Aicher’s recipes for Bulthaup

Die Küche zum Kochen (The Kitchen for Cooking) – the genesis of a book that has lost none of its relevance

Aicher respected the essence of the space that had always been the rural kitchen of his house in Rotis. The central worktable he designed for it became a prototype for Bulthaup. Photo: Gerrit Terstiege

Starting in 1981, Otl Aicher and his team worked for kitchen manufacturer Bulthaup for around a decade. The collaboration gave rise to Die Küche zum Kochen (The Kitchen for Cooking) – a highly readable book that has lost none of its relevance and whose influence on the Bavarian company continues to make itself felt to this day.

Looking at Otl Aicher’s years in Rotis, one thing stands out: in the last two decades of his life, being actively involved in the projects he took on – making his mark on them – became increasingly important to him. That would be an unusual approach nowadays. The directors and owners of today’s design agencies have to make sure they manage their projects efficiently. For them, it’s about keeping within a strict timeframe and working with their team to develop visual identities that enable companies to hold their own and compete successfully. Aicher, on the other hand, was in a position to do things his own way. Some of his statements on the subject are legendary: “I’m not the guy you hire when your company needs a fresh coat of paint,” he once said – even though nobody had suggested any such thing.

Developing a corporate design that works and is a fit with a company’s identity – usually on the basis of something that already exists – has never been an easy task. The designer is often faced with a multitude of expectations, some of them clearly articulated, others unspoken. Clients sometimes have their own design ideas in mind and are really only looking for somebody to implement them. If Aicher sensed even a hint of such an attitude, he immediately stepped on the brakes. Because he wanted to give more than that – and demanded more from his clients, who had to make the long trip to Rotis if they wanted to see him.

Letter from Bulthaup to Aicher. The letterhead still features the old logo. © HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm

Letter from Bulthaup to Aicher. The letterhead still features the old logo. © HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm

Gerd Bulthaup (1944 – 2019) was one of a small circle of managing directors who was willing to go to the effort. He must have sensed that if you gave more of yourself, you would eventually get more from Aicher too – not just a new logo and an elegant corporate font. Gerd Bulthaup had taken the business over from his father in 1978. The production facility was and still is located in the Bodenkirchen district of Aich, which you could say made Gerd Bulthaup an “Aicher” too – no doubt a source of great amusement to the sparring partner he tasked with creating the graphic design concept. I asked Marc Eckert, Gerd Bulthaup’s nephew and managing partner of the kitchen manufacturer since 2009, what his uncle told him about working with Aicher. He remembers some of the stories well, including the one about the coincidence that opened the door to their collaboration: “My uncle had gone to Rotis several times and hadn’t got very far. Maybe he hadn’t been allowed in to see Aicher at all, or maybe Aicher just thought ‘What does this kitchen guy from Lower Bavaria want from me now?’ and sent him away again. But then, just before another of my uncle’s visits to Rotis, a BMW manager’s chauffeur had driven the limousine across the lawn and made Aicher really angry – he was mad as hell. A little later my uncle arrived in his red Alfa Romeo Giulietta – a car with a completely different vibe. Aicher was crazy about cars and I guess that must have put him in a better mood because he invited my uncle in for their first proper, longer conversation.”

As in the case of Jürgen Werner Braun, managing director of door handle manufacturer Franz Schneider Brakel (FSB), Aicher owed his new client to a recommendation from Klaus Jürgen Maack, head of lighting company ERCO. A quote from Gerd Bulthaup from the initial phase of his collaboration with Aicher again makes the designer’s attitude crystal clear: “Otl Aicher asked me if I could cook. And when I said no, he told me I should learn before I started trying to change the kitchen.” It was well-intentioned advice – or was Aicher just teasing him? It depends how you look at it.

