September 28, 2010  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Counter Space
The Curse of the Kitchen

Still from the music video The Frankfurt Kitchen. 2008. Black and white, sound. 3:42 min. Music, words, paintings, and script by Robert Rotifer. Animation, camera, and production by Lelo Brossmann and Stefan Csaky (Shock & Awe Video Productions, Vienna). Courtesy Robert Rotifer and Lelo Brossmann

In our last post, we highlighted the larger-than-life lady at the entrance to the Counter Space gallery. Now we’d like to give some background on the music video on the opposite side of the entrance. Juliet and I came across the music video for Robert Rotifer’s “The Frankfurt Kitchen” (2008) early in our research and were thrilled to make contact with the artist, who incidentally will be coming to perform the song at our public program Kitchen Culture on October 28.

Now to Rotifer in his own words…

It’s funny how the act of writing songs is usually associated with nineteenth-century ideas of divine inspiration. Ideally, you are meant to pick out melodies and lyrics that float around out in the ether, waiting to be captured. By contrast, writing “The Frankfurt Kitchen” was a very calculated move. A bit like designing a kitchen, really.

I sat on the train traveling from Canterbury up to London. If this should conjure up images of the rolling English countryside in your mind, that is exactly what it’s like. I was about to record a new album, and I needed one more uptempo song, something driving and rhythmical. While the noisy combination of rickety train and worn-out tracks suggested a beat, I began to think about syncopations and subjects.

I thought about the mundane things nobody usually writes songs about, functional things that defy metaphor—tools, devices, household goods. As I listed some items in my head, I soon realized that kitchen utensils were the way to go. I thought about the mechanics of a kitchen, and that’s when the name of the creator of the famous Frankfurt Kitchen flashed up in my head: “Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky” or “Grete,” as she was known to her friends.

There, in the natural rhythm of her name, was the syncopation I had been looking for: “I sing this out to Grete Schütte-Lihotzky.” Writing the rest of the lyrics was easy. The repetitive element would illustrate the way you keep returning to the same tasks and positions when you are working in a kitchen. In the middle-eight I would also find space for some of the criticisms that have been leveled at Schütte-Lihotzky’s kitchen over the decades, such as the way her design isolated the kitchen worker, i.e. traditionally the woman, from the rest of the family.

The name of Austria’s first female architect had been familiar to me since my childhood growing up in Vienna. Schütte-Lihotzky was an old friend of my grandmother’s from the time after the war. They had both fought the Nazis in the resistance, my grandmother in French exile and Grete in Vienna, where she had been arrested by the Gestapo in 1941 and still managed to survive. Both had joined the underground Austrian Communist Party, as the communists seemed to offer the most effective resistance against the Hitler regime, so when the war was over, they were involved in the foundation of the party’s feminist organization, where first Schütte-Lihotzky and, later, my grandmother acted as presidents.

It was due to these political affiliations that Schütte-Lihotzky’s architectural achievements were recognized only very belatedly in her home country, for which she had so bravely risked her life during the war, so to me the idea of dedicating a tribute song to the Frankfurt Kitchen as her pièce de résistance seemed irresistible.

When “The Frankfurt Kitchen” came out on my album Coach Number 12 of 11 in 2008, the label chose it for a single, so I went to work on the video. I had done a simple animation video before in collaboration with Lelo Brossmann of Viennese film company Shock & Awe (never been enamored with the name, but they are good people…) on a song called “I Believe You” in a style reminiscent of seventies primitive cartoons like the BBC series Mr. Benn. This time the premise was to mix animation with film footage, but to go black-and-white to achieve a sense of cohesion.

I was going to set the whole video in the kitchen, but when I did my research for the illustrations, I stumbled upon a radio interview that Schütte-Lihotzky had given around her one hundredth birthday in 1997, in which she pronounced that she was tired of her life’s work constantly being reduced to the Frankfurt Kitchen. If she had known that she was going to have to talk about nothing else for the rest of her life, she would never have built “that damned kitchen.” (The quote is used at the end of the video.)

I found this rather humbling, but also quite inspiring. I decided to paint sketches of as many of her other projects as I could find, and use them as a backdrop for my video. If you look closely you can make out my impressions of her fantastic micro-apartment including a disguised roll-out bed, her terraced houses at the Werkbundsiedlung, a beautiful kindergarten for a social housing project, a printing shop, the Viennese Communist party headquarters, as well as her Taylorist maps of movements around the kitchen, going from larder to work top to cupboard to bin, then round and round in frantic circles and finally out through the window (my interpretation).

I also painted some simple portraits of Schütte-Lihotzky, using some of the historic photographs from the 1920s depicting her with short hair, wearing a white shirt and a skinny tie; an androgynous look that I emulated when it came to miming for the video (filmed by Stefan Csáky). Lelo Brossmann had the idea of swapping heads between mine and hers (it had been my idea swap the heads of the married couple in the “live-in kitchen” part of the song).

It was all great fun to do, as I sat in my Canterbury study painting, scanning, and sending off the pictures, and watched them come together on Lelo’s computer in Schütte-Lihotzky’s old hometown Vienna. Little did I know that years later somebody would casually describe me to a friend as “that Frankfurt Kitchen man.” It seems the curse that haunted Grete has finally rubbed off on me.