Victoria Bennett: Worker/Housewife – Designing the Frankfurt Kitchen

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Read by Celia Cockburn

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The mid-1920s in Frankfurt, Germany saw a desperate housing shortage. The First World War had swept through the city a few years prior, leaving the need for much of its housing to be re-built. In 1925, architect and city planner Ernst May was employed to head a new social housing project, known as the New Frankfurt, which would see the construction of 10,000 new homes for the working classes. It would be the largest social housing project of the Weimar years.

A modernist designer with utopian ideals, May saw the New Frankfurt project as an opportunity for increased domestic liberation through design. Inspired by the emerging theories of ‘efficiency engineering’ and household rationalisation – ideas which promoted the time-saving possibilities of ‘better’ object placement and applied them to the home – May believed that a well-designed home could make life easier for its occupants. He enlisted the help of Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky – Austria’s first female architect and fellow efficiency advocate – to design a new and thoroughly modern kitchen, befitting of this vision. The Frankfurt Kitchen, as it has come to be known, is arguably the most important legacy of the New Frankfurt project and is widely recognised as the first example of the modern fitted kitchen, as we know it today.

An exterior shot of the building showing wisteria arranged under the windows

Ernst May House, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Photograph by Tim Benton. CON_B04373_F002_017. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-4.0.


The 1920s were a time of social change for women in Germany. Declared to be the equals of men, women were granted the vote under the Weimar constitution. Increasingly, women were single, working, and less interested in family life, and the figure of the ‘New Woman’ emerged as a symbol – with her shorter hair and traditionally ‘unfeminine’ attire – depicting this shift.

The New Woman symbolised a lifestyle of work and leisure, following the expansion of employment and education opportunities that became available to women during the War. However, many took an aversion to this new sense of female independence. Conservatives worried about the long-term effect the New Woman might have on traditional values, as more women were in university than men, male joblessness was high, and the birth rate had dropped. Fewer women were working as servants, and so many middle-class homes also found themselves at a loss. A coalition of interest groups began to steadily form, seeking to readdress the woman’s place as being in the home, and the idea of the ‘professional’ housewife emerged, using efficiency engineering – specifically, its scientific language and approach – to intellectualise the idea of housekeeping. Suddenly, the same notion of rationalisation so embraced by modernist architects for its critique of traditional design was being used in socio-political terms to argue that the home would provide a suitable and modern experience for women, and, thanks to its new methodology, would be held in the same regard as a man’s professional work. This campaign to reaffirm the domestic sphere resulted in the introduction of a state policy called ‘Female Redomestication’, and education and employment options for women were largely diminished once again, as they returned to the home.

Back in Frankfurt, Lihotzky was designing her efficient kitchen. She consulted housewives and experts, drew inspiration from the spatial design of factory floors and train dining cars, and studied psychological and material evaluations. She realised that by placing the sink, stove and workspaces in a triangle, less time was spent walking between each. Her final design came pre-equipped – for the first time – with built-in storage, a gas stove, fold-down ironing board, adjustable ceiling light and a swivel stool. It was the first German kitchen with electricity. Efficiency was in every detail: the cupboards were painted blue as it was understood to be fly-repellent; cutting surfaces were made from beech to resist staining and knife marks; aluminium chutes were designed to hold staples such as flour and sugar for easy storage and pouring. The floor space, measuring in at just 1.9 x 3.44 metres, was decreed optimum for carrying out the tasks therein, and the room could be shut away with its sliding door.

It was designed as a gleaming embrace of technology and the future. It waved goodbye to the time-consuming and labour-intensive traditional kitchen: poorly ventilated, dimly lit, disorganised, and badly furnished. Lihotzky had optimised domesticity. She would later say that by doing so, it acted ‘very well as propaganda’ for the ‘bourgeois ideas of the time that a woman essentially worked at home in the kitchen’, and was aware that her gender, as designer, added to this narrative. Nevertheless, she would describe her time spent on the New Frankfurt project as amongst “a group that stood up for certain principles and architectural ideas, and fought for them uncompromisingly”.

