In 1925, Frankfurt experienced a period of post-war regeneration. A team of young idealistic socialist architects had been assembled to work on the Neues Frankfurt project, creating social housing for working-class families. Although they espoused ideals of gender equality, the question of who should lead what was split along traditional lines, and so the brilliant Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky found herself tasked with designing a kitchen for apartments. The result, known now as the Frankfurt Kitchen, has affected the way nearly every home cook has lived since. For me, discovering Schütte-Lihotzky led to a total change in the way I cook.
When I first started reading and writing about food, the dominant idea was that of scale. We went to places like Divertimenti, Habitat, or Conran’s emporium to buy some Duralex coffee glassware, some good chef’s knives, and big aluminum roasting pans that could hold a little ostrich. The floors were reinforced to allow the installation of Agas and we looked with admiration at the enthusiasts who had “professional” ranges. The advice to home cooks from food writers, trend setters, celebrity chefs and lifestyle magazines was always to think big.
I haven’t really wondered why bigger is better, but British kitchen design has followed lines that are very characteristic of us, specific to our ideas of history and class, that don’t always make sense. The more ambitious end of British kitchen design has long been drawn to two basic ‘extra large’ models. The first is the majestic kitchen of the house, in which one imagines a chef busy. Middle-class housing after the First World War often featured a double door from the kitchen to the dining room, through a small space called the “butler’s pantry”, which usually had a built-in cutlery drawer and a place where you could possibly decant a bottle of port. In some houses, the inner door was even covered with green baize, as servants’ entrances had been for centuries. The difference was that these houses had no servants; the butler’s pantry maintained the idea that one strength have servants.
The second is the farmhouse kitchen, a simpler image centered on a huge range and a huge table. It’s so deeply embedded in our culture that Elizabeth David wrote essays about it – at the big scrubbed pine table in her Aga-heated kitchen. Generations of Knockers-Through have torn down the basement walls of their Victorian London homes and installed increasingly expensive facsimiles of something that, by definition, was never intended for a town.
When Schütte-Lihotzky took on the design brief for the Frankfurt kitchen, she came to the question without any of that baggage. In fact, she had never cooked at home. She instead turned to highly evolved and efficient galley arrangements in Pullman wagons and on ships. She drew inspiration from Taylorism, the nascent American movement for managing scientific processes, and set out to create what she called a “housewife’s laboratory.”
The secret discovered by Schütte-Lihotzky is known to anyone who has ever cooked professionally. The room you are in may be a “kitchen”, but you do your work in your “section” – a place on a bench where you can stand, feet firmly planted, tools stored in front of you, and pass from the raw ingredients to the finished dish with barely a swivel. This proven basis of process design has become the overriding principle of the Frankfurt kitchen.
Few of the original Frankfurt kitchens survive today, but there is one in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and I regularly make a pilgrimage there. Built-in cupboards, worktops in naturally antibacterial beech. Individual aluminum drawers for ingredients, each labeled and with its own handle and spout. An integrated waste bin and a window on one side for diffused and functional daylight. But of all the innovations, the most unusual for the modern eye is the small stool, designed to fold under the table. All of our modern images of working in a kitchen involve standing on a bench (90cm is the current recommendation for UK designers), using a knife and cutting down on a board. It’s a design based on a factory worker using a tool, and it feels oddly inappropriate when watching people from other cultures, or even our own older parents, prepare food while seated. The standard height of a dining table in the UK is around 60cm. This is where nans have sat for hundreds of years, chopping vegetables for their families with a dull knife, cutting towards their thumbs.
Of course, Schütte-Lihotzky was not the first domestic reformer to champion the rational conception of housework, nor did her conception represent an end point for this area of inquiry. In 1927, Erna Meyer designed the Stuttgart kitchen, which developed Schütte-Lihotzky’s ideas and solved some perceived problems. And in 1934 Elizabeth Denby designed labour-saving kitchens for British council housing at Sassoon House in Peckham and Kensal House. None of these pioneers would have advocated larger “farmhouse” or “stately home” style kitchens in pursuit of the social norms of a previous generation. In fact, these would have represented all the inefficiencies they were trying to overcome.
A few years ago I found myself working for a few weeks in a rented house with the kitchen most of us dream of. A large central island for the “preparation”, an Aga (and a professional gas cooker for the days when it behaved badly), a double door fridge, a dishwasher and a scraped pine table to seat ten people overlooking a glazed garden furniture. It was the pinnacle of all aspirations I had ever had, and I quickly began to hate it. On a quiet day, I could drive a few miles just to get from the fridge to the stove to the sink, shoving large pots and pans across acres of expensive tile floors, enslaved to kit and space, and what now looked like to historical irrelevance. I left bewildered, changed, and I turned to Schütte-Lihotzky.
The first thing to do was my stove. I was renovating my house at the time and the kitchen was still under construction. I looked long and coldly at the five burners of my precious Lacanche and realized that I had never used more than three. So I redesigned the plan with two induction plates. After that, things snowballed. Could I live with a smaller refrigerator? Do I even need a full size oven? Late at night, I stood in the room that was going to be the kitchen, a big marker pen in my hand, and drew the arc of my arm.
I spent time working with a Japanese cook. Everything seemed to be on such a different scale. Less physically struggling with ingredients and imposing one’s will on them, more artisanal rearranging that respects them. I threw away most of my hand tools, the big spoons, the tongs, the giant commercial grade grill paddles I could flip half a cow with, and bought the smallest ones I could to find. What was completely humbling was to realize that almost every other culture was comfortable with an unbroken tradition of home cooking, suited to the size of the family they were cooking for. We – and by that I mean my generation of British food lovers – weren’t. It suddenly seemed to me that at home I carried societal baggage, ranging from the absence of domestic staff, to conspicuous consumption, to gender roles in domestic work.
Like any downsizing, it’s not always comfortable. Like many people, I had lived under the illusion of regularly serving large, friendly groups. Sure, it felt good to have an oven that would take a little pig when I cooked for 20. . . until I had to force myself to admit that I had only taken care of it once. It evokes all sorts of feelings of social failure. Am I an inadequate parent for not creating sprawling, hearty mealtime memories? (We’re a family of three, and one of us is heading off to college this week to make her own discoveries about the size of a communal kitchen.)
In my work, I realized that I was more and more attracted to another type of cook. Not a big guy in white with a “brigade”, a huge range and brassy “cookware”, but the people who run tapas bars on a gas stove, restaurant cooks, century-old pasta grannies and the solemn and ascetic itamae making sushi on a small counter. Every type of cuisine I liked was getting smaller. More focused and intense, but also on a more human, intimate and domestic scale.
For me, a smaller kitchen quickly became a no-brainer. Easier to work with, easier to clean. I keep reducing more. Huge labor saving, just removing most labor saving devices and weirdly focusing a lot more on food and cooking.
I thought that last bit was just in my imagination, until recently wandering around Florence looking for a little counter where only one guy was known to make a very specific type of sandwich I spotted in a bookstore, a quote from Leonardo da Vinci: “Small rooms or dwellings discipline the mind, and large ones weaken it.”
Yeah, I’ll take that.
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