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User's Guide for Being the 'New Woman': the Frankfurt Kitchen

One example of the Frankfurt Kitchen is in the collections of the V&A Museum, London.


As a consequence of modernization the conventional 'living kitchens', where eating, cooking, sleeping and family time took place, were transformed into the 'work kitchens' for cooking and washing (Betts, 2004). The size of the kitchen was reduced and became compact in relation to fewer functions. The new kitchen was described as ‘the laboratory for the housewife’ (Hessler, 2009, p. 163) or ‘the housewife’s professional office’ (Henderson, 2013, p. 143) to show the popular concepts of the period as a scientific approach to domestic life. The idea of rationalization of the house was emphasized even more by Le Corbusier’s concept of ‘machine living’, which claimed that an optimized prototype of a house could be designed and applied anywhere; this carried the convergence of factory life and domesticity one step further, turning the house into a machine.

In the twentieth century, there were many kitchen developments in different countries that spread and influenced each other, however, the Frankfurt kitchen was among the more well-known. It was the first kitchen used in more than 10,000 flats. The reason for its popularity was its connection with the Frankfurter architect Ernst May’s social housing programme, from which the kitchen took its name, and could find a place to promote itself in exhibitions, becoming later on inspiration to the future kitchen designs (Ellaesser, 2006). But why exactly a kitchen? As Bruno Taut (1994, p.461) stated, “The nerve centre of the dwelling is the kitchen, where the housewife’s main work in a small household takes place.” The kitchen seemed to be the heart of the house in the transformation of housing and life. Accordingly, women were also an important part of this transformation. While Ernst May was designing social housing projects, he asked Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky to join his team in Frankfurt in 1925. She was the only woman in his design team and had a critical role in creating a space for women from a female's perspective. The most significant inspiration in the creation of the kitchen was Christine Frederick’s book Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home, in which she analysed the factories to understand how they could find a way to work efficiently without losing time. In accordance with her analysis, she proposed possible arrangements of the kitchen in different sizes and types for new houses.

The bad and good layout examples of a kitchen with equipment.

Frederick, C. (1923). Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home. Chicago: American School of Home Economics, 10.

The Frankfurt kitchen had a narrow (1.9 x 3.44 m) layout, and it was separated from the living area by sliding doors. The arrangement of the equipment was planned according to the order of use in the logic of the production line to prevent excessive movements. For instance, the work surface had a garbage drawer and was located in between the food cupboard and sink, which had good ventilation and light because it was placed in front of a window. Besides fixed equipment in the kitchen, there were some removable elements such as an ironing board, a dish-drying rack and a lamp; moreover, it was provided with an adjustable chair on which the housewife could sit while working, as to maintain the right posture which was one of the important subjects of the period. The working space of the housewife was reduced to more than half of the old one. All the materials were chosen by considering hygiene and efficiency. The designated colour of the cupboards was blue because Lihotzky found out that blue repelled flies in one of her studies (Oakley, 1974). All these calculations and optimizations were to enable women to work outside the home and emancipate them from their social role as housewives.

A view toward the window

The plan of the Frankfurt Kitchen with its elements

The problem with the Frankfurt kitchen was that it gave the illusion of less time and effort, but the duties of the housewife and the traditional gender roles remained the same. Therefore, there was not a radical change in the social dimension of the design, only the style of being a ‘slave’ had changed from being a 'traditional slave' to a 'modern slave'. Additionally, the architects and designers became over-dependent upon this new scientific information and analysis. These publications were mainly to give an idea about how to plan time and find a balance between the two roles of women as a form of suggestion. However, architects assumed that this was the one and only reality and accepted it as gospel. Besides, the producers of new equipment were keen to support this idea to sell their products (Jerram, 2006). Therefore, from a suggestion, it became the 'laws of new living'. Those studies were not only affecting the design of the kitchen, but it was also controlling the behaviours and the movements of the housewives with magazines and illustrations about the 'right' and 'wrong' ways of doing housewife duties. These articles taught women everything they needed to know: from how to use equipment to the right postures for health while working, bringing housework to a professional level and setting new standards (Bullock, 1988). However, these new standards were another burden for women. With the new way of living, the housewife had to learn how to use new equipment in her new kitchen, the way that was said to be suitable or she had to change what she was familiar with, with new and "correct" ones.


