a new image of “motherliness” and family, the model of the independent, working woman was replaced by that of the housewife and mother. Construction of large-scale apartment blocks in cities was initially halted in favor of smaller settlements and apartments on the city outskirts or in villages.

Essentially, the Frankfurt Kitchen’s gender politics were deemed suspect once the Nazis took power.

This disruption partly explains why Schütte-Lihotzky herself isn’t better known, despite the lasting impact of her ideas. American and Swedish researchers and designers drew inspiration from the Frankfurt Kitchen in the 1920s, but their designs for ideal, mass-market kitchens became known as the “Swedish Kitchen”—a term that was probably much more palatable to citizens of Allied nations than “Frankfurt” was against the backdrop of the two world wars. To some extent, Schütte-Lihotzky’s ideas were absorbed into the international kitchen zeitgeist without being directly credited.

***

While it transformed kitchen design in the 20th century, in certain ways the Frankfurt Kitchen lent more inspiration to new suburban homes than it did to their urban counterparts. This is partly because there was much more new construction in American suburbs following World War II, while large cities tended to be comprised mostly of renters who had to accept their kitchens as they were. The Frankfurt ideals of rational design, optimal work surfaces, color, and smart storage both took shape and grew in size once they took root in suburban ranch homes. Instead of Taylorist efficiency, midcentury dream kitchens offered something like breezy glamour.

A major critique of the Frankfurt Kitchen in feminist literature of the 1970s onward was that its smallness isolated women there, and though it was theoretically emancipating due to its efficiency, it essentially guaranteed that wives and mothers would continue to bear the brunt of domestic work alone. Nearly a century later, though considerably improved upon since the 1920s, the gender imbalance in domestic labor remains stubbornly in place.

One reason American women have felt literally and metaphorically trapped in suburban kitchens may not be those rooms’ smallness—since they’re mostly not small—but the opposite. Their large size, preponderance of gadgets, and lack of walls implicitly heighten their relative importance in home and family life.

“Dream kitchens” invite, even insist upon, the transformation of dreams into reality through elaborate baking projects and holiday meals, and all the cleaning, maintenance, and organization that goes with them. Big kitchens have dirty secrets: drawers full of lid-less Tupperware, jar upon jar of stale spices, never-used bundt pans, and stacks of books containing new cooking ideas that we’ll definitely get to one of these days.

Though the Frankfurt Kitchen’s built-for-one proportions consigned 1920s women to solitary service, a 21st-century version, built for two adults, could offer city-dwelling home cooks a dose of Modernist efficiency and colorful cheer while allowing apartment dwellers to work as a team and dine in style. Schütte-Lihotzky’s design still has much to teach us. As her fellow Modernist Mies van der Rohe famously said: Less is more.

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