Spread from a Bulthaup catalogue (1988) explaining how to make careful but effective use of colour in the kitchen. Photo: Bulthaup

Aicher delegated a large part of the design work for the new corporate design, for posters, catalogues, brochures and other printed materials, to his colleague Hans Neudecker – which isn’t to say that Aicher didn’t get involved in the creation of the clear, ascetic, colour-quantised corporate design at crucial points. Incidentally, Neudecker continued to work for Bulthaup as an independent designer long after Aicher’s death, until 201o – around 30 years in total. It’s important not to forget the contributions he made to the company’s graphic identity. After all, Neudecker was in a position of responsibility for the corporate design right from the outset, starting in 1981. The wordmark was originally in Aicher’s Traffic typeface – the Rotis typeface that replaced it, lowercased and still used today, didn’t come out until 1988. Surprisingly, however, lowercasing the wordmark wasn’t actually Aicher’s or Neudecker’s idea at all: it already features in Bulthaup’s corporate design of the 1970s – even Gerd Bulthaup signed letters in lower case, as documents from the HfG archive show. Since 2003, other agencies, among them Baumann & Baumann for example, have developed contemporary interpretations based on the designs by Aicher and Neudecker, which have succeeded in making the leap into the present without forsaking the original visual identity. The continued use of Rotis as the corporate font is an important constant that builds a strong bridge between the past and today.

The logo of the 1970s – i.e. prior to Aicher – already showed the company name in lower case, but bold and in italics, supplemented by a tagline. Photo: Bulthaup

The logo of the 1970s – i.e. prior to Aicher – already showed the company name in lower case, but bold and in italics, supplemented by a tagline. Photo: Bulthaup

Sketch (Team Aicher) of the Bulthaup wordmark in three line thicknesses. © HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm

Sketch (Team Aicher) of the Bulthaup wordmark in three line thicknesses. © HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm

Sketch (Team Aicher): The cockpit as a metaphor for positioning objects and cooking utensils within easy reach of a central workstation. © HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm

Sketch (Team Aicher): The cockpit as a metaphor for positioning objects and cooking utensils within easy reach of a central workstation. © HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm

It’s just that Aicher’s role was very different: he didn’t merely serve as corporate designer, but as an overarching consultant – and thus remains unique in his significance for Bulthaup. Marc Eckert couldn’t agree more: “Nowadays a lot of agencies want to pull a mask over a company’s face. It’s hard to find individuals like Aicher any more – real personalities who genuinely engage with a brand and have the dogmatic clarity it takes to rebuild it on the basis of the company’s heritage.”

The line drawings (here: the Aicher kitchen in Rotis) were produced by employees Reinfriede Bettrich and Rosi Kapp according to Aicher’s specifications. © HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm

For Aicher it wasn’t the surface of a brand that mattered but its depth – that was one of his guiding principles, part of his mindset. When he started working for Bulthaup, his first priority was therefore to reflect on the kitchen as a designable space. The research, concept and writing that resulted in Die Küche zum Kochen began. In this particular case research meant eating out for a year, sometimes alone, sometimes with Gerd Bulthaup, dining on delicious meals at German and international restaurants, interviewing professional chefs and taking a behind-the-scenes look at commercial kitchens. It goes without saying that Aicher regarded this part of his work on the book as a matter for the boss – and not just in the interests of research: he was, after all, a bon vivant. But he was also interested in professional kitchens because they gave him insights that could be applied to domestic kitchens as well. Are gas or electric cookers preferred? Are pans stacked or hung on hooks? What height are the worktops, how big are the cabinets and shelves?

Viennese architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky took a similarly structured approach when she began designing her Frankfurt Kitchen in 1926 – she reportedly even used a stopwatch to time the actions required and distances covered during food preparation. Her concept embodied the spirit of the New Frankfurt housing programme and became the blueprint for all fitted kitchens. Perhaps Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret also used stopwatches when they were designing the Villa Savoye kitchen at around the same time, although it seems unlikely. Nevertheless, they came up with some clever and compellingly designed solutions – wall cabinets with sliding doors, centrally positioned wooden and tiled worktops, two sinks, lots of light – all of which Aicher was familiar with and mentions in his book. Another visionary design that deserves a mention, even if it remained inconsequential, is Luigi Colani’s Spherical Kitchen. Spectacularly designed, it stands in stark contrast to the usual dominance of straight lines and right angles and was envisaged as a curved module for spaceship-like architecture. Ultimately, however, the 1970 study for manufacturer Poggenpohl remained a futuristic showpiece.

