Kitchen revolutionary Gerd Bulthaup died on 1 August 2019 after a short, serious illness. With the reissue of an article by Andrej Kupetz from 2014, we look back on the work of this impressive entrepreneur.
Gerd Bulthaup – Entrepreneur and kitchen revolutionary
By Andrej Kupetz.
There is a unique phenomenon in Germany’s industrial culture, which is gradually taking the public limelight, but is becoming all the more pronounced in the process. A phenomenon, which is just as responsible for the country’s economic clout as it is for its social cohesion, for the driving force of innovation and the quality of its products. A USP that increasing numbers of countries regard with envy. It is the “German Mittelstand”.
Tens of thousands of companies, often still managed by an entrepreneur in a virtually dynastic manner, and found in regional centres or clusters according to industry, and well spread throughout the country. A fair number of them are world market leaders in their particular sector. Many of them number amongst the so-called hidden champions. These companies are known in the international business world, as suppliers or mechanical engineering firms, but which do little to raise their public profile.
And then there are some, and by no means the largest of them, who visualize their achievements and expertise, who have made a conscious decision to turn things upside down, and do everything differently often in defiance of the comme il faut ideas prevailing in their branch. These are companies that stand out and create new markets with their ideas, or least revolutionize existing ones. They are this country’s brand entrepreneurs, those personalities, who succeed with their products for people in creating relevance and drawing covetousness, not only here but far beyond Germany’s borders.
Gerd Bulthaup is such a brand-name entrepreneur. He stands in his showroom in Herrnstrasse in Munich, sporting a black jacket and open white shirt, his hair combined forward in a youthful style, and presents his world: On the wall is a series of coarse-grained black-and-white photographs of works by his heroes – the Katsura imperial villa outside Kyoto, Donald Judd’s farm in Marfa, Claus Herman’s house in Arhus, John Pawson’s church St. Moritz in Augsburg, or the house of the Maack family in Lüdenscheid. “Once I have walked the length of these walls with a visitor, then I will most likely have sold him a kitchen by the time we reach the end,” says a confident Bulthaup and smiles, as if he were surprised at the logic of what he has just uttered. Gerd Bulthaup is right. What we see hanging on the wall is the quintessence of his brand. The clarity of the aesthetics, the mystical, indeed religious quality of the presentation, the perfection of detail. This is a point where the visitor takes an oath – swears affinity to the brand, or he turns on his heel. The latter rarely occurs. Anyone who comes here into the bulthaup church has made up their mind. How did Gerd Bulthaup come to transform the kitchen into a church?
The very beginning
The story is quickly told. In 1949, his father Martin Bulthaup bought a sawmill in Bodenkirchen, Lower Bavaria, and set up a furniture factory. Two years later the company made its first kitchen sideboards, a popular type of product at the time in the young Federal Republic of Germany. This allowed bulthaup to expand into other regions and the bulthaup brand was born. The company swiftly evolved into a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen market, though it did not yet compete with companies like Poggenpohl or SieMatic. Born in 1944, the founder’s son, Gerd Bulthaup, had wanted to study architecture after graduating from high school, especially as he was interested in modern art, architecture and design, and there was a college just outside Ulm, one already cloaked with a certain aura, with staff who sought to shape the future. But then his father fell ill, and Martin Bulthaup asked his son to rethink his plans and study business administration instead.
Gerd agreed, and not too long afterwards he was himself responsible for managing a firm. “At the time we had established two lines. One theme from the past were the kitchen sideboards, which were made in the factory in Bodenkirchen. And four years previously we had started addressing the topic of fitted kitchens. But to be honest, I must say that I found our product fairly dull. It was just a fitted kitchen no different from many others.”
Now in this position of responsibility Gerd Bulthaup looked for new contacts. His father was still there but far enough removed from the centre of business for the son to be able to do what he himself thinks is right. His interest in modernism, architecture and design was still very much alive and kicking, and he was keen to nurture contacts to designers. In Ulm he encountered Gui Bonsiepe, ten years his senior and already a teacher at the design college. The latter put him in touch with two graduates from the college, namely Franco Clivio and Dieter Raffler. “In cooperation with Clivio and Raffler I tried to give the kitchen sideboard a more contemporary design. The result was Stil 75 (Style 75), modern and timeless. At the time we were at the trade fair in Cologne, but we only ever got a stand at the rear behind Poggenpohl, SieMatic, and the rest. It was not a great success for us – a kitchen sideboard had a different focus. It’s true we landed a fair number of orders, but then we had delivery problems with the materials and other challenges.”
