The Kitchen Designer Who Helped Women Get Out of the Kitchen

As a designer who loves to cook, I’m intrigued by the way kitchen design has enabled me—and generations of women who came before me—to spend less time preparing and more time enjoying the food we make, so we can move on to other things. 

Designers often have the biggest impact when they reimagine the relationship we have with everyday utilities, like those in the kitchen. Decisions as straightforward as the height of a stool can change the fabric of everyday life. 

One great example is Austrian designer Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, the woman who arguably had more impact on modern kitchen design than anyone in history. In celebration of International Women's Day and as an homage to my own grandmother, I wanted to tell her story. 

"Designer Maker User" exhibit at The Design Museum London. 

The “fitted” kitchen

I discovered Schütte-Lihotzky on a recent visit to The Design Museum London, when I went to see the “Designer Maker User” exhibit. I'd never heard of her before, but she is credited with creating the first modern, efficient, "fitted" kitchen in 1926. A "fitted" space means that units are attached to a wall rather than free-floating. It was the first time someone thought to design for cooks instead of home builders. 

Schütte-Lihotzky worked in the Municipal Building Department in Vienna, which controlled all aspects of housing, but as a newly-graduated architect, she had little experience with cooking. Instead of letting that naiveté hold her back, she embraced her beginner’s mindset and embarked on an early form of design research, interviewing and observing women in their homes and using film to conduct time-motion studies. 

She found that women were spending their entire day preparing, cooking, and cleaning. This endurance activity started with trips to the local store, as fridges and storage units were not the norm and food would spoil within a day or so. 

To add to the challenge, the stove, sink, and pantry were installed without any consideration for food prep workflow or the relationship between tasks, and work surfaces were installed at varying heights, putting strain on women’s bodies. 

 The fitted kitchen. Image by Wikimedia Commons.

The fitted kitchen. Image by Wikimedia Commons.

From her interactions with everyday cooks and the application of factory-line principles popularized by Henry Ford, Schütte-Lihotzky introduced her replicable, affordable,  space-saving, and egalitarian “Frankfurt Kitchen,” named after the New Frankfurt initiative to address the city's shortage of public housing in the 1920s.

Each kitchen came with a swivel stool, a gas stove, built-in storage, a garbage drawer, and an ironing board. Schütte-Lihotzky used resilient materials like oak to repel critters from getting into perishables and installed aluminum storage bins for staples like sugar and flour. The main objective was to free up hours each day for women to devote to other pursuits.  

Within a few years, 10,000 of Schütte-Lihotzky’s units were installed in apartment buildings across Frankfurt, and her design became the model for all subsequent Western kitchens. Her work reframed women’s relationship with cooking and set in motion a radical wave of change.

My grandmother, Ruth Kandel, who was born in Frankfurt just as Schütte-Lihotzky's work started getting acclaim, would often tell me about her upbringing—that her purpose in life was defined by “Kirche, Küche, Kinder” (church, kitchen, children.) 

While she loved her husband and children dearly, she also dreamed of becoming a lawyer or a social worker and contributing to the world beyond her kitchen. I feel extremely blessed to have had women like Schütte-Lihotzky blaze the trail through design, freeing up my time so that I’m able to embody my grandmother’s desire to go forth and create.

 Example of the fitted kitchen at the "Designer Maker User" exhibit at The Design Museum London. 

Example of the fitted kitchen at the "Designer Maker User" exhibit at The Design Museum London. 

Can the design of today’s food liberate us further?

Now that I’m at IDEO, I have the opportunity to carry Schütte-Lihotzky’s work forward. We partnered with IKEA to think about the future kitchen—how we might design it to be more efficient and use less energy while making it easier for home cooks to feel confident about preparing healthy food.

We also worked with a startup called INFARM to design modular, stackable units that use far less soil, water, and space to grow food at an optimal light and temperature. Because of the compact size of the units, you could install one in your own home kitchen, or stack them up to feed thousands of employees a day during winter months when produce typically has to be shipped in from far away. Good for cooks and good for the planet.

People used to say that a woman’s place was in the kitchen. Today, thanks to pioneers like Schütte-Lihotzky, a woman’s place is anywhere she wants to work.

This article was originally published on IDEO's blog the octopus. 

