TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 2020

SO DIFFERENT, SO APPEALING

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, Frankfurt Kitchen from the Ginnheim-Höhenblick Housing Estate, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1926–27, mixed media, 8' 9“ × 12' 10” × 6' 10". Photo, above: Heidi Bohnenkamp.

NOTHING CAPTURES the imagination quite like a period room. At the Museum of Modern Art, you can’t hope to stumble on anything with the transporting, cinematic force and decorative ferocity of, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Bedroom from the Sagredo Palace, of course. But it’s a heart-quickening surprise to encounter, in the refreshed and reshuffled fifth-floor collection galleries, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt Kitchen. The alluring time capsule appears as a freestanding lemon-chiffon bunker, its neatly drab, graphite-gray interior beckoning through a sliding-door aperture. You can also peer at this wondrous, game-changing feat of efficiency and ergonomics through the compact galley kitchen’s window.

Lihotzky’s 1926–27 design, mass-produced for the modular homes that were built rapidly to address the post–World War I housing shortage in German cities, elevated housework by granting it a space as functional and stripped of sentiment as that of any lab or office, while seeking to minimize its burden on women’s time. Among the streamlined galley kitchen’s signature features are “pouring bins” for staples such as sugar, which from the outside look rather like card-catalogue drawers arranged in a grid but can be pulled out completely and tipped to dispense their contents. There is also a wooden food-prep table with a built-in compartment for scraps, accompanied by an adjustable stool—in other words, a lovely, simple desk and a swivel chair. Lihotzky herself did not cook. 

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, Frankfurt Kitchen from the Ginnheim-Höhenblick Housing Estate, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1926–27, mixed media, 8' 9“ × 12' 10” × 6' 10". Photo, above: Heidi Bohnenkamp.

She studied architecture in Vienna at time when, as she once remarked, “no one would have conceived of a woman being commissioned to build a house—not even myself,” and her kitchen is the earliest large-scale design work by a woman architect in the museum’s collection. I saw it for the first time about a decade ago at MoMA in a small, edifying kitchen-design show, where it took pride of place. Now, in the context of the museum’s expansion and exhilarating rehang, among a host of commendable and fascinating gestures to air out the canon, it more than holds its own alongside other iconic works of European interwar design—by much better known and mostly male names. While Lihotzky, who was imprisoned for nearly five years as member of the Communist resistance to Nazism, certainly does deserve this recognition for her ingenious, rigorous work to improve the lives of working people, the prominent display of the Frankfurt Kitchen, as a kitchen, is meaningful, too. It’s a distilled representation, as well as an authentic and transfixing specimen, of a traditionally feminine sphere that must be un-annexed to expand our story of modernism. 

Johanna Fateman is a writer, a musician, and a contributing editor of Artforum.