Why We Got Separate Instead of Open Kitchens: It Was Thought to Be a "Clean Machine"

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credit: Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's Frankfurt Kitchen 1926

Why are our kitchens designed the way they are? Should they be open, part of the living space, as the majority of TreeHugger readers think they should be, or should they in a separate room, which some think is healthier? It’s a question that comes up again, in our continuing series on healthy homes and fighting disease with design.

Christine Frederick

Christine Frederick: How to lay out a kitchen that works/Public Domain

In previous articles, we have credited the concepts of the modern kitchen to Christine Frederick and her 1919 book Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home, where she applied the principles that Frederick Winslow Taylor applied to factories; it was all about workflow.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky was influenced by this book when she designed the Frankfurt Kitchen, perhaps the most famous modern kitchen, again, according to Claus Bech-Danielsen of the Danish Building Institute, “constructed on the basis of an analysis of workflow and storage needs. Spatial dimensions were also determined in order to optimize workflow.” It was small and efficient because it was supposed to be a machine for cooking, not a place to party.

Bech-Danielsen also points out that our image of the kitchen of a hundred years ago is the kitchen of the middle class or the bourgeoisie:

The kitchen was the domain of the servants, and the role of the housewife in relation to work in the kitchen was that of an employer. Her only contact with the staff was when the cook or the housekeeper went upstairs to the living rooms in order to discuss the menu for the day.
working class

Scan from Light, Air and Openness/Public Domain

But that was not your working person's kitchen. Paul Overy, in his book Light, Air and Openness shows this photo of a typical family scene, and, ties the Frankfurt kitchen to the Hygiene Movement, from that period between the wars when people finally understood how germs cause disease but didn’t have antibiotics to deal with it. The modern kitchen was in fact a response to the demands of hygiene. You don't want dad smoking and reading and the kids playing while mom is doing laundry (which was not considered sanitary either) One architect wrote in 1933:

The kitchen should be the cleanest place in the home, cleaner than the living room, cleaner than the bedroom, cleaner than the bathroom. The light should be absolute, nothing must be left in shadow, there can be no dark corners, no space left under the kitchen furniture, no space left under the kitchen cupboard.

Schütte-Lihotzky’s parents died from tuberculosis and she suffered from it too. Overy notes that she designed the Frankfurt Kitchen as if it was a nurses’ workstation in a hospital.
Rather than the social centre of the house as it had been in the past, this was designed as a functional space where certain actions vital to the health and wellbeing of the household were performed as quickly and efficiently as possible.

In fact, it was specifically designed to make it almost impossible to eat in the kitchen. Another architect noted that he separated the kitchen from the dining room “to the great benefit of the family’s health”, designing it “as a passage of such narrow width that there is no space for family meals in the housewife’s laboratory.” He wrote:

Our apartment kitchens are arranged in a way which completely separates kitchen work from the living area, therefore eliminating the unpleasant effects produced by smell, vapours and above all the psychological effects of seeing leftovers, plates, bowls, washing-up clothes and other items lying around.

As Overy notes, it is a sort of contradiction, to have the kitchen so small in a time when architects are promoting light and air. But there was a social agenda here too: the kitchen “was to be used quickly and efficiently to prepare meals and wash up, after which the housewife would be free to return to ... her own social, occupational or leisure pursuits."

Green Kitchen

© Williamson Chong

Today, many people reject that closed, efficient kitchen, but as Overy concludes, “the 21st century kitchen is clearly descended from ideas first tried out in the experimental standardized kitchens of 1920s and 1930s in Germany, The Netherlands and Scandinavia: a model of the hygienic workstation, or clean machine."

So you’re not going to party in that tiny separate kitchen, but it certainly will be easier to keep clean without all those people hanging out in it.