A Communist Designed Your Kitchen

Marcel Bois
Julia Damphouse

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky is renowned as creator of the first fitted kitchen, designed to cut the time devoted to household chores. But her “social architecture” was just part of her deep political convictions — a journey that led her to the Communist resistance against Nazism.

A woman sits down in her Frankfurt Kitchen.

Without doubt, the “Frankfurt Kitchen” was Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s most pioneering work — today you can even find an example in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Measuring just 1.9 by 3.4 meters, it was the world’s first fitted kitchen, known for its blue-green cabinets, compact workspace, and affordable price. Designed to make the most of the limited room available in the workers’ apartments of the 1920s, it was so efficient in its layout that the time taken to move between tasks could be measured with a stopwatch.

Yet Schütte-Lihotzky had no desire to be known as an interior designer. In old age, when people only described her as the designer of the Frankfurt Kitchen, she would insist, “I am not a kitchen.” In truth, the Austrian architect gave the world much more over her 103 years — in particular, thanks to her socialist politics. Upon her birth in 1897, in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, women’s role was often defined as kinder, küche, kirche — children, kitchen, church. Yet Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s life followed a quite different course — better defined in terms of career, kitchen, and communism.

Formative Experience

Margarete Lihotzky was born on January 23, 1897 and grew up in Vienna. She came from a bourgeois family: her father was a senior civil servant, and her mother, related to the famous art historian Wilhelm von Bode, was an acquaintance of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bertha von Suttner. This background made it possible for her to study at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts during World War I — this being one of the handful of universities at the time that admitted women.

Her teacher there was the architect Oskar Strnad. When Lihotzky expressed interest in participating in a design contest for workers’ apartments, he recommended that she visit a working-class neighborhood so she could really visualize workers’ living conditions. Indeed, turn-of-the-century Vienna was a profoundly segregated city. In the center the representatives of the Habsburg monarchy and the prosperous middle class lived in grand buildings, while in the surrounding outer districts the migratory industrial proletariat lived in dark, narrow tenements.

This was a formative experience for Lihotzky. “I didn’t yet know the great Heinrich Zille quote, ‘You can kill a person with an apartment just as well as with an axe,’ but I felt it,” she recounted in her memoir. “I discovered ever more clearly that in Vienna, next to my world of middle-class intellectuals and the lives of elites who saw themselves as standing above the other classes, unbeknownst to me there existed an enormous social class of hundreds of thousands of people living out their fraught lives. Though the sources of their misery were not yet clear to me, I wanted to take up a career where I could contribute to alleviating their desperation. My decision to become an architect was finally made for certain.”

Indeed, Lihotzky’s first professional work after graduating in 1919 was devoted to the poorer sections of society. At the end of World War I, both worker uprisings and the revolts by national minorities led to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Vienna was overcome with hunger and an extreme shortage of housing. Huge numbers of workers occupied the forested land around the city and built simple huts. As she later recalled, “thus out of necessity they built an unwieldy settlement with no planning permission.” The young architect took a job with the city’s housing settlement commission and worked to support the movement through her activity. She developed prototypes for easy-to-build houses, designed the first kitchens, and advised the “settlers” in their concerns.

That was something new: most architects under the Habsburg monarchy worked for the elite, designing houses for the upper classes with stucco and splendid facades. But Lihotzky instead advocated “social architecture,” as she sought to improve the living conditions of the working class. Summarizing the guiding principles for her work — a functionally oriented approach to architecture — she insisted that the average worker “benefits more from his kitchen sink than from the angel on his roof.”

By no means was Lihotzky alone in this view. Inspired by the revolts and revolutions at the end of the war, numerous architects and artists began to address the needs of regular people. In Moscow, the representatives of the Russian avant-garde designed posters and storefronts, painted murals on agit-trains (trains touring around the country spreading the message of the revolution), and designed workers’ clubs. At the same time, in Berlin — itself a hub of revolution — there was a workers’ council for art. Its members designed monumental public buildings, held exhibitions of amateur architects, and developed many of the ideas that were later realized by the Bauhaus.

