1920s Kitchen Teaches Lessons in Functionality

As a designer of the space that seems to rule the home, I am forever a student of kitchen design: past, present and future. Recently, I made several visits to an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art called “Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen,” each time with different friends from the design profession.

This exhibit is described as an “exploration of the twentieth-century transformation of the kitchen,” and with it, the role of women. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the Frankfurt kitchen. With each visit to the Frankfurt kitchen, I was struck by the history and by the contrasts to our kitchens today, and this month, I thought I’d share my experiences and the reactions of some of the other designers with you.

Social Statement

Designed and built in the late 1920s, the Frankfurt kitchen was part of an affordable housing movement in Germany, an effort to reduce the housing crisis among the working class. It was designed by architect Grete Schutte-Lihotzky, a woman in a man’s profession, in 1926-’27.

Given our attitudes about kitchens today, it is hard to imagine the drudgery of the place Schutte-Lihotzky was working to improve, the kitchens of the working-class being dark, unsafe and unhealthy basements or outbuildings. It was designed not just to improve productivity but also to bring recognition and respect to the efforts of women in this class.

Part science project, part social change effort, the kitchen plan was based on time and motion studies of a single person storing food and preparing meals. Although not the first fitted and built-in kitchen, it is one of the most famous, with some 10,000 installed in the “new dwelling units” built at the time in Frankfurt, Germany.

The Design

After all of this build-up, the first sight of the Frankfurt kitchen came as something of a shock due to its small size. The complete kitchen is only 13'x7' – smaller than most bathrooms today. Every designer who joined me on a visit to this exhibit had the same comment: “This is it?”

On closer examination, though, this small space held everyone’s attention, first because kitchen habits were so different then, and then because it is so focused on functionality.

The intent of this design was to give status to kitchen work by giving it a room of its own. But the design was definitely created to be a one-person space.

The kitchen includes a sink with a drain and a dish rack above, and high wall cabinets for dish storage. There is a carefully designed work area, lowered for seated use, with a built-in compost drawer, an adjustable-height stool and a rack for the parts of a crank-style food grinder. This area has a window above, a major change from the food preparation spaces of its time, but the window is high on the wall, good for natural light, but not line of sight. It also includes a work light that hangs from the ceiling, adjustable in height and position for the different work areas.

Food storage consists of small cubbies with pull-out bins for dry goods. That’s it – approximately 6"x6" bins for flour, sugar, spices and other dry goods, with each labeled as to its intended contents, placed from counter height down to the floor.

There is a tall cabinet for pot and pan and other cooking vessel storage, the biggest cabinet in the room, then a broom closet. Coming around the room, there is a gas range, with a flip-up natural warming space benefiting from heat escaping from the range. There is also a fold-down ironing board and, just through the sliding door into the dining room, a waste receptacle.

Do you notice anything missing? There is no ice box, larder or refrigerator, not, I guess, part of the working class kitchen, perhaps because food was purchased and consumed daily or made from the dry ingredients. There is no canned or packaged goods storage either, because food was made from scratch back in those days.

In that small 13'x7' space, one person could prepare meals, cook and clean up, all without moving more than a few feet – super-efficient!

Contrasts

Contrast the idea that creating a tiny room all closed in would make history as part of the modernist movement with the open plans that our kitchens have today. Contrast the assigned food storage containers with the many and varied food packages that require adjustable pantry storage for our personalized food preparation and eating habits.

Contrast the concept of no cold food storage with our many, multiple and flexible refrigerators today. Contrast those little food storage cubbies at floor level with the treasured children of today playing on the kitchen floor. And contrast the overall space given to the kitchen with our super-sized kitchens today. In fact, many walk-in pantries today are bigger than this tiny kitchen!

Still, this kitchen is efficient, and in that efficiency, there's a lesson to be learned!

Lessons Learned

It seems that food prep habits have changed and in many cases been streamlined, but the basic steps have not. It’s hard to imagine that one person cooked from scratch to make meals in that tiny space while today, with all the wonders of technology and beautifully expanded space, we do take-out or use the speed cook oven. The concepts of good lighting, flexibility in work surface heights and warming “drawers” that were added then are still critical to good kitchen design, and thankfully, the options have advanced.

We’ve gone from making our own to prepackaged foods and our storage has adjusted. We’ve changed from one cook to many and our zones have multiplied. We’ve even planned play storage for the little ones where once the food was stored in cubbies.

This may seem like just a nice story, and you might be wondering what we can learn from this or what can you do differently because of this information. As one dear friend and kitchen designer, Lorey Cavanaugh, remarked, “It’s amazing how many people today plan kitchens without regard for basic function, but instead as a place to include a coveted appliance or a look that works, even if the space does not.”

Another friend, architect Hayden McKay, pointed out that this kitchen is larger than many New York apartment kitchens, including hers. I’d say that as we experience the current downsizing of our homes, while the Frankfurt kitchen does not exactly fit the way we live today, it certainly deserves our respect for lasting 80 years and for fitting so much function in such a small space. And, it may just have some concepts to help us stay focused on function as we assess needs and develop programs with our kitchen clients.

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