But Bulthaup is not discouraged. He would like to revolutionize kitchens and looks to other industries for inspiration. Though it is unusual for a familyrun business, in the early 1970s he creates a supervisory board, and is delighted to win over the ERCO CEO Klaus-Jürgen Maack. “Klaus Maack sat on our supervisory board for almost 20 years. For me personally he was also an important role model. I have seen his books, the typography, his photographs. It made me so nervous in a positive way that I said to myself, you also want to join his league, you have to break out of the kitchen sector.”
It was also Klaus-Jürgen Maack who put Bulthaup in touch with Otl Aicher. The founder of the Ulm Design School is already a legend, a moral force thanks to his personal connection to the resistance to the Nazis, and an innovator corporate identity in fledgling West Germany. “I visited Otl Aicher several times to solicit his support for bulthaup, but it proved very difficult. It was by no means a given that he would take on additional projects. But luckily for me Otl Aicher enjoyed eating and drinking, and so we met up this way. We began with the corporate identity. Just prior to that Aicher had devised the corporate identity for the Olympic Games in Munich, and so I asked him whether he could start by revising our CI – our font, for example, stems from this time. I have to say that I immensely enjoyed working with him. Otl Aicher always talked about the product as well. And he began by making it clear to me that good cooking not only requires the kitchens we produce but also good tools: good knives, good pans and frying pans. So we set up a subsidiary, bulthaup Küchenwerkzeug GmbH, and we worked with it to create a semi-professional range of tools. Something that WMF and others did not have. My sister then managed this firm, and I concentrated on the topic of an annex. In the end we ceased production of the kitchen sideboard. Though we could still make a profit on it I sensed that we should concentrate on something else.”
Not facing the wall or the revolution in the kitchen
A new way of thinking is born from the exchanges with Otl Aicher. Both of them fervently pursue the idea that the Frankfurt kitchen cannot be the “end of the line”. Cooking is not an isolated act that should be performed in an efficient and linear manner in a cramped space. Rather as the pioneers develop their ideas, the subject morphs into a social and cultural event, which ultimately as an expression of liberty in the truest sense of the word grasps space. The kitchen becomes a part of the living space, cooking a part of living. “Otl Aicher made it clear that you do not cook facing a wall but rather in the middle of a room, with others, in a dialogue. This produced the concept of a freestanding kitchen island. The first outcome of this process was a kitchen counter, a decisive step. I would venture as far as to say that if the Frankfurt kitchen was a first revolution in the 1920s, our counter was a second one.”
There are also revolutions in design. Once again, the ideas come from other sectors and firms that fascinate Bulthaup, who is skilled at making them his own. “Back then I observed Interlübke closely, where everything had a linear design – kilometres of units, everything in one smooth plane. It inspired me, and I contacted Teamform AG in Switzerland, which quickly agreed to work with us. It resulted in our Concept 12 based on a grid dimension of 12 cm which was unusual for Germany but typical for Switzerland. We had created an engineering product not typical for its country of origin.”
This move to emancipate the brand from a sector, from the setting of national competition where it did not feel at home, seems to have been more unconscious than a conscious strategy. Perhaps creating the “engineering product” Concept 12 (C12) was also an intuitive move toward extending the company’s international reach. Bulthaup says: “Our brand is not German. Even though everything remains today 100% produced in Germany, in Aich being ‘made in Germany’ did not play a major role for us. I prefer to say ‘made by bulthaup’, because it is the brand bulthaup that counts.”
C12 altered the face of the brand. It helped bulthaup make the breakthrough into a different world. And he did not present the kitchen in his factory but at the Hilton Hotel in Munich. The response was overwhelming. The products appealed directly to architects, interior designers, designers, all of them highly enthusiastic. The company expanded; fitting out surgeries and bathrooms were new fields, and almost 1,000 staff were by now employed in three plants. “You could say we overtook the competition on the fast lane, but to sneak up on everyone. The sector took a while to realize what was happening, and had not taken us seriously with C12. I was often in Milan during this time. I would always stand in the Via Durini and look enviously into the windows of Cassina and say, there will be a time when we need our own store, and that is exactly what happened later.”
While the design segment for Bulthaup started to take shape, traditional retailers were reluctant to accept C12. “What we hadn’t bargained for was that our retail partners might not accept it. Back then many wholesale furniture retailers hadn’t yet developed an appreciation for design language.”
Internationalization of the brand
In the early 1980s the bulthaup brand faced a sales crisis. The German market was showing signs of weakness. As was the case for most modular furniture firms of the time, export has not yet taken off for bulthaup, but positive experiences in Holland prompt Gerd Bulthaup to push the internationalization of the brand, which also has consequences for the product range. “We faced the decision of having to close down at least one facility. Alongside a facility for the C12 we also had the production of the standard fitted kitchen in Aich. And in Bodenkirchen there was a facility just for processing the timber, where in the first few years we produced a large number of so-called ‘styled kitchens’, for example Burgund and Normandie. They did outrageously well, and financed the C12. Nonetheless, I wanted to abandon the line of rustic kitchens, and in the end I said: we have one line, not two or three. We have to remain recognizable for the architects and furnishing houses. So we went ahead and slimmed down, and in the end we just had one facility, our main factory.”
