Gerd Bulthaup 1944-2019
Gerd Bulthaup, visionary businessman and patriarch of the German kitchen company that bears his name from 1979-2003, passed away in Munich on 1 August, 2019. He was 75.
After assuming leadership of the company that was founded by his father in 1944, Bulthaup steered the brand to become synonymous with a new mindset about the contemporary kitchen – replacing postwar notions of the urban kitchen as a marginalized place of work and food production, to return to its more traditional and rural place as a central hub for cooking, living and conversation.
Optimistic and open-minded by nature, Gerd Bulthaup’s management style was driven by his passion for new ideas. He sought out and engaged the leading design thinkers of his time to advise him on a brand design philosophy, products that could respond to these concepts, as well as advice on long-term strategic issues, given them tremendous freedom and support. In a statement, industrial designer and Gerd Bulthaup’s long-time friend, collaborator Herbert Schultes said, “He was as much an architecture and design devotee as he was a management personality,” he continued, “At the beginning of a new project his instructions were short and direct. It was important to him that as designers we were not hindered by too many prescriptions or constraints on our creativity. He left us alone to pursue our concepts, only drilling the following mantra: ‘We will follow no trends or fashions! Think about sustainability, functionality, material honesty, purism (minimalism) and longevity.’”
Otl Aicher, a renowned German graphic designer and co-founder of the Ulm Design School, convinced Gerd Bulthaup to form a deep understanding of the foundations of kitchen culture. To do so, the duo embarked on a year-long study of the kitchens and working methodologies of Europe’s top professional chefs.
This subsequently led to Aicher’s book, The Kitchen for Cooking. First published in 1982, the beautifully simple and illustrated manifesto formed the underpinnings of bulthaup’s philosophy of how the kitchen’s function and layout. The results had a leading influence on contemporary kitchen design – including moving the focus of the kitchen from the perimeter walls towards a kitchen island “workbench”, with a “butcher block” at the centre of the workspace. It prompted reducing the kitchen to its essentials for utility, ergonomics as well as longevity, durability and easy maintenance.
According to Schultes, “Through this step-by-step process, the working kitchen in a separate room was replaced by the living space of the kitchen, and above all in a very aesthetic, minimalist design language.”
With the help of Schultes, Bulthaup developed “System 25” which was a modular system of units based on a simple planning grid, that offered designers a wide variety of options including everything from counters to cabinets to sinks and drawer units that could be assembled in infinite combinations to create a unified look – which has clearly influenced today’s mass market furniture manufacturers.
Subsequently, with System 20 they were able to introduce an even lighter and more modular system comprised of freestanding aluminum units including options with castors that were so much like furniture, that owners could take them with them as they moved. In particular, the “workbench” became a hallmark bulthaup product, with all the necessities of heat, water and cutting area integrated into one unit.
Taken up with the concept of lightness, Gerd Bulthaup commissioned system b3. Launched in 2004 and still in production today, b3 has 13-millimetre cabinets and 10-millimetre countertops that hang off hidden wall tracks to convey the elegant appearance of a floating sculpture that could easily merge aesthetically with a dining or living room, while also raising the kitchen to a more ergonomic height.
Gerd Bulthaup also commissioned Viennese designers EOOS to develop a system b2 which launched in 2008. Based on the carpenter’s workshop, this system is comprised of an oak or walnut “tool cabinet” and “workbench” that prompts the owner to reduce his or her kitchen contents to the bare necessities.
In 2003 Gerd Bulthaup stepped back from day to day company operations but continued to play an active role in influencing the company. This freed him to spend more time travelling and engaging in conversations that influenced others and opened him to new ideas and experiences.
In 2004, following the “roaring 1990s” Gerd Bulthaup published Perspectives, which is basically his personal manifesto calling for a return to quality – for designs that equally balance form, function and sensuality to offer long-term enjoyment. He called on 24 “busy creative people” including architects, fashion designers, industrial designers as well as a chef, a swordsmith and a philosopher to share their views on the subject, once again underscoring his love of conversation and interdisciplinary exchange in pursuit of new impulses and understandings. The book is a great document of the diverse influences and thoughts of some of the most coveted creators of the day.
British Architect John Pawson was one of these creatives, and also a bulthaup collaborator whose purist ideals had a profound influence on b1 and other bulthaup developments. Learning of Gerd Bulthaup’s passing he wrote, “Meetings with Gerd had a character entirely of their own. Pretty much irrespective of the time of day, a bottle of wine and glasses would be set in readiness, in rooms whose air would swiftly be charged both with the smoke of an unbroken sequence of cigarettes and with the intensity of Gerd’s engagement with the business in hand. A fearless non-conformist, he had a fanatical eye for detail, a passion for materials and a deeply held commitment to the human dimension of the design and manufacturing processes. My personal memories are bound up in a succession of gatherings in restaurants and in our respective homes in England, Germany and Switzerland, when the conversation was always energetic and Gerd unfailingly the force at its heart. He was a man I respected and admired professionally; and loved as a friend.”
Gerd Bulthaup leaves two daughters and three granddaughters.