German brand Bulthaup uses a sociocultural context to reinterpret the kitchen

The focal point of a kitchen is the table, according to Marc O. Eckert. ‘We designed the new collection by literally sitting at a kitchen table and asking ourselves: how do people perceive this space? How can we redesign the environment around the table?’

‘Form follows function, but at Bulthaup that’s only half the sentence. Here we say “Form follows function that serves the people”,’ says Marc O. Eckert, CEO of Bulthaup and grandson of the company’s founder. A convincing statement, exemplified by the brand’s Milan Design Week presentation, where Bulthaup showcased innovative products that challenge the kitchen setup as we know it. ‘We use a sociocultural context to reinterpret the kitchen,’ says Eckert. ‘People come first, followed by functionality, which has to respond to our customers and their lives. A product should adapt to different living circumstances.’

That’s exactly what Bulthaup’s new offering aims to achieve. Adaptability characterizes a collection that features ergonomic counters that can be fitted with an array of modules, including a selection of hobs and taps. ‘The various functional modules of the bulthaup b1 Milan 2016 system, for instance, can be shifted around and accessed inside from above. Compared with conventional counters, it’s a different way of working. You can arrive at such solutions only by putting people first. For us, kitchens aren’t just about design. You can always ask a designer to make a new panel or worktop, but more important is to think about how people live today. What do people really need? Does our current idea of a kitchen meet the requirements of today – or tomorrow?’

His question explains the origins of the company’s recent collections, as well as its product development through the years. ‘In the 1980s my uncle, Gerd Bulthaup, who headed the company at that time, embarked on a journey with graphic designer and corporate-identity specialist Otl Aicher to find out how people cook around the world and to determine the workflow of a kitchen. They arrived at four basic functions that define a kitchen: storage, preparation, water and heat. The book Aicher wrote afterwards – Die Küche zum Kochen [‘the kitchen is for cooking’] – thoroughly analysed the subject.

‘Until that time, the traditional built-in kitchen forced the housewife to look at a wall while cooking. In the dining room, her husband would be stamping his fork and saying, “I’m hungry. I want to eat.” Forget pleasant communication. There was a place for cooking and a place for dining.’ The kitchen-dining organization of that era was anathema to Bulthaup. ‘That study led to our invention of the kitchen island, which democratically invites people to cook together and to communicate – quite normal today, but revolutionary in the 1980s.’

The concept remains popular. ‘When you cook, you like talking to your family or guests. Think of the fireplace, central to many a society, such as that of the Bedouins, inhabitants of the desert. They lived in tents but met around the fireplace, which wasn’t just for cooking, but also for warmth and conversation.’ The need for such a gathering place is still present today, and nearly everywhere in the world the kitchen fulfils a sociable function. ‘The sharing of food – and stories – is transcultural,’ says Eckert, ‘and it happens around the kitchen table. In today’s society, only 40 per cent of the time spent in a domestic kitchen is used for tasks pertaining to workflow. The rest is spent communicating. It’s a place where we can get away from our hectic lives and enjoy precious time with family and friends. It’s not the meal itself but the people at the table that we will remember.’ The kitchen table as he sees it is not only the centre of conversation but also a 21st-century gathering hole. And it’s this development that guides the ideas for Bulthaup’s new products. ‘We designed each of the three systems we showed in Milan by literally sitting at a kitchen table and asking ourselves: how do people perceive this space? How can we redesign the environment around the table?’

The Japanese approach to arranging space was another source of inspiration for Bulthaup’s new concepts. ‘Japanese rooms are designed with regard to different seating heights,’ explains Eckert. ‘Everything derives from sightlines. What you perceive at a certain eye level determines the spatial organization.’ A good example is the bulthaup b3 Milan 2016 system, which includes a series of wall panels in different materials that – together with illuminated profiles and a choice of functions – allow customers to ‘be their own architect’ and to generate a certain atmosphere. Optional sliding doors are capable of adjusting that atmosphere to the time of day or the mood of the moment. 

Eckert talks about the table ‘as a symbol for the disappearance of walls. The classic living room is a thing of the past. Walls separating kitchen, dining room and living room are on their way out. Nowadays, everything merges to become a single space. Our living zones are cross-pollinated.’ Bulthaup’s answer to open-plan layouts is the new bulthaup b+ solitaires, a product line that transcends the kitchen system to encompass all interconnected living areas of a contemporary home. Components of bulthaup b+ solitaires – table, butcher’s block, cooking island, display cabinets – can be combined and configured in multiple ways; the programme’s open structures are ideal for displaying personal items.

Apart from its exploration of residential kitchens and their needs, Bulthaup takes an interest in societal movements and their potential effects on consumer demand. ‘We’re heading towards an asset-free society,’ says Eckert, ‘which relates to millennials. Today’s biggest taxi company, Uber, doesn’t own cars. Airbnb doesn’t own hotels. Amazon doesn’t operate physical shops. Rather than deciding what to own, people will decide what not to own. It makes no sense to give people more, because they can already get everything they want within 24 hours. You have to give them the right things: not all the colours, but the right colours; not every single material, but materials with depth. We offer people a platform, or grid, where they can be the architects of their own kitchens, and we supply all the necessary materials. They get to perceive and interpret what we provide – and then play with the various components. It’s the customer who’s in the driver’s seat, not the product.’

Portraits Markus Burke

This project was featured in Frame 112. Find your copy in the Frame Store

Billboard: German Design Council
Billboard: German Design Council

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