During the pandemic, people cooked at home and ate with their families. The open kitchen became the centre of life. We talked to Volker Irle, Managing Director of the “Arbeitsgemeinschaft Die Moderne Küche e.V.”, about innovations, brands, trends and why no two kitchens are the same.
Interview: Thomas Wagner.
Putting the Question: An interview with Volker Irle
Mr Irle, you are the managing director of the “Arbeitsgemeinschaft Die Moderne Küche e.V.”. How did the institution with the beautiful name come into being and what exactly does the AMK do?
Volker Irle: The name “Arbeitsgemeinschaft” [working group] and the addition “Die moderne Küche” [the modern kitchen] are due to the times. The AMK was founded when the first built-in kitchen appliances were available. The thought was: it would be nice if the oven or the cooker fit into the furniture and the furniture didn’t start to burn when we turned it on. For that we need a round table where we can talk about industry standards and safety aspects. With sinks, it was about moisture and, and, and.
Who got the AMK off the ground?
Twelve kitchen furniture manufacturers decided to found the AMK in Darmstadt on 20 January 1956. Today we have more than 140 member companies.
So the initiative came from the companies?
Yes, they didn’t want to build past each other. That is still the case today. We have DIN standards, EN standards, ISO standards, and in addition we have our own standards with the AMK leaflets.
Is it all about standardisation?
The issue of public relations is just as important to us as the technical aspects. Up to now, the challenge has been that people always talk about the kitchen. But at the end of the day, the kitchen is created at the customer’s home. It’s like ordering a car, but you get a set of tyres, an engine, a chassis, seats and fittings – and then a technician comes to you and screws everything together. In addition, the supplier companies are very different. It is important for communication when they ask: What are the novelties in the kitchen? While the household appliance manufacturers and kitchen furniture manufacturers are the experts in their field, we as a service association look at the kitchen as a whole. For general enquiries on the subject of kitchens, new products and trends in kitchens, the AMK is available as a contact for the media and the press. Of course, the media are interested in informing their readers, listeners and viewers about what’s new, from the advertising paper from Oberbergisch, where I come from, to the big papers and magazines.
Are you also active internationally?
In the German industry, we have achieved such a high level of quality that we have now noticed bit by bit: Well, Europe likes us also after we have turned the European market upside down and continue to do so. Europe works, but what about Turkey, what about China, what about South America, North America or Africa? In such markets, the first thing is to understand: What do these markets look like? How are kitchens sold there? That is one of AMK’s basic tasks. Every two years we pick a region and ask the members: “What do you want to do next?” And then we prepare a country information day to clarify for the decision-makers on the industry side: Is this a market I want to look deeper into? Or do I say, “Thank you very much for the information, I don’t want to have anything to do with that.”
Were the reactions so different?
The most exciting was of course China – a huge barrier, especially in terms of language. The distance is also a challenge. You don’t sell a product that the customer unpacks and uses. Therefore we founded the AG China nine years ago. Today, 23 companies from Germany are represented in it and we have an office in Beijing and a small one in Shanghai.
And in the USA?
In the USA there is the big KBIS fair, where it is very difficult for companies to get any space at all. KBIS belongs to the North American Kitchen Association, NKBA, which we know very well from AMK. Here we were able to make a lot of things possible that even the big players can’t realise like that.
What has currently changed? Has the kitchen as a family retreat become even more central in the pandemic?
There have been two changes in recent years. The first was: people started knocking down walls to open up the workspace they had before. As a result, the kitchen has really become the centre of attention, even when they invite friends over. Singles suddenly found it important to have a great kitchen because they cooked with guests at the weekend. In the pandemic, another effect was added. Of course, they didn’t have as many visitors, but they just spent a hell of a lot of time at home. That’s why it’s not just the kitchen that’s had an upgrade, but their own four walls, both in perception and financially. If they can’t travel and a new car isn’t worth investing in right now, they think: What else can we do that we haven’t done before? And the biggest project they can tackle, usually also financially, is the kitchen. That also means: I want to take the greatest freedom and flexibility with my largest and most expensive individual product area.
Which then changed the kitchen as a room?
It’s not only the dimensions that have changed, and not only have cooking islands and preparation islands been added. Suddenly you can see the kitchen from any point in your living room. For me it’s like this: when I watch TV, I look at the TV in front and at my kitchen to the right. For that reason alone, you have completely different design requirements.
Does the question of status also come into play here?
You can make it a question of status, with, for example, natural stone and real concrete and so on. Such refinements are only a question of budget.
Instead of working alone, action cooking is the order of the day. Has cooking become performative and the kitchen the stage?
