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Blog

The Kitchen Designer Who Helped Women Get Out of the Kitchen

Mar 07 2018

As a designer who loves to cook, I’m intrigued by the way kitchen design has enabled me—and generations of women who came before me—to spend less time preparing and more time enjoying the food we make, so we can move on to other things.

Designers often have the biggest impact when they reimagine the relationship we have with everyday utilities, like those in the kitchen. Decisions as straightforward as the height of a stool can change the fabric of everyday life.

One great example is Austrian designer Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, the woman who arguably had more impact on modern kitchen design than anyone in history. In celebration of International Women's Day and as an homage to my own grandmother, I wanted to tell her story.

The Design Museum Designer Maker User

Image by The Design Museum London

"Designer Maker User" exhibit at The Design Museum London.

The “fitted” kitchen

I discovered Schütte-Lihotzky on a recent visit to The Design Museum London, when I went to see the “Designer Maker User” exhibit. I'd never heard of her before, but she is credited with creating the first modern, efficient, "fitted" kitchen in 1926. A "fitted" space means that units are attached to a wall rather than free-floating. It was the first time someone thought to design for cooks instead of home builders.

Schütte-Lihotzky worked in the Municipal Building Department in Vienna, which controlled all aspects of housing, but as a newly-graduated architect, she had little experience with cooking. Instead of letting that naiveté hold her back, she embraced her beginner’s mindset and embarked on an early form of design research, interviewing and observing women in their homes and using film to conduct time-motion studies.

She found that women were spending their entire day preparing, cooking, and cleaning. This endurance activity started with trips to the local store, as fridges and storage units were not the norm and food would spoil within a day or so.

To add to the challenge, the stove, sink, and pantry were installed without any consideration for food prep workflow or the relationship between tasks, and work surfaces were installed at varying heights, putting strain on women’s bodies.

Wikimedia The Frankfurt Kitchen

Image by Wikimedia Commons

From her interactions with everyday cooks and the application of factory-line principles popularized by Henry Ford, Schütte-Lihotzky introduced her replicable, affordable, space-saving, and egalitarian “Frankfurt Kitchen,” named after the New Frankfurt initiative to address the city's shortage of public housing in the 1920s.

Each kitchen came with a swivel stool, a gas stove, built-in storage, a garbage drawer, and an ironing board. Schütte-Lihotzky used resilient materials like oak to repel critters from getting into perishables and installed aluminum storage bins for staples like sugar and flour. The main objective was to free up hours each day for women to devote to other pursuits.

Within a few years, 10,000 of Schütte-Lihotzky’s units were installed in apartment buildings across Frankfurt, and her design became the model for all subsequent Western kitchens. Her work reframed women’s relationship with cooking and set in motion a radical wave of change.

My grandmother, Ruth Kandel, who was born in Frankfurt just as Schütte-Lihotzky's work started getting acclaim, would often tell me about her upbringing—that her purpose in life was defined by “Kirche, Küche, Kinder” (church, kitchen, children.)

While she loved her husband and children dearly, she also dreamed of becoming a lawyer or a social worker and contributing to the world beyond her kitchen. I feel extremely blessed to have had women like Schütte-Lihotzky blaze the trail through design, freeing up my time so that I’m able to embody my grandmother’s desire to go forth and create.

The Frankfurt Kitchen 2

Can the design of today’s food liberate us further?

Now that I’m at IDEO, I have the opportunity to carry Schütte-Lihotzky’s work forward. We partnered with IKEA to think about the future kitchen—how we might design it to be more efficient and use less energy while making it easier for home cooks to feel confident about preparing healthy food.

We also worked with a startup called INFARM to design modular, stackable units that use far less soil, water, and space to grow food at an optimal light and temperature. Because of the compact size of the units, you could install one in your own home kitchen, or stack them up to feed thousands of employees a day during winter months when produce typically has to be shipped in from far away. Good for cooks and good for the planet.

People used to say that a woman’s place was in the kitchen. Today, thanks to pioneers like Schütte-Lihotzky, a woman’s place is anywhere she wants to work.

  • Nadia Surtees

    Design Researcher, IDEO San Francisco
    Nadia is a design researcher who uses sketching as a visual sense-making tool.

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