January 18

Grete Schütte-Lihotzky: House Maker, Not Homemaker

51yOYzPiJvLOn the 18th of January 2000, Austria’s first female architect, Nazi resistance, as well as Marxist activist Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky died in Vienna five days before her 103rd birthday. Lihotzky became the first female student at the Kunstgewerbeschule, Vienna, where important modern artists such as Hoffmann, Hanak and Kokoschka were teaching. She obtained her place with difficulty, following a recommendation letter from Klimt requested by her mother. Celebrating her 100th birthday in 1997, Lihotzky recalled that it would have been inconceivable in 1916 for a woman to be commissioned to build a house. Lihotzky toiled passionately at becoming useful as well as successful. She lived, worked, or taught in various corners of the world, including the Soviet Union, Turkey, Bulgaria, Japan, China, UK, France, USA, Cuba and Germany. In 1943 she was arrested and spent 2 years out of a 15-year sentence in prison for her anti-nazi activism, being freed only at the end of the war by US troops. In Vienna, she became the leader of the Federation of Democratic Women and eventually received the Architecture Award of the City. Her work ranged from socialist-style city’s housing units, kindergartens, students’ homes, schools and various community buildings, to residential estates for war invalids and veterans.

The designer is possibly best known for the so-called Frankfurt Kitchen she created in 1926, as part of the New Frankfurt-project she worked on with Ernst May: the prototype of the built-in kitchen now prevalent in the western world. Her design was based partly on the scientific research by U.S. management expert F. W. Taylor and the writings of Christine Frederick, who wrote on household engineering. “She got those ideas from Scientific Management, by Frederick Winslow Taylor, who looked at factories and offices, watched how workers moved and charted their movements, and then wrote reports showing how companies could cut down on wasted time and effort, and produce more. Taylorism became known all over Europe, as did the principles of mass production of Henry Ford. Lihotzky took [all] these ideas, and looked at how you moved in the kitchen, and which bit you wanted next to which other bit.” (Christopher Wilk, Modernism 1914-1939, Designing a New World). The architect claimed that she had built the prototype of the 1.9m x 3.4m kitchen and measured with a stopwatch how long it took to do certain tasks within that small area.

41MLIvTxR0LAllegedly, Lihotzky used a railroad dining car kitchen as her model to design a “housewife’s laboratory” saving space whilst maximising comfort and equipment efficiency for the working mother. Frankfurt City Council eventually installed 10,000 of these mass-produced, prefabricated kitchens in newly built working-class apartments. “Each kitchen came complete with a swivel stool, a gas stove, built-in storage, a fold-down ironing board, an adjustable ceiling light, and a removable garbage drawer. Labeled aluminium storage bins provided tidy organization for staples like sugar and rice as well as easy pouring. Careful thought was given to materials for specific functions, such as oak flour containers (to repel mealworms) and beech cutting surfaces (to resist staining and knife marks)”. “When Lihotzky’s design was unveiled in 1926, it was as shockingly hi-tech as a Star Trek flight deck. The kitchen up to that time was the largest room in the house, furnished with stately, stand-alone pieces: the big kitchen table that doubled as a work surface, cupboards for crockery, a sink on four legs. But in Frankfurt in the 1920s, the demands of a mass housing project meant that its modernist designers, fired by utopian visions, were working with tiny floorplans and tight budgets.” (Susie Steiner, ‘Radical and chic’, The Guardian, Saturday, 1 April 2006).

There were of course blatant feminist implications to a space being created by a woman, intended for predominantly female use. Lihotzky admitted that, “it was no coincidence the Frankfurt Kitchen was designed by a woman for women. This stemmed from the prevalent petit bourgeois perception that women were, by their very nature, meant to work at the domestic stove. It seemed to follow therefore that a woman architect would know best what was important for kitchens. That was good propaganda. But the truth of the matter was that I had never run a household before designing the Frankfurt Kitchen. I had never cooked, and had no idea about cooking.” (Passages from Why I Became an Architect by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, Selected and Translated by Juliet Kinchin, West 86th, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring-Summer 2011).

41WtsdzBv8LIt is obvious that the original gender-limited motives behind the kitchen design commission did not sit well with Lihotzky herself. On the contrary, she spoke of “the recognition that in the foreseeable future women would have proper paid employment, and would not solely be expected to be on hand to wait upon their husbands. I was convinced that women’s struggle for economic independence and personal development meant that the rationalization of housework was an absolute necessity. Foremost in my mind when working on housing projects was the idea that the design and, above all, the layout could save work.” (Passages from Why I Became an Architect). Here was finally a glimpse at a future in which the work of women would be taken seriously, whether out at their workplace or in the cocoon of their own homes.