Cooking has become part of entertainment. I’ve been with AMK since 2018 and I’m always asked, “How long will there be kitchens?” Then I say: well, as long as I don’t hire a robot to watch the football game, there will still be people who enjoy it because it’s not about simply preparing food. In cities, it probably wouldn’t be much more expensive if I had all the food delivered. I could eat completely healthy, alone or as a couple – but I don’t want that at all. First, I want to know what’s in it, and I do enjoy cooking it myself.
Can you say that the development towards the open kitchen began with the kitchen-diner of the past?
There’s a nice saying: “The party used to end in the kitchen, now it starts in the kitchen.” But an open-plan kitchen has to meet completely different requirements: A dishwasher must be quiet when you are watching TV in the same room. Extractor fan? You can’t open the window like in a separate kitchen. All those little utensils standing around on the worktop – it doesn’t look tidy, and yet you want it to be functional. So there are slide-in doors, so-called “pocket doors”, which can make entire kitchen areas such as the sink or appliances disappear. It’s not just because you thought: Oh, I’ve developed a new hinge, there was a need for that. The innovative power is correspondingly great, and the innovations range from roller blinds with electric support to large apothecary cabinets that you can hardly pull out without motor support.
Where is changing the most at the moment?
In the colour design and in the surfaces, for example matt surfaces on which you don’t see fingerprints. In the high-price segment, there is a lot of natural stone and real concrete in the fronts. And you have a lot of smart supports in the furniture. If you have your hands full of dough while baking, you can control drawers or pull-outs by gesture or by voice. At first you might think: I don’t need that. The next time you have your hands full of flour, you’ll be glad you have something like this. Cabinets and pull-outs have also become wider. Where you used to have the classic 60 cm cupboard, today you have 90 cm drawers in many areas – up to 180 cm wide, especially for work islands.
What about kitchen appliances?
The first point is: no matter who you choose, they all now meet the most modern design requirements. The oven is not always just white or black. A lot of work is done with glass, patterns are used so that there are no design breaks with the innovative surfaces. The second point is: you have a lot of combination appliances to accommodate all functions in every kitchen. A classic is the hob that communicates with the extractor bonnet – a super feature when the extractor recognises whether you are cooking water or fish.
What about sustainability?
We just did our own survey on the topic of sustainability as part of the AMK. The result blew me away, because all companies are active on the product, production and administration levels, really all of them. Also, when it comes to logistics. There is another aspect to the matter: we are talking about medium-sized companies, almost all of which are family-run or family-owned. That’s why production takes place domestically and not abroad where it might be a few cents cheaper. Sustainability and the environment are the most important issues for the owning families. No one wants to be pilloried in their region for failing to do something. It’s different with big corporations.
Are there cultural differences in the kitchen between Europe and Asia or the USA?
As far as cuisine as a whole is concerned, there are no major differences compared to China. Where there are, they result from the food. In China, you just need a fireplace with a wok; and you have to work with gas because people there want to flambé. There are exceptions at the higher end in regions like Russia, where a lot of work is done with gold. There are also differences with the USA – yet, it is important to note that is changing. In the USA, there is the framed kitchen without a classic carcass; they more or less build a truss frame and screw walls and doors onto it. You also have to see: In Germany, you usually buy a house or rent a flat without a kitchen. That doesn’t happen in America. There, construction companies build several houses at once, kitchen included. In short, there are differences in one detail or another. But if I were to put you in a kitchen – and we are talking about planned kitchens – in ten regions of the world, you would not be able to tell which country we are in.
With a few exceptions, we can say: as far as the modern fitted kitchen is concerned, what you see in Europe is also what you see worldwide.
How are the German kitchen brands doing on the global market?
The big volume manufacturers have not appeared as brands at all so far, neither in Europe nor in other countries. It means that you might buy a kitchen and not necessarily know which is the corresponding manufacturer of the kitchen furniture. That’s changing now, because in Asia nothing works without a brand.
In contrast to the kitchen furniture industry, the electrical and household appliance industry is already represented and known worldwide. The kitchen furniture industry produces 100% in Germany; every kitchen that a German kitchen furniture manufacturer sells in America is made in Germany. The same is true for China. The appliance industry, on the other hand, produces in China.
What will kitchens look like in twenty years?
I think integration will increase. Kitchens will be smarter and they will do more of our work for us. We will know what we have at home – what is missing will be automatically ordered and delivered. Such, let’s call them “solution worlds”, will come. And the topic of lighting – work light versus mood light – will be more important. As far as optics are concerned, it’s difficult to make a forecast because trends change too quickly. At the moment we have a lot of matt and dark surfaces. I can’t tell you if and when everything will become light again. But on the whole, a kitchen will look about the same in twenty years as it does today.
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