Martina Hessler (2009) in her article "The Frankfurt Kitchen: The Model of Modernity and the “Madness” of Traditional Users, 1926 to 1933" focused on the resistant users and how these housewives adapted to the kitchen to their lifestyle rather than adapting themselves to the new and modern kitchen. Hessler suggested that considering only passive users was not enough in order to understand and analyse one design. The behaviours of the resistant users or non-users make us understand the weaknesses and the gaps in the design more clearly. The problems could be categorized under three main titles: The first was economic problems; the costs were higher than most of the people could afford and since all the appliances were electrical, it was not possible to switch to another option. Hence, we can notice that the lack of flexibility was not only the level of movement, but it also limited the options and the freedom of choice.

Secondly, besides the economic side of things, the actual use of this new equipment presented another difficulty. The users realized that learning how to use these new machines and achieving the standards took more time and not less than before, especially during an adaptation period. On the other hand, even if the burden of the task was shared with technology, designers still assumed that women would be the sole users and excluded the other members of the family (Peach, 1995).

The last issue was personalizing the house and the seclusion of women. The dwellers could not bring their old furniture because it did not fit into the new house; on the other hand, they could not personalize the ones at the house because the drawers were already labelled, the movements were scripted, and the spirit of the period was a fresh start. All the parts of the house gave the message of ‘you should get rid of all the burdens of the past and recreate yourself’, so the house was like a portal that brought you to the future once you stepped in. Besides, the new design consisted of the separation of the kitchen from the rest of the house, so that the housewife was also separated from her family. Women complained about their isolation since they could not see their children during their duties in the kitchen (Hessler, 2009). The "invisible labour" of being a housewife, with this segregation, became literally invisible. Therefore, while the idea of separation was based on being functional and hygienic, it could be argued that it actually served to hide the unchanged system behind the doors.


Akrich, M. (1994). The De-scription of Technical Objects. In Wiebe E. Bijker et. al (Ed.). Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change (205-224). Cambridge: the MIT Press.

Betts, P. (2004). Coming in from the Cold: Design and Domesticity. In P. Bett (Ed.). The authority of Everyday Objects: a Cultural History of West German Industrial Design (212-247). London: University of California Press.

Bullock, N. (1988). First the Kitchen: Then the Façade. Journal of Design History,1,177-192.

Ellaesser, T. (2006). The Camera in the Kitchen: Grete Schütte-Lihotzky and Domestic Modernity. In C. Schönfeld (Ed.). Practicing Modernity: Female Creativity in the Weimar Republic (27-49). Würzburg: Köningshausen & Neumann.

Frederick, C. (1923). Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home. Chicago: American School of Home Economics.

Henderson, S. R. (2013). Building Culture: Ernst May and the New Frankfurt Initiative, 1926-1931. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Hessler, M. (2009). The Frankfurt Kitchen: The Model of Modernity and the “Madness” of

Traditional Users, 1926 to 1933. In R. Oldenzile and K. Zachman (Ed.). Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, technology and European users (163-181).Cambridge and Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Jerram, L. (2006). Kitchen Sink Dramas: women, modernity and space in Weimar Germany. Cultural Geographies 13, 538-556.

Oakley, A. (1974). Housewife. London: Allen Lane.

Peach, M. (1995). Der Architekt Denkt, Die Hausfrau Lenkt: German Modern Architecture and the

Modern Woman. German Studies Review 18, 441-463.

Taut, B. (1994). The New Dwelling: the Woman as Creator. In A. Kaes et. al. (Ed.). The Weimar Republic Sourcebook (461-462). Berkeley: University of California Press.

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