In the mid-1980s bulthaup began to plan its exports strategically, first of all in Europe, and then 1990 it dared cross the Atlantic to the United States. “We didn’t start in New York but in Los Angeles. America was going through a recession, and the end of the Cold War also brought the collapse of the military industry. In this business environment we opened a store.”
Bucking the trend, the market in the United States developed favourably for Bulthaup. And he looked towards other destinations. “I tried to generate business from our system b licenses, and travelled a great deal, for example to Australia, America and Japan. During my second or third trip to Japan I established a contact to Toto sanitation products, and they acquired a bulthaup license for the kitchen area for Japan and built their own facility not far from Tokyo. Seven years later Toto expressed an interest in acquiring a share. At this time, Poggenpohl was sold to the Swedes, and we wondered how the market would develop, if this gigantic corporation from Sweden really stepped on the gas. After thinking about it for a long time we sold 35% of bulthaup to Toto. The phase with the Japanese lasted several years. But when the Chinese market opened up Toto decided to withdraw from Europe. And so we bought our shares back again.”
The story almost sounds like a fairy tale. At the height of globalization bulthaup bought back the shares which had originally enabled it to expand internationally. Today bulthaup is once again a family firm. How did that come about? “Ultimately, we could only afford all of that because we are a very healthy company. We are not bankrolled, which is an enormous advantage. The banks come to us, and not the other way around. We have a very high equity capital ratio. So in terms of credit rating we would win a prize.”
Gerd Bulthaup laughs. Today, the bulthaup brand has an export share of around 80%. The result of 30 years’ work and an achievement that is closer to that of Germany’s mechanical engineering sector than its furniture industry, which only generates about 20% of its business outside Germany. Following the ventures into the United States and Japan, working alone and the experience with partners, how is distribution organised today? Bulthaup considers briefly. “The catchword here is ‘selective distribution’. At the time we decided to restructure our sales, moving away from the sector and favouring exclusive partners. It was a very daring move, because we cut ourselves off from all purchasing associations. Today, we have 400 partners worldwide, which only represent bulthaup. I realised from the very outset the kind of responsibility we bear for these partners, because if we just get a sniffle then they will come down with the flu. Today, I know it is a huge thing. 400 partners each with three to four employees, that means we are responsible for well over 1,000 persons, plus the 600 with us in the company. Nonetheless, this selective distribution is the right strategy for us. It has given our image a real boost, and underlines the status of the product in the premium area.”
Bulthaup takes the time to blow the smoke from his cigarette into the air, as if he were about to embark on a summary. Finally he continues. “Yes, that was a very active time for us. And when I relinquished operative responsibility I became something of a whisperer if I can call it that. Nonetheless, I continue to give 100%, both to the company, but also in terms of nailing our colours to the flag and relentlessly emphasizing: we are responsible for the topic ‘ageless’, for the eye, the hand, for the function.”
The brand core. “Forget design” and other myths
It is the first time Bulthaup uses the term whisperer in our conversation and it will be repeated fairly often. Arguably he uses it to describe his current position in the company. A whisperer is a person, who is careful and sensitive in dealing with those entrusted to him, who does not use force or harshness with them. His work is based on a mutual trust that is absolute. Quiet and gentle are other properties that Gerd Bulthaup likes to use in our conversation to describe the bulthaup brand and the Gerd Bulthaup brand. He is pleased to win an award, happy about publicity but it is not something he actively seeks out. So what is the core of the bulthaup brand? “We try to shape people’s appreciation of style. We do not diverge from what we consider to be right. Let me give you an example; something that happened during the opening in Aich. My father had ordered 100 containers in the past because we had our own fleet of vehicles. And there they stood, 100 blue and white, white and blue containers. I said quite clearly they don’t fit in with our image. It was another thing I did with Otl Aicher. We decided our containers have to be white, with the word bulthaup written in small, discreet lettering – our trademark.”
Keeping the focus on the brand, but how do you keep the brand core up to date? “I believe it is a mixture of inspiration, creativity and continuity. Being open for ideas, learning from each other, yet not distorting the brand. I’ll give you another example: In the mid-1980s I got to know Herbert Schultes through my circle of friends in Munich. It is important to appreciate that we have a system product, we cannot and do not want to have a different designer every six months, a certain continuity is absolutely necessary. We had a long-lasting cooperation with Schultes, and it was also highly enjoyable, he still advises us now and again today. A result of this fruitful cooperation is the kitchen system b3, which was created eight years ago from system b. It is incredibly difficult to re-invent the kitchen. I say that again and again. You can make cosmetic changes but that’s not what we are about.”