However, Lihotzky was above all shaped by developments in her home city, Vienna. In the capital of the newly established Austrian Republic, the city’s socialist government began to push through a radical reform program, setting up nurseries and kindergartens and providing free health care. But the “Red Vienna” of the 1920s was particularly noteworthy for its extensive housing projects. Soon the city government started building large blocks of flats instead of small single houses. By the beginning of the 1930s, the city had built sixty-four thousand apartments, providing housing to around two hundred thousand people. Lihotzky helped in the planning of one of the total four hundred housing blocks. This “communal socialism” was funded through strongly redistributive mechanisms including taxes on household servants, luxury goods, and high-end housing.

At the same time, cities over the border in Germany were also beginning to build social housing, with projects such as Berlin’s “Horseshoe Estate,” built between 1925 and 1933, and the “New Frankfurt.” Indeed, in the mid-1920s, Frankfurt’s new planning director Ernst May and his team began to set a new aesthetic standard. Not only did they build thousands of apartments, but they also designed a new coat of arms, neon signs, and tram-stop shelters. One of their most enduring influences is the now ubiquitous typeface “Futura,” which was designed for the project by a local firm.

This project also directly concerned Lihotzky. Meeting her during a trip to Vienna, May convinced her to come work with him. In early 1926, the twenty-nine-year-old architect began working in the standardization section of Frankfurt’s building department, where she devoted her time to apartment construction and the rationalization of household work. She gave numerous lectures, drafted designs for residential buildings, and developed her famous kitchen design, which was installed in more than ten thousand new apartments.

Again, here, Lihotzky’s aim was to improve working-class lives, by making unpaid housework easier: as she later put it, “I was convinced that the economic independence and self-realization of women would be a common good, and that therefore the further rationalization of household labor was an imperative.” She was heavily influenced by Taylorism: the Frankfurt Kitchen was intended to be as practical as a modern industrial workplace. The layout was inspired by the kitchens in train-dining cars, with the most important items always within reach, and many devices intended to help shorten the work process. Surfaces were painted blue-green because scientists claimed the color repelled flies. To lower the cost, the Frankfurt Kitchen was designed as a modular system that could be easily mass-produced. Since it was installed directly into a new apartment, the wood that would have been needed for the back of a cabinet was saved.

The Frankfurt Kitchen quickly made Lihotzky famous, and her story drew extensive coverage in the international press. She later wrote that “it fit with the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideas of the time that a woman essentially worked at home in the kitchen, so of course a woman architect would know best what is important for cooking.” But she added that something wasn’t quite right here: “it worked well as propaganda back then, but to tell the truth, before creating the Frankfurt Kitchen, I never managed a household, or cooked, or had any experience in the kitchen whatsoever.”

Out of the Kitchen, Into the Fire

But Lihotzky’s time in Frankfurt was not only marked by her career success — for she also began to be radicalized politically. She was already “impressed by the achievements of Social-Democratic Vienna in the areas of housing, health, education, and culture,” and soon joined Austria’s Social Democratic Party. She was encouraged to do so by the prominent Austrian economist Otto Neurath, who had been involved in the short-lived Munich Soviet Republic but returned to Vienna after it was suppressed. Lihotzky had first met Neurath while working for the Vienna housing settlement commission, and they developed a long-lasting friendship.

Later in Frankfurt, the Austrian architect missed the radical political culture of her own home city. She contrasted the Viennese situation to what she saw in her new German home, writing, “I [am] astonished and horrified by the political uniformity of my colleagues — regular staff and senior bureaucrats alike.” She didn’t find Frankfurt’s Social Democrats much better than her colleagues, either, and she dodged the party’s attempts to recruit her. This also meant that opportunities to meet and exchange ideas with like-minded people were rare. One notable exception was Wilhelm Schütte, a colleague in Frankfurt whom she married in 1927.

Schütte-Lihotzky nonetheless found another outlet for political activity in the so-called Frankfurt School — the Institute for Social Research. Neurath introduced her to its director, the “distinguished old Marxist” Carl Grünberg, who was also from Vienna. Prominent Austro-Marxists including Max Adler, Otto Bauer, and Karl Renner were also influenced by Grünberg; “during my five years in Frankfurt I spent many fine hours” at his house, she later recalled.