From WTF To Work That Feels Like Play

Student conversation.jpeg

Unfortunately, you don’t get a manual on how to navigate the treacherous path from university or college life to a job that’s meaningful. This leaves a lot of us (me included) anxious, confused and in need of a healthy dose of guidance as we figure it out. Here are 4 tips I’ve learnt to help minimizing the chaos and find work that works for you.

Budget for experimentation

As a student, you have the gift of time. Yes, it can be tempting to Netflix and Chill and I’m not here to stop the party. But, for most degrees, it’s likely you will have less than twenty contact hours a week and five months of holidays a year. Over the course of a four-year degree that’s about a 1.5 years of free time so use it wisely, be experimental.

Interning helps decipher work you love and you can live without.

During my bachelors degree, I did two internships at the urging of my dad to get some practical experience. For my first I wound up at an advertising agency assisting on a few TV ads while trying to keep my cool when I was asked to do even the smallest of tasks. Feeling a little more daring I completed my second at Samantha Wills a fashion jewelry company where I observed the inner workings of a retail business from sales forecasting, to PR launch events.

 Interning at  Samantha Wills  during Bridal launch.

Interning at Samantha Wills during Bridal launch.

Internships taught me how to work and had me try my hand at a range of tasks and figure out which ones I actually enjoyed.

The art of play

Boredom, that creeping feeling of irritation that compels you to fill your time with an activity is a gift. One that has been lost in our time of mass distraction.

It seems we’ve lost the art of play, the art of seizing the day.

Enforcing digital discipline was a sure-fire way to wet my appetite for play.

It was only when my mind stopped grasping for what others were doing and looked for something to do that boredom bore something interesting. I began visiting museums and sketching ideas, enjoying the simple fun of making, just for me.

Sketching re-kindled childhood days in art class where I would lose hours buried in piles of papers and color pastels re-creating a Picasso or Matisse. Without this creative play, it’s unlikely I would have headed down the path of design and ended up at IDEO.

Academia isn't the only way

That fear in your gut that festers throughout your degree about the application of what you are studying to real life is not unjustified. While university is great at teaching critical thinking it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of mapping the future of work and ways to get there.

Critical thinking + in demand skills.

Don’t be afraid to compliment higher education with less traditional modes of learning. Sites like Udemy, Lyndal and Master Class or colleges like General Assembly which started as a co-working space (a.k.a forward thinking) can give you the chance to acquire a practical, in demand skills and fill up your portfolio.

 Learning UXD at General Assembly.

Learning UXD at General Assembly.

General Assembly was a game changer for me in becoming a Designer Researcher.

While working in market research I collaborated on a project with a User Experience Designer. I was fascinated how insights could be translated into a product and wanted a way to test out if this was a career path I would one I’d enjoy. GA's part time immersive in UXD enabled me to taste test this field and learn the basics before investing in a Masters degree in Design.

Invest in brand you

Don't wait for some brilliant person to pluck you from oblivion and mentor you. Use sites like Medium and LinkedIn to find people whose ideas and way of thinking intrigue you. Make note of how they brand themselves on LinkedIn, skills they have tagged, their tone of voice and places of work. Use this as your checklist for skills to build into your learning.

Showcase your experiments.

Gone are the days where creating a website required coding and graphic design. Sites like SquareSpace make building a clean, professional site simple and fun. 

Even if you are at the start of your journey documenting your thinking through a portfolio may be enough to open a conversation as it shows initiative and experimentation.

A friend Micaela Brookman launched her site prior to graduation and treats it as living, evolving artifact. Her curation of work and personal projects has led to some incredible roles in a short time and acts as a canvas for her quirky character which is a plus for employers looking for cultural fit which simply can’t be conveyed through a resume.

Walking the path from WTF to work that feels like play isn't quick but can be so much fun. That is, if you give yourself enough permission to be open to the experience and approach it with an experimental mindset of simply figuring it out along the way. 

How-to get your team ‘in’ on that insight

You’re out with friends, two of which went to the same high school. They glance at each other and laugh at something from the past that to you, doesn’t make any sense. 

That annoying feeling is not dissimilar to attending a design research presentation. Those who were there get ‘it’ but the majority who weren’t feel left out; the empathy fails to scale. 

This isn't just a research problem, it's a business problem.

This has been addressed by Nick Bowmast a Design Researcher from New Zealand who proposes we drop the game and ‘frame’ rather than ‘tell’ our teams about research.

