Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Frankfurt Kitchen

When I was at home for Easter, my family and I went to the Corcoran Gallery of Art to see the exhibit on Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939. The exhibit was originally created by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where I recently interviewed for their MA program in the History and Theory of Design (and was accepted, without funding), put according to local critics it was laid out even more impressively at the Corcoran. And it was an excellent exhibit, both aesthetically and educationally, full of architectural models and videos that really showed you what modern design looked like, how it was used, and why it was so revolutionary.

The exhibit had many highlights, but among them the Frankfurt Kitchen, pictured above, stands out yet again. Although it was not the very first fitted kitchen or the earliest modern one, it was the first one to be mass-produced and enjoyed great success and influence. Ten thousand units were installed from 1926 to 1930 as part of an ambitious citywide housing project in Frankfurt, Germany that was initiated by Ernst May, the city architect, to provide low-income housing for some of the two million soldiers returning to Germany after the 1918 Armistice, as well as thousands of war widows. To assist with this Levittown precursor, May brought in the Viennese architect Grete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897-2000). Schütte-Lihotzky was probably the first female student of the school now known as the University of Applied Arts, Vienna, where she studied under the celebrated architect and designer Josef Hoffman as well as the painter Oskar Kokoschka. Gustav Klimt wrote her letter of recommendation for the school. She was one of the first generation of female architects and was active in the Nazi resistance.

The design of the Frankfurt settlements aimed to save time and money through the principles of rational organization and standardized building units. The Frankfurt Kitchen went further in seeking to save time and energy for the woman doing the housework. Schütte-Lihotzky studied catering in airplanes, trains and ocean liners as well as time motion studies to minimize unnecessary movement within the kitchen, provide labor-saving devices and increase physical comfort. Among the kitchen’s many innovative features were integrated sinks, continuous work surfaces, an adjustable ceiling light, a concealed pass-through, and a drop-down ironing board. A worktable for preparing food was set under a large window adjacent to the sink, both set at a lower height so the woman could work while seated at the provided stool. Some worktables included a chute for food waste. Another feature was the series of built-in storage bins that had handles and spouts for pouring dry staples.

Many of the kitchens were painted a colonial blue after research showed the color repealed flies.

The exhibit at the Corcoran included an installation of an actual period Frankfurt Kitchen, very similar to first one pictured above, as well as a promotional video from the 1920s that showed how much more efficient this modern kitchen was. Take a look at the video on the V&A's website. It was amazing to see on film so many things from contemporary life side by side with so much that was unfamiliar.

The Frankfurt Kitchen left a lasting impression on me, so imagine my surprise when it was suddenly staring me in the face from yet another online Sotheby's catalog (this one for Fine 20th Century Design and an Important Collection of Art Deco Figures).

This example was built in 1929-30 as part of the housing for psychiatric professors at the Neiderrad Hospital near Frankfurt. It is estimated to sell for $30,000 to $50,000 and includes an ironing board, sink, side unit, stool, towel rail and sideboard, the latter with three cupboard doors above ten aluminium storage scoops and two frieze drawers, the lower section with two further cupboard doors flanked by open shelves. The storage scoops are marked with various dry staples, including 'Zucker', 'Reiß' and 'Nudeln' or 'sugar,' 'rice' and 'noodles.' However, this Frankfurt Kitchen is unusual in that it is larger than other examples. The management of the hospital was thought to require more comfort in their accommodations and so slightly more space was allowed than in other projects. As a result the main sideboard is larger and can be used as a free standing unit. In this kitchen the cabinets were also installed onto a back panel rather than directly onto the wall, which makes it much easier for Sotheby's to sell it as a discreet unit.

I assume that only a museum, and not an art collector, would be interested in buying this or any other Frankfurt Kitchen. Schütte-Lihotzky's design does embody the modernist aesthetic, with its monochrome scheme, clean lines, and general minimalist air. But the Frankfurt Kitchen is not a discreet work of art, designed to be viewed from afar with rapt attention and awe. It was designed to be worked in and used. The original Frankfurt Kitchen is of great interest as a period room in a museum exhibit, but its greater legacy is to encourage us to look forward rather than back. To use every available resource, material or technology, to improve the way people live their lives is the spirit of modern design that the Frankfurt Kitchen embodies.


Anonymous said...

the area of Niederrad you refer to in your article about the Frankfurt kitchen is actually a very integral part of Frankfurt and not a city or town in itself.

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I read somewhere that first year the aluminum drawers were stamped directly on the drawer and later the seperate labels were created to reduce production cost. Do you know anything about that?