It’s just before 2pm in Vienna, Austria. For the past month, a small group of people have been waiting every Friday in front of the building at 16, Franzensgasse. Most of them are women. At last, the clock strikes 2pm, the time when visitors are allowed to see the former apartment of architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, which has recently been turned into a museum.
In post-World War I Germany, the vast majority of single-family households were made up of single or widowed women, and finding a suitable type of housing for them had become a challenge for Frankfurt’s urban planning team, which included Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. She had the idea of converting the attics of modern buildings into small apartments. This way, the women could live in the same buildings as workers in Frankfurt, instead of in separate residences for single people (such as student residences) that were typical of Germany back then.
Many years later, when she retired in 1969, she herself was on the lookout for an apartment in Vienna. The home she found measured 55 square meters, and was made up of a kitchen, a bathroom and a living room with a sleeping area – the same layout she had designed for independent women in post-World War I Germany. Schütte-Lihotzky would go on to live in that apartment for 30 years. It is in many ways her last project as an architect. Although, as with all historical sites, a bit of imagination is needed to see it as it originally was.
After the architect’s death in 2000, the apartment was home to art historian Ulrike Jenni, who made significant changes to the furnishings. So when the Margaret Schütte-Lihotzky Zentrum association decided to turn the apartment into a museum, it first had to be restored. Work began in 2021, after the association managed to have the house officially protected as a monument. With the help of the University of Applied Arts and other institutions, the furniture that was still in the house was restored and the pieces that were severely damaged or lost were reconstructed. The sofa-bed, for example, had to be rebuilt based on Schütte-Lihotzky’s design, while the String shelf in her office just had to be bought again, as the Swiss brand continues making it.
But the project is not yet complete; the $5 entrance fee for the museum goes towards the second phase of the restoration. This includes rebuilding the fireplace in the living room and restoring the famous Frankfurt Kitchen, designed by Schütte-Lihotzky. She came up with the design while working in post-war Frankfurt, and it continues to be the model kitchen today. The design streamlined and simplified the kitchen, and became so famous that Schütte-Lihotzky became fed up with the number of requests she had for the model. While she may have jokingly wished she never designed the Frankfurt Kitchen, it marked the starting point for her interest in the relationship between architecture and female emancipation.
A lifetime of design
Margarete Schütte-Lihottzky was born in Vienna in 1897, and grew up at a time when one could travel to Dubrovnik, in modern-day Croatia, without leaving the Austrian Empire. She lived to the age of 103, seeing in the turn of the millennium. The restored furniture in the apartment-museum is a kind of tribute to the design of the past century. The dining room features a lamp by Adolf Loos, one of the most influential architects in history. Schütte-Lihotzky worked with him after graduating from the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, where she was the first female student. At the university, formerly known as the Kunstgewerbeschule, she learned alongside Loos the strategies for optimizing domestic space that she would later use in the Frankfurt Kitchen and her designs for women’s apartments.
In 1930, after her work in Frankfurt came to a halt due to the Great Depression and the rise of nationalism, Schütte-Lihotzky left Germany for the Soviet Union. In 1933, while working in Magnitogorsk, one of the Soviet cities where she designed kindergartens and children’s furniture, the architect acquired a Kyrgyz tapestry that can be seen above the sofa bed in the museum.
The apartment also features two Kanadier armchairs, which were designed by her husband, fellow architect Wilhem Schüffe. The couple moved to Istanbul in 1937. At that point the architect had begun to collaborate with the Austrian Communist Party (KPÖ), and when Schütte-Lihotzky returned to Vienna in 1940 to secretly contact the Austrian communist resistance movement, she was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to a prison in the German city of Aichach.
Schütte-Lihotzky was released after the fall of the Third Reich in 1945, although for political reasons (she was still a communist) she received few commissions. In the last years of her career, the architect divided her time between designing kindergartens for East Germany (GDR), taking part in important conferences such as the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM) and fighting for feminist causes such as the recognition of housework as a profession.
Today, attitudes towards Schütte-Lihotzky have changed a lot. In Vienna, people line up to see her small apartment, and just a half an hour after opening, the museum is already full.
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