What intrigued me about Nick’s approach is it’s unpretentious. With practice, it can be used by anyone to inspire teams to focus on building what people truly need, which in my mind is the essence of design thinking. 

Frame, don't tell

As User Experience Designers, we get so focused on the ‘user’ that it’s easy to forget that one of our main tasks is designing an experience for our team. Nick’s story framing method is a recipe for bringing the magic back to the office. 

The trailer

This first step is about boiling down the moments that mattered into a video trailer. Film highlights get those awkward moments out in the open and reveal contrasts between users so your team can drop their biases and instead focus on empathy.

In my experience on Hijacked, a website for college students in Australia, huge differences were found between social users who screaming out to share their opinions and students that were shy and had perhaps had relocated from the countryside.

These users looked to the platform as a way to make friends and be ‘in the know’ and was essential knowledge to share with our developers and the team at large.

A trailer would have been very effective to introduce the team to the quirkier nature of some of the participants without getting too attached to one story over another. 

 Get the team together to watch the trailer.

Get the team together to watch the trailer.

Hot tip: if management can’t attend the whole session be sure they join in to watch the trailer.   

The profiles

Next step is to divide the group into 3 teams to watch 2 x profile videos to watch and dissect. The aim is to select videos featuring different contexts, interests, pains, needs and attitudes towards your product. 

You want raw moments where they gaze into the distance, or inhale through the teeth before answering a question
— Nick Bowmast

The more texture, contrast and personality you can capture in these videos the better. It will make users more memorable and help your team become real advocates for their ‘people’ which is your goal as a story framer. 

To support your team give them 1-page guides for structured note taking where they can write a factual description, categorize their observations and create summaries.

 Smaller teams filling out 1-page guides.

Smaller teams filling out 1-page guides.

Share and compare

Bring the teams back together to share their profiles. Guide your team by prompting them to explain their top 5 observations, top 3 challenges and opportunities.

This is a sticky point where each of the teams get excited as they begin to champion the quirks and insights of each story.

It feels like the experience changed them, just like it changed me
— Nick Bowmast

Looking back, I wish I had applied this approach to a broadcasting network who were looking to figure out how to better serve parents and children with their video platform.

As a research team, we learned so much amount about parenting styles, developmental psychology and the sheer chaos and fear around helping kids grow up.

If we would have exported these learnings into contrasting profiles videos it could have been a constant reference point during the strategy and development process. 

Sharing and comparing observations and insights.

Map it

Hot tip: invite management back so they can see how the trailers have transformed into a journey.

When everyone is back in the room guide them through a large-format visual summary that takes up an entire wall. A map this size will encourage everyone to see, touch and physically pin their observations on the map.

For me, this is the most powerful part of Nick’s approach as it’s the ‘now what’ moment where stories become actions the team can build from.

If done well this map will be your product DNA brought to life by stories that have been preserved by being told and re-told throughout the development process.

 Mapping the journey with the whole team.

Mapping the journey with the whole team.

A great example is Airbnb who have broken out the moments that matter from user stories and displayed them around the San Francisco HQ.

The ones they’re nailing are in green, ones they are doing well at are white and the ones that need attention are in yellow and are a reminder of what’s working and what can be improved as their product evolves.

‘Belonging anywhere’ wasn’t a single moment; it’s a transformation people experienced when they traveled on Airbnb
— Douglas Atkin, Global Head of Community, Airbnb, quoted in Fortune Magazine, 2017
 Key moments in the Airbnb user journey which acts as a traffic light type guide for the team.

Key moments in the Airbnb user journey which acts as a traffic light type guide for the team.

This gentler process of discovering rather than dictating insights has the power to bridge the experience gap.

So now, everyone can get ‘in’ on that insight.

Check out the full details of Nick 'Bomo's' Story framing process and video

Pixar's lessons in Design Thinking

 'Remy in the Kitchen' concept art by Robert Kondo (2007) (Pixar Studios).

'Remy in the Kitchen' concept art by Robert Kondo (2007) (Pixar Studios).

In the modern age of story-telling, Pixar are without doubt THE master craftsmen. While any company synonymous with Disney is bound to be blessed with more than a little magic, Pixar’s creativity is grounded in process and design thinking.

Research, iteration and collaboration are the foundations for creating characters that are both appealing and believable keeping billions enchanted for more three decades.  