A taste for research: Aicher spent around 12 months researching leading restaurants and interviewing their chefs and guests. Seen here: his list of restaurants to visit in Munich. Photo: © HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm

The shape of a table can have a major influence on how people interact when eating. Sketch: Team Aicher, © HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm

The shape of a table can have a major influence on how people interact when eating. Sketch: Team Aicher, © HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm

Nothing was more alien to Aicher’s nature than getting tangled up in dysfunctional designs. Those who doubt this should read his essay Der nicht mehr brauchbare Gebrauchsgegenstand (On once–useful objects that have lost their utility). Instead, he wanted to gain a genuine understanding of what a modern kitchen has to do, of how it should be structured. The roughly two years he spent working on the book Die Küche zum Kochen gave him the opportunity to explore fundamental issues and question habits. This is obviously precisely the space that matters to a kitchen manufacturer, along with the routines and processes involved with cooking – actions with a history that dates back thousands of years and which, Aicher believed, are influenced by the subtlest of nuances as well as the big things. It’s about tradition and innovation. About colours and compositions. About home and childhood.

In a way, the kitchen is also a very intimate space that allows many conclusions to be drawn about a person and reveals a lot about them. Writing about kitchens in 1992, designer and architect Ettore Sottsass says that when he’s invited to dinner he becomes something of a detective: he likes to look behind the scenes and get a backstage impression of his hosts’ apartment as a way of finding out more about their personality. “That’s why, as soon as possible, I go to the kitchen to see what’s happening, to discover the secret behind the show that’s about to be staged. It’s like visiting a painter at his studio, reading his biography and searching through his sketches, his notes, in order to get a deeper understanding of his art.”

The Villa Savoye kitchen in Poissy, designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret in the late 1920s, already features a central worktable and ample storage space. Photo: Gerrit Terstiege

For Aicher, however, cooking had nothing to do with putting on a show. For him, it was all about his family and staff. In this remote area of the southern German countryside, parties and communal meals at tables and benches in the yard or the former barn, which was set up as a canteen called the Rotisserie, were the self-initiated highlights of the little community’s social life. I asked Aicher’s eldest son Florian, who today lives in the historic main house in Rotis with his wife Gabriele, about his father’s cooking habits and preferences: “For my father,” he recalls, “cooking was synonymous with free time. I remember his first attempts in the 1960s, using tinned food from Maggi (ravioli!). Maggi was a client of his back then. At some point he started making his own dishes, especially after the trip to Algeria – things like eggs with tomatoes for breakfast. He used to make traditional Spätzle noodles too – he always made a big show of scraping the dough off the chopping board and into the pan. Cutting radishes (the way grandma used to) was another of his rituals. We ate Swabian food: a Sauerbraten roast with Spätzle on Sundays, potato salad, Schupfnudel dumplings with sauerkraut. In the 1980s, seasonal vegetables from the garden started playing a more important role. Supplied by my father, boiled to death by the cooks. Later he started coming up with his own creations (i.e. cooking without a recipe). His ‘Otl Soup’ was notorious. Even years after his death, the freezer was still full of it. The problem was that nobody wanted it because he’d overcooked the pumpkin, seeds and all.”

Seeing this kitchen for yourself is quite something. Even if you’re already familiar with it from photos, you don’t really understand a space until you step into it. Only then do you get a real sense of its proportions, surfaces, dimensions and details. If the idea weren’t so absurd, you could easily picture this kitchen in a design museum like the Neue Sammlung in Munich, complete with all its different elements and utensils. The curators would only touch the pots, drawers and doors with white cotton gloves; some things might be protected behind glass; entering the kitchen would be totally out of the question and touching it would get you thrown out. Whereas Florian Aicher and his wife Gabriele are anything but awestruck by this kitchen and use it on a daily basis as if it were the most natural thing in the world – which is actually far more in line with the concept behind it than banishing it to a display case like a rare and delicate butterfly. It’s important to note that Otl Aicher never changed the fundamental essence of this space: it’s the traditional rural kitchen in his house – the room has always served this purpose. The creation of a central worktable was perhaps the most important modification Aicher made, and became a prototype for Bulthaup. At its centre is a square hole for the quick and convenient disposal of any scraps left over when preparing food: the bucket underneath it catches the waste so that it can be taken to the compost heap later. Aicher is said to have joked that this cutout – “a void” – was the most important thing he ever designed.

