04 September 2019


Obituary Gerd Bulthaup


Text: Thomas Edelmann

In despondent times, someone like him is particularly missed: entrepreneur and “kitchen revolutionary” Gerd Bulthaup died on 1st August 2019.


How do we shape the environment? How do we set up a framework in such a way that it has a meaningful reference to reality and its permanent change? And finally, what should we do to ensure that the chosen activity enriches our own life as well as that of many others?

Before Gerd Bulthaup, who died on 1 August, took over the management of his father's family business, he had other plans for himself and his life. In his mid-30s he was a seeker and remained so throughout his life. He will always be remembered for his boyish and youthful appearance. He was driven by curiosity. He always insisted on a rigorous grasp of quality. In 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany’s year zero, his father Martin founded a furniture company in Herford. Soon afterwards he moved it to Lower Bavaria, as this is where he could find qualified craftsmen. Martin Bulthaup's first item of kitchen furniture was a sideboard with curved and veneered fronts in post-war style (streamlined and kidney style).

The future for children of entrepreneurs who are chosen as successors is both easy and difficult. Easy, because their start in business is already established; difficult, because they have to know previously defined facts and rules in order to override them with their own views. Few people have done this as well as Gerd Bulthaup. For him and his generation, Goethe's Faust monologue, often quoted in celebratory speeches, has a special, new application: “Earn what you have inherited from your forefathers in order to own it”. So he renounced his own plans to study architecture, possibly even at the Ulm School of Design, which had long been known to insiders at the time.

For the sake of his sick father, he studied business administration. When he and his sister Ingeborg inherited their father's company in 1978, Gerd had been involved in many developments over the years. The company was already producing modular kitchen furniture and had potential, but was much smaller than the brands aimed at the mass market. Bulthaup still had to take the step of becoming a globally recognised entrepreneur in the industry, a visionary trendsetter. At the time, the management consultancy groups of today offering design as a sideline did not exist. With his early claim to “simply make the best kitchens” and not to “focus on what already exists”, but to invent “something new and useful”, a “living space to meet and communicate in”, such groups would not have been much help to Gerd Bulthaup anyway. Franco Clivio and Dieter Raffler, design graduates from Ulm, were involved in developing the “Stil 75” kitchen launched in 1969. The visionary “type 1” design, a kitchen inspired by the zeitgeist of space travel, system design and disposable culture as “the most extreme but most realistic proposal towards having a workless kitchen” was presented by form in 1970. With full-page and later double-page advertisements, Bulthaup used formto advertise products of the future and from the present.

There is a supervisory board in public limited companies, but not in family businesses. Gerd Bulthaup nevertheless established one and appointed experienced business people operating medium-sized companies such as (the only recently deceased) Klaus Jürgen Maack, who, with the help of Otl Aicher, had repositioned his company Erco in terms of both design and content. Maack established contact with Aicher, who, working with Gerd Bulthaup, developed a new image with a typographic logo. But Aicher was always also a critic of his clients, encouraging them to explore their objectives and their environment and, as a result, to think and act more clearly. He helped them to find the Archimedean point, from which to re-establish and consolidate everything. For Aicher, this meant thorough analysis and the greatest possible intervention. He was less interested in kitchens as a product, but more in preparing and eating food as an act of communication. At his home Rotis in the Allgäu region of Germany, his herb garden, cultivating fruit, preparing and eating together all played an important role. Bulthaup commissioned Aicher to produce a study on the transformation of cooking. The result was “Die Küche zum Kochen” (“The Kitchen for Cooking”), which appeared in 1982 with the subtitle “Das Ende einer Architekturdoktrin” (“The End of an Architectural Doctrine”). Modernism and rationalisation had separated the kitchen from the home and developed it into an engine room. In developing New Building in the 1920s, the “Frankfurt Kitchen” had become a minimalist rational model; in post-war architectural plans, it became the cell into which the housewife was banished, who was at the same time to be “unburdened” by housework using technology designed by men. Thus, architectural doctrine simultaneously consolidated the understanding of the roles of men and women in post-war society. Aicher countered this with the “Munich Kitchen”, also created in the 1920s, which rationalised processes but also saw itself as a space for communicating. The aim was no longer to “cook facing the wall”, but to “cook freely, collectively, in dialogue” and in the middle of the room. Aicher's “butcher’s block” and the “kitchen workbench” introduced in 1988 were the first milestones in Bulthaup's refocusing.

Shortly before his death in 1991, Aicher stated that his task as a designer was to establish a “culture of thought and questioning” in companies; in the case of kitchens, he combined it with his pragmatic philosophy of making and designing. Aicher became a father figure to Gerd Bulthaup, who understood the significance of this questioning culture. As a result, they did not create a new doctrine, but an attitude that became the basis of the Bulthaup brand. “Design is the creation of worlds,” wrote Aicher. And this applies both to cooking and running a dynamic company. Soon, the term ‘design’ no longer seemed suitable to Gerd Bulthaup for characterising the development of his products and his brand. “Everyone can create a design,” he stated in 2008 in an interview with journalist Anne Urbauer. “It’s all about architecture, function, order, timelessness and the quality of a manufactory.” Previously, the designer Rolf Heide had created an architectural environment for the brand that Rudi Schmutz captured in photographs. Herbert Schultes continues to work for Bulthaup today as a designer and consultant. There followed a period in which change gave rise to confidence: Gerd Bulthaup moved to his self-created supervisory board in 2003, and found a worthy successor in his nephew Marc O. Eckert. In 2014, Bulthaup was honoured by the German Design Council for his life's work, and is now known as the “Kitchen Revolutionary”. In despondent times, someone like Gerd Bulthaup is particularly missed.


Nº 284
Region of Design

form Design Magazine

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