In 1925, Frankfurt underwent a period of postwar regeneration. A team of idealistic young socialist architects had been assembled to work on the Neues Frankfurt project, creating social housing for working-class families. Though they espoused ideals of gender equality, the question of who got to lead on what was cleaved along traditional lines, which is how the brilliant Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky ended up tasked with designing a kitchen for the flats. The result, known now as the Frankfurt Kitchen, has affected how almost all home cooks have lived since. For me, discovering Schütte-Lihotzky led to a total change in the way I cook.
When I first began reading and writing about food, the dominant idea was one of scale. We went to places like Divertimenti, Habitat or Conran’s emporium to buy Duralex café glassware, bloody great chef knives and big aluminium roasting tins that could take a small ostrich. Floors were strengthened so Agas could be installed and we looked with awe at enthusiasts who had “professional” ranges. The advice to home cooks from food writers, trendsetters, celebrity chefs and lifestyle magazines was always to think big.
I didn’t really question why bigger was better, but British kitchen design has followed lines that are utterly characteristic to us, specific to our ideas of history and class, which don’t always make sense any more. The more aspirational end of British kitchen design has long been drawn to two “extra large” basic models. The first is the stately home kitchen, in which one can imagine a head cook bustling. Middle-class housing post the first world war often featured a double door from the kitchen to the dining room, through a tiny space called a “butler’s pantry”, which usually featured a built-in cutlery drawer and a place one could conceivably decant a bottle of port. In some households the inner door was even clad in green baize, as servants’ entrances had been for centuries. The difference was that these houses kept no servants; the butler’s pantry maintained the idea that one might have servants.
The second is the farmhouse kitchen, a simpler picture centred on a vast range and an immense table. It’s so deeply ingrained in our culture that Elizabeth David wrote essays about it — at the large scrubbed pine table in her Aga-warmed kitchen. Generations of Knockers-Through took out the walls in the basements of their London Victorians and installed increasingly expensive facsimiles of something that was, by definition, never designed for a townhouse.
When Schütte-Lihotzky took the design brief for the Frankfurt Kitchen, she came to the question with none of this baggage. In fact, she had never cooked at home. She looked instead to highly evolved and efficient cooking arrangements in Pullman railway cars and on ships. She was inspired by Taylorism, the nascent American movement of scientific process management and set out to create what she called a “housewife’s laboratory”.
The secret that Schütte-Lihotzky discovered is known to anyone who’s ever cooked professionally. The room you’re in might be a “kitchen”, but you do your work in your “section” — a place at a bench where you can stand, feet firmly planted, tools ranged in front of you, and go from raw ingredients to finished dish with barely a swivel. This time-tested fundamental of process design became the overriding principle of the Frankfurt Kitchen.
Few of the original Frankfurt Kitchens survive today, but there is one at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and I make a pilgrimage to it regularly. Built-in cupboards, work surfaces of naturally antibacterial beechwood. Individual aluminium drawers for ingredients, each labelled and with its own handle and pouring spout. A built-in scrap bin and a window along one side for diffuse, working daylight. But of all the innovations, the most unusual to the modern eye is the small stool, designed to fold away under the table. All of our modern images of working in a kitchen involve standing at a bench (90cm is the current recommendation to UK designers), using a knife and cutting downwards on to a board. It’s a design based on a factory worker using a tool, and it looks weirdly inappropriate when you watch people from other cultures, or even our own older relatives, preparing food while seated. Standard dining table height in the UK is about 60cm. That’s where nans have sat for hundreds of years, chopping veg for their families with a blunt knife, cutting towards their thumbs.
Of course, Schütte-Lihotzky wasn’t the first domestic reformer to champion rational design for domestic work, nor did her design represent an endpoint for this field of inquiry. In 1927, Erna Meyer designed the Stuttgart Kitchen, which developed Schütte-Lihotzky’s ideas and solved some perceived issues. And in 1934, Elizabeth Denby designed labour-saving kitchens for British social housing at Sassoon House in Peckham and Kensal House. Not one of these pioneers would have advocated for larger “Farmhouse” or “Stately Home”-style kitchens in pursuit of a previous generation’s social norms. In fact, these would have represented every inefficiency they were trying to overcome.
A few years ago, I found myself working for a couple of weeks in a rented house with the kitchen most of us dream of. A large central island for “prep”, an Aga (and a professional gas range for the days when it misbehaved), a double-door fridge, a dishwasher and a scrubbed pine table to seat a dozen people leading out to a glazed garden room. It was the peak of every aspiration I’d ever had, and I quickly grew to hate it. On a quiet day, I could put in a couple of kilometres just getting from the fridge to the cooker to the sink, humping great pots across acres of expensively tiled floor, enslaved to kit and space, and what now felt like historical irrelevance. I left bewildered, changed, and I turned to Schütte-Lihotzky.
The first thing to go was my cooker. I was renovating my house at the time and the kitchen was still a work-in-progress. I took a long, cold look at the five burners on my treasured Lacanche and realised I had never used more than three. So I redrew the plan with two induction rings. After that, things snowballed. Could I live with a smaller fridge? Did I even need a full-size oven? Late one night, I stood in the room that was going to be the kitchen, a fat marker pen in my hand, and drew out the arc of my arm span.
I spent some time working with a Japanese cook. Everything seemed to be on such a different scale. Less about physical wrestling with ingredients and imposing one’s will upon them, more of craftsman-like rearrangement that respected them. I threw out most of my hand tools, the great spoons, the tongs, the giant commercial-grade grill paddles with which I could flip a half cow, and bought the smallest ones I could find. What was completely humbling was realising that almost every other culture was comfortable with an unbroken tradition of domestic cookery, appropriate to the size of family for which they were cooking. We — and by that, I mean my generation of British food lovers — weren’t. It suddenly seemed to me that, at home, I was carrying societal baggage, ranging from the absence of domestic staff, through conspicuous consumption to gender roles in domestic work.
Like any downsizing, it’s not always comfortable. Like many people, I’d lived in a delusion about regularly catering for huge, congenial groups. Sure, it felt good to have an oven that would take a small pig when I cooked for 20 . . . until I had to force myself to admit that I’d only catered for that many once. That brings up all sorts of feelings of social failure. Am I an inadequate parent for failing to create memories of huge, sprawling rambunctious meals? (We’re a family of three, and one of us heads off to university this week to make her own discoveries about the size of a shared kitchen.)
In my work I realised I was increasingly drawn to a different kind of cook. Not a big bloke in whites with a “brigade”, a huge range and a coppery “batterie de cuisine” but the people running tapas bars on a gas ring, diner cooks, hundred-year-old pasta grannies and the solemn and ascetic itamae making sushi on a small counter. Every kind of cooking I loved was getting smaller. More focused and intense, but also on a more humane, intimate and domestic scale.
For me, a smaller kitchen quickly became a no-brainer. Easier to work in, easier to keep clean. I keep paring down further. A massive saving of labour, simply by removing most of the labour-saving devices and, weirdly, a much tighter focus on food and cooking.
I thought that last bit was just in my imagination, until recently, wandering around Florence looking for a tiny counter where a single guy was reputed to make one, very specific type of sandwich, I spotted in a bookshop, a quote from Leonardo da Vinci: “Small rooms or dwellings discipline the mind, and large ones weaken it.”
Yep, I’ll take that.
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