How is it possible for such different interpretations of efficiency (conservative ideas of re-domestication, and modernist ideas of liberation through design) to co-exist? The answer lies in a 1923 book by author and housewife Christine Frederick, titled ‘Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home’, which has been referred to as the ‘the bible of progressive architects of the 1920s’.

long and narrow kitchen fitted with functionality in mind

The Frankfurt Kitchen. Photograph by Tim Benton. CON_B04374_F001_034. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-4.0.


“Couldn’t we standardise dishwashing by raising the height of the sink? Did we not waste time and needless walking in poorly arranged kitchens? I came to earnestly believe that scientific management could, and must, solve housework problems as it had already solved other work problems”.

The quote above – from the introduction of Household Engineering – begins a rallying cry for improved health, design and efficiency in the home. Frederick coined the concept of scientific home management after she began to apply the same principles used by her husband (who worked as an Efficiency Engineer) to her work as housewife, realising its time-saving potential. Her husband’s profession gave her writing credence and an ideological slant: with better working practices, the housewife would be freer. Architects used the practical advice in Household Engineering and applied it to their floorplans, and May and Lihotzky recognised the evolutionary role that considered design could have for the occupants of their social housing. However, this is perhaps where the cross-over of progressive design and domestication ends. While Household Engineering explores in detail how best to carry out housework, it takes a less radical approach towards who will be doing this work. Frederick frequently refers to the person in the kitchen as ‘the worker’, and it’s clear from Household Engineering’s floorplans of accompanying servant quarters that working-class women were expected to provide labour for middle-class households as servants still, only now with ‘scientific’ guidance on which tasks it would be acceptable for them to sit down during: “This permits the worker to give her entire energy to it, thus resulting in quicker and better work”.

If there was any question as to what the New Woman would do with her newly saved time, Frederick seems to imply the answer is more work. Indeed, Frederick herself admits to pouring her saved time back into improving her workflow, to every minor detail: “Every day I tried to find new ways, new methods and new short cuts in my home problems. If I made out a good schedule of work for one week I tried to improve on it for the week following. No housework detail was too small or too unimportant”. 

A question naturally arises from this: how did the architects and designers of the New Frankfurt envision occupants using their newly rationalised space?

Velvet sofa positioned with its back away from the window. Window lined with spiky plants like agave and aloe.

Architect’s House. Photograph by Tim Benton. CON_B04373_F002_028. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-4.0.

Throughout the project, May published a journal of the same name (Das Neue Frankfurt) and a 1927 article titled “The new apartment and the household effects” (Die Neue Wohnung und der Hausrat) written by Franz Schuster (architect and furniture designer) sheds a light on the team’s vision for women and their labour. It suggests intellectual pastimes in place of housework, and views the latter as unimportant and to be done quickly through improved efficiency: “The woman no longer wants to spend the entire day cleaning the house and doing meaningless things; she wants to be able to take part in contemporary intellectual life, and must be able to survive in the economic competition. She can no longer afford to waste her thought and effort on trivial things, whether she is a mother, or wife, or on her own – she wants to be a valuable comrade-in-arms in the building of a new Era. Thus she must demand of her home – as we do from everything else – that it not restrict the development of our best and most vital powers, but rather advance them; no one would claim that dusting, cleaning, and furniture brushing are particularly valuable in themselves. Thus the Era itself demands the new [efficient] household”.

It has been said before that the modernist movement set out to change more than architecture, and the Frankfurt Kitchen is a good example of this. Its design was intended to make life easier for Frankfurt inhabitants, helping women to spend less time on their own chores. The main criticism of its design at the time centred on the small scope for individualisation that the built-in furnishings allowed for, particularly at a time where women were spending more time at home. However, Lihotkzy has maintained that herself and the wider Frankfurt team considered the efficient kitchen an emancipatory space, describing it as “a modern laboratory where work was able to be done as quickly as possible”. She hoped to create a culture of less housework, and her kitchen is a successful piece of design which improved – with lasting effects – convenience, technology, health and safety and workflow within the home. It would go on to influence kitchen design through to current day, and it served as Lihotzky’s contribution to the issue of housework.

The Frankfurt Kitchen provided a means, rather than an end, to a problem.

However, it did so by designing a vision of the future where efficiency equated to greater freedoms (both leisurely and intellectually) – so that when society was ready to move in the same direction, the structures for positive change would be already in place.


Victoria Bennett 
Digitisation Assistant