Pixar’s design thinking process, unpacked;

Immerse yourself in research

Pixar's creative process kicks off with research by immersing the team into a particular place. For the film Cars, illustrators and technical designers went on a month long road trip to experience America’s oldest highways and collect photos and memorabilia along the way.

  Pastle sketch by   Bill Cone   during the research phase for Cars (2006)

Pastle sketch by Bill Cone during the research phase for Cars (2006)

This technique is similar to Ethnographic Field Studies in UX Design where research is used to help unearth new ways of seeing by being an active participant.

 Documenting the highway 'Cadillac Ranch' photograph by Bob Pauly (2006) (Pixar Studios)

Documenting the highway 'Cadillac Ranch' photograph by Bob Pauly (2006) (Pixar Studios)

Iterate, constantly

Once the initial mood has been explored, Pixar designers commit to quick and dirty sketches and prototypes to help viewers feel instant empathy with the story.

“We wanted Remy and Emile to be charming and immediately accessible, but we also wanted emphatically to say they are rats” (Sculptor Greg Dykstra).

The secret to nailing a character is in ensuring that it's believable.

“In all phases of our process we work from rough to fine. With a character like Woody, we start designing on paper and then move to refining his shape, first as a sculpture and then in the computer. Every step is crucial in ensuring the character looks appealing”. (Sharon Callahan, Director of Photography)
 Third iteration of Woody by  Bud Luckey    (1995) (Pixar Studios)

Third iteration of Woody by Bud Luckey (1995) (Pixar Studios)

This phase of characterisation is not dissimilar to persona development and storyboards in UX Design where research is used to unearth people's pains, desires, and emotions. The goal of which, is to create a product that satisfies a need and captures their attention.  

 Can a lamp have emotions? This Luxo Jr. storyboard by  John Lasseter    proves it true (1986) (Pixar)

Can a lamp have emotions? This Luxo Jr. storyboard by John Lasseter proves it true (1986) (Pixar)

This mode of ‘thinking with your hands’ via sketching isn’t only relevant for characterisation; it’s the quickest and most universal way to get an idea across.

In my experience, sketching in design workshops helps everyone to feel engaged in the process and breaks any fears around new ideas or ways of working.

The realisation of a character has also become quicker in the last decade due to introduction of 3D printing as a form of rapid prototyping.

3D printing enables designers to link form to traits such as Carl's stocky physique to his stubborn personality. This method of making also creates a more seamless transition between sketching and animation as the dimensions of a character have been expressed and resolved from every angle.

 A grumpy looking Carl from UP! Sculpture by  Greg Dykstra  (2009) (Pixar Studios)

A grumpy looking Carl from UP! Sculpture by Greg Dykstra (2009) (Pixar Studios)

Striving for ‘Simplexity’

One of the most profound elements of Pixar’s design thinking process is their use of selective detail or ‘simplexity’ to express a character’s fundamental emotional qualities.

‘Simplexity’; the art of simplifying an image down to its essence. 

 The art of Simplexity achieved by  Albert Lozano  in Inside Out (2015) (Pixar)

The art of Simplexity achieved by Albert Lozano in Inside Out (2015) (Pixar)

This concept drew my attention to Pixar’s appreciation for the psychology of line, form, colour and texture which is essential to the creation of emotionally rich characters.  

 Who knew a line could express so much emotion? Drawing by  Ricky Nierva  (2015) (Pixar)

Who knew a line could express so much emotion? Drawing by Ricky Nierva (2015) (Pixar)

Keep pushing the envelope with collaboration

Unsurprisingly, Pixar have access to the dream team of collaborators when working on a film. Industrial designers, sculptors, photographers, illustrators and model makers all bring a fresh perspective to the story using their skills to realise a character’s humanity.

 Industrial Designer  Jason Deamer  draws functional movements in WALL-E (2008) (Pixar)

Industrial Designer Jason Deamer draws functional movements in WALL-E (2008) (Pixar)

 Model maker  Bryn Imagire    realises form and texture for UP! (2009) (Pixar) 

Model maker Bryn Imagire realises form and texture for UP! (2009) (Pixar) 

While access to Pixar’s design resources are not necessary for success, an appreciation for the design process is. By taking the time to immerse yourself in research, iterate without fear and collaborate is the best way to achieve product-market fit.