This marked a real shift in Schütte-Lihotzky’s political engagement: she admitted in her memoir that before becoming involved with the institute her knowledge of theoretical Marxism was limited to The Communist Manifesto and some of Friedrich Engels’s writings, but she now began to intensively discuss politics with Grünberg. At the time, he had close contact with the Soviet Union, and she later wrote that it was he who “opened my eyes to the reality of Austrian Social Democracy, and proved to me that they would not lead the country to socialism.”

This change of heart was also influenced by events in Vienna. In summer 1927, the acquittal of three far-right paramilitaries on murder charges sparked a general strike and a riot that ended in the torching of the Palace of Justice. But the Social Democrats refrained from supporting the emerging protest movement — a stance which outraged many on the Left, including Schütte-Lihotzky. These events prompted her to write what she later called a “pathetic letter” of resignation from the party. Under the influence of the institute, Schütte-Lihotzky now began to turn to communism.

Becoming a Communist

Indeed, as the Great Depression brought crisis to New Frankfurt, the “light from the East” soon began to shine in through Schütte-Lihotzky’s own windows. While City Hall could no longer fund the project in Germany, its head Ernst May was offered the opportunity to go to the Soviet Union and plan new cities there as part of the first Five-Year Plan. In October 1930 he departed for Moscow with a group of German-speaking architects.

Schütte-Lihotzky and her husband were part of this team. Together, they worked on the building of the industrial town Magnitogorsk on the edge of the Urals, among other projects. While many other foreign experts soon left the Soviet Union, the pair continued to enjoy their lives helping build Soviet socialism. They stayed until 1937, with the Great Terror and the beginning of the show trials. Some new research suggests that Wilhelm Schütte was himself starting to be targeted by the regime, contributing to their choice to leave. But leaving the Soviet Union did not mean leaving communism behind. After working in London and Paris, the couple moved to Istanbul, where they each took up posts at the Academy of Fine Arts with the help of their friend Bruno Taut. In Turkey, Margarete and Wilhelm finally both became members of the KPÖ, the Austrian Communist Party.

Even as Nazi Germany extended its hold over Europe, Turkey was never directly drawn into the conflict. Yet in 1940 Schütte-Lihotzky decided to leave behind this relative safety and join the antifascist resistance in her homeland. She traveled back to Vienna as a courier for the resistance. Unfortunately, her group was exposed, and she was arrested and only narrowly escaped a death sentence. She spent most of the war years imprisoned in Vienna and Bavaria until she was liberated by US soldiers in April 1945.

But this new freedom brought new challenges. In Cold War Vienna, Schütte-Lihotzky was ostracized and rarely received urban construction contracts. Her prewar professional networks no longer existed, and she was further marginalized as a woman, resistance fighter, and communist. “For years I was ‘persona non grata,’” she later wrote, “as a KPÖ member I was practically banned from working on public contracts.” Not least thanks to this, she began to travel extensively: in 1958 she went on a long study trip through Mao’s China and over the following decades she worked in Cuba and the GDR (East Germany).

Memories of Resistance

Throughout Schütte-Lihotzky’s life, two things remained constant — her professional commitment as an architect and her deep political engagement. An antifascist, communist, and women’s activist, she was a member of the KPÖ for more than sixty years, and for two decades she chaired the Federation of Democratic Women.

It was only toward the end of the Cold War that the architect finally received some long-denied recognition in her home country. For almost three decades, the media and politicians ignored the once world-famous architect. Finally, once she was over eighty years old, reports about her began flooding in. She received several honorary doctorates and was awarded numerous prizes, including the “Grand Decoration of Honour in Gold with Star” for services to the Republic of Austria.

She maintained her political convictions into old age, in 1985 publishing her book of Memories From the Resistance. At nearly one hundred years old, together with four other survivors of the Nazi era, she sued the right-wing extremist politician Jörg Haider for playing down the Nazi extermination camps. Herself a victim of persecution by the Nazis, she was deeply disturbed by the rise of Haider’s Freedom Party (FPÖ). She would, however, not see the far right enter Austria’s federal government — but only because she died on January 18, 2000, just two weeks before the FPÖ ministers took office.

Describing her own life, Schütte-Lihotzky wrote that “For me it has always been fundamentally important, in my job and also outside of it, with every bit of influence I have, to contribute to creating a better world than the one that I was born into.” Her near-103-year history is a monument to that conviction.