But the product is just a part of the brand. System player Bulthaup is a close observer and aware of the force of images. “I have always been very insistent that we demand an extremely high standard in photography and graphics. As I see it, the whole image accompanying the product must be just right. That also goes for the exhibitions at our trading partners: ageless for the eye, the hand and the function. In this connection I would like to recall another important person who accompanied the brand, namely Claus Froh. I worked with him for 15 years. He first attracted my attention in the (news magazine) Spiegel that featured several adverts he created for Gaggenau, Lorenzini and Aida Barni. Initially, I was surprised that these companies should be in Spiegel magazine. Later, we were one of the first furniture makers to also advertise there. I have an especially clear memory of one of this advertisement subjects and how it came about. When the first airplane flew from Frankfurt to Tokyo via Russia I had a free flight because I flew so often to Japan. During the flight I went into the cockpit and asked the captain what the never-ending white space below us was; it could hardly be snow in the middle of summer. He explained that it was an area of birch trees. Just imagine, thousands of kilometres of white birch trees. What a piece of inspiration! So I said to Claus we must do something on the topic ‘Expertise in timber’, and we have just found the image for it. So that’s just what we did, we took a photo of a birch forest for the advertisement. One page of birch forest with the subject: expertise in handling timber. Moments of inspiration like that are incredibly important. But it only works if you have like-minded people with you, then new space is created, which opens up new doors for strengthening your brand image.”
Seen within the context of the bulthaup brand portfolio, what significance do projects like the mobile kitchen bulthaup b2 have, which the Vienna-based office EOOS developed? Do they extend a line, update a brand or just generate additional sales? “It only makes up a small share of our sales, but it is our answer to mobilization. Admittedly, it is marketing, but it pays off. And it advances the brand.”
Incidentally, how does Gerd Bulthaup assess the brand value of the company compared with the sales? “We are talking about 135 million euros. But the brand is worth many times that figure.”
If you take a look at the bulthaup literature, you cannot help but come across the call to “forget design”. Officially, the design brand bulthaup scorns the term design. “There are two terms that do not feature in our vocabulary. Firstly, we do no talk about luxury but about quality. Hermès is no different in this respect. And as regards the topic of design I struck the word out of our vocabulary ten years ago. We talk about purism with poetry.”
But where does this dislike of the word luxury come from? “There is something nouveau-riche for me about the word luxury. Ours is a different target group. Our customers are primarily self-employed persons, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and so on: our quality is worth the price.”
But can the term quality encompass the world of the bulthaup brand? “As I said, we still attempt to enrich our purism with a touch of poetry. In other words, we are not aiming to show the formal coldness of Bauhaus but rather to control the sensuality of this aesthetics via the material quality. That is part and parcel of who we are. We talk a hell of a lot about material and quality. And we are strong advocates of timelessness but not of design, because it has become a fashionable word.”
The kitchen of the future
In 2002 Bulthaup withdraws from the operative management of the business but he cannot quite let go. At least not yet. The managers who come from outside the firm do not fit in, somehow the chemistry is not right between the external management and the (Gerd) Bulthaup brand. “Bringing outsiders into the business did not work out. It surely also had to do with us, with our structure, because we do not allow any changes to our corporate culture. But everyone who comes to us as an external manager wants to make a mark. And there we put our foot down. We have our culture, our corporate culture and …”
Bulthaup does not need to complete the sentence. Either it fits or it just doesn’t. In the end blood is thicker than water. There is a greater sense of responsibility. Gives the family an advantage. “After three external managing directors our orientation is with the family again. Marc Eckert, my sister’s son, and a lawyer, had made other plans. But we were able to persuade him, and he has been doing the work now four years and with outstanding success. I am pleased that he is always open to advice. He comes knocking at my door and we work together on the development of the brand. He doesn’t want to copy me, nor would that be a good idea. But as regards his general understanding, his grasp of corporate culture, I am very happy how quickly he has taken that in.”
Art collector Christian Boros once argued that artists and entrepreneurs have more in common that you might think. Both take risks, both pursue a plan. They create values, think long term, even dynastically. In the bulthaup entrepreneur dynasty the third generation has taken over at the helm. The affinity with art will remain. And how does Gerd Bulthaup see the challenges for the future? “A few years ago we conducted a highly interesting analysis, and we did it with another person I have always looked up to a little – John Pawson. I just can’t get architecture out of my mind. And the result of our analysis will translate into the next evolutionary step in the kitchen.”