Rejected cover design in yellow (detail). © HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm

Latest edition with new subtitle, Ökobuch Verlag. Photo: Gerrit Terstiege

Latest edition with new subtitle, Ökobuch Verlag. Photo: Gerrit Terstiege

Reading Die Küche zum Kochen provides many insights into why this decision is so significant. The subtitle of the first edition, published by Callwey in 1983, translates as The End of an Architectural Doctrine. It thus proclaims a new beginning, based on positioning worktops and storage space for utensils not along the existing walls but wherever it makes the most sense. Above the table in Rotis, for instance, a square grid hangs from the ceiling, keeping everything needed to prepare food within easy reach. In the 1980s, Bulthaup turned Aicher’s idea into reality by producing this very same combination. How many people who started out as graphic designers have ever had an actual physical product manufactured? Not as a limited edition, but on a large scale? Apart from Aicher, not a single example springs to mind.

In a sense, the kitchen islands from Bulthaup’s current range can still be traced back to this idea of working together in the kitchen face to face. Today, rather than having their backs to the room, amateur cooks have much more freedom of movement; they can change position and engage in conversation. But even this innovative approach has a long tradition, as illustrated by a panorama of a commercial kitchen in Aicher’s book. It goes without saying that it is also featured in the form of an abstracted line drawing, produced according to Aicher’s specifications by his employees Rosi Kapp and Reinfriede Bettrich. It shows a historical commercial kitchen with more than 20 people, annotated by Aicher as follows: “In contrast to today’s practices, this restaurant kitchen in Paris from the grande cuisine era only has a few people working with their face to the wall. Even the people cleaning the dishes and cutlery on the right of the picture are working at a table, and the food is cooked and arranged on the plates at islands in the middle of the room. Working with your face turned to the wall deactivates your sense of sight and brings communication to a standstill.”

Today, the merging of the kitchen and living space and increasing flexibility have become reality, even extending to cabinets and technical units on casters. This too is a development that Aicher anticipated for Bulthaup in the form of an elongated, minimalist and understated kitchen module made of metal and supplemented by wheeled cabinets. Technical innovations such as hob extractors integrated into the cooktop and flexible, textile-covered hoses for fresh and waste water have led to basic kitchen functions being liberated from their fixed positions. Aicher foresaw the kitchen opening up to the room in this way as well. In his book he writes: “A really good kitchen overcomes the separation between living space and kitchen.” And elsewhere he says: “The kitchen is becoming the new focal point of the home. The cooker is a synonym for epicentre.” This perception of the kitchen as the centre of the home and life, as the driving force and basis for communication and togetherness, endures to this day. Or to put it another way: “The end of an architectural doctrine” was a new beginning as well.

Seen here in a catalogue from the late 1980s, the worktable with central disposal hole was produced by Bulthaup based on Aicher’s designs – and studies in his own kitchen. Photo: Bulthaup

Gerrit Terstiege, born in 1968, studied at KISD (under Gui Bonsiepe and Aicher collaborator Heiner Jacob, among others) and at the Glasgow School of Art. He was editor-in-chief of the design magazine form for many years. Terstiege conducted numerous interviews with graduates of the HfG Ulm, including Alexander Neumeister, Franco Clivio and Reinhold Weiss. Today he works as a consultant for design companies, as a lecturer at universities in Switzerland and Germany and as an author and copywriter based in Freiburg and Mülheim/Ruhr. Terstiege writes regularly for magazines like Art, Mint and Rolling Stone, as well as for websites such as ndion.de and architonic.com. In addition, he is the editor of the books Gestaltung denken (with Thomas Edelmann), Graphic Spaces and The Making of Design.

Translation: Alison Du Bovis