The kitchen as a way of life
by Thomas Wagner | Sep 7, 2009
Elmar Duffner

Since Margarethe Schütte-Lihotzky first developed her "Frankfurter kitchen" (Frankfurt kitchen) and completely streamlined work in that haven of domestic effort, much has changed in the kitchen. Not only has the so-called "fitted kitchen" been immensely refined and given an individual look, it has increasingly been transformed from an isolated place where the housewife worked alone into the center of the house, a place that fulfills social, communicative and status functions. And more besides. As the extremely versatile kitchen concepts that can be rustic, sober, or simple and elegant to suit the particular owner's taste and wishes, these sleek-looking systems with their European qualities have also become a cultural export hit. Quality kitchens "Made in Germany" and above all those from the highest end of the segment are much sought after around the world. And this is especially the case if the varied programs reflect German high-tech prowess, excellent design, sturdiness and perfection all rolled into one to create a superlative product.

As such, it is no coincidence that the Poggenpohl company, which is one of the world's oldest and best-known kitchen brands, is present in over 70 nations, and generates some 75 percent of its sales - which totaled EUR 128 million in 2008 - in export markets. In Herford, at the Poggenpohl head office, Robert Volhard and Thomas Wagner spoke to Elmar Duffner, Managing Director of Poggenpohl, and Thomas Oberle, Head of the Public Relations Department. The conversation included the cultural significance of a European-style kitchen concept, the role design plays, the future prospects for a corporation with global operations, and the experiences you can have in a setting that is increasingly intercultural.

Thomas Wagner: Mr. Duffner, how do you explain why someone in the Arab world or in Asia is interested in a type of kitchen that is essentially alien to his own tradition?
Elmar Duffner: To my mind that primarily has to do with globalization. Firstly, information is simultaneously available almost everywhere in the world, and secondly the world has long since ceased to be divided strictly into East and West. Moreover, people travel more often today, they take a wide variety of impressions back home with them, share similar passions and in many cases crave after the same consumer goods. This explains why these days people around the world covet the same brand products. Be it in the Arabian Gulf, in Asia or East Europe, once people have the means to afford something their desire for established Western products grows independent of their own, learned culture.

Wagner: Would you say the Western tradition exudes a particularly great attraction in the area of kitchens? How do you explain the preference for our European manner of designing kitchens over other concepts?
Duffner: In recent decades we have seen a great deal of change, not only in other regions of the world but also here in Europe. The kitchen has morphed from being a separate, more or less functional room into a lifestyle product. And above all else the classic division of labor has also changed. Today, many women work outside the home, cooking is no longer their sole prerogative. What is more, today men likewise really enjoy cooking, are good cooks, and are willing to consider individual furnishing solutions. Our products benefit from this trend; indeed the kitchen is ideally suited to creating an individualized living space. In other cultures where the division of roles is still more traditional the way a kitchen is furnished can even help alter the division of roles between man and woman. For example, in the Arabian Gulf, homes often have two kitchens. One where the day-to-day cooking and work is done, known as the "dirty kitchen", and another primarily for the purpose of status.

Wagner: Is there a stronger desire for a status-boosting kitchen in Asian or Arab societies than in Europe or America?
Duffner: In Europe and America in recent years the kitchen has definitely gained in importance to the detriment of the classic living room. A glance abroad soon shows that the kitchen has assumed a stronger role as a status symbol in the area of furniture - or at least that is my impression - than is the case in Germany. In the Arab and Asian worlds, often the kitchen embodies a new, cosmopolitan interior design culture for which people are prepared to spend a considerable amount. It is difficult to say whether ultimately habits will alter globally: In the Gulf states guests to the home tend to first be shown the status kitchen and this is also used, even though there is another "dirty kitchen" for everyday use. And the fact is that when it comes to outfitting interiors, furnishing the kitchen clearly assumes a leading role.

Wagner: Would you say this is the case globally?
Thomas Oberle: Well, that is certainly true of our key markets in the United States and Great Britain, not to mention the Gulf States and the new markets of East Europe and Asia. The decisive catchword here is lifestyle. It is something you can observe in the shopping malls in Arabia and the Gulf states. There you will find all the important Western brands . After all, globalization is not just a one-way street, it works in both directions, and functions especially by interaction between the cultures. It is not just that we experience foreign cultures and this brings us into contact with new things, other people likewise experience us and our culture. This explains why a lifestyle product such as a premium kitchen has such a high standing in other cultures. People have developed a high affinity to such products, even if seen superficially the tradition of their everyday lives stands in stark contrast to them. Time and again it is fascinating to observe the general enthusiasm people have for Western products and how they assert themselves alongside a people's own cultural traditions. In the Arabian Gulf it is normal to not only see people wearing traditional clothing but also clothing, jewelry and sports outfits of Western luxury brands as they go about their daily lives. Things are similar when it comes to the kitchen. A product from Europe has been accepted into a different culture and quite naturally integrated into the local furnishing style.

Robert Volhard: Is a high-quality kitchen in the Gulf States first and foremost seen as a German product? Is it similar to how automobiles are seen? Because the kitchen is from Germany it is expected to be perfectly made, that nothing is loose, and it is made-to-last?
Duffner: Yes, cars are an excellent example. It is fantastic to experience time and again just what a high standing German high-tech enjoys abroad. And with kitchens it is like this: We have to do here with a highly complex product and every time it is a fresh challenge to master production for a particular order in all its complexity worldwide. And do so in such a way that the product is delivered complete in perfect condition, without something being broken, such that then the complete kitchen can be installed on the spot. Only to a small extent are our products based on mass production. We produce custom-made items and not finished products such as a fridge. We have an immense variety of individual items and product combinations, and when it is a matter of making a successful product out of them these calls for our classic German virtues. This insistence on quality is especially important for business-to-business dealings where you can't afford not to be perfect. Here our proverbial German quality is helpful. In this regard, as a rule we have a clear edge.

Wagner: What role does design play?
Duffner: End consumers still, for example, rate Italian brands strongly by their design and style and less in terms of their craftsmanship. But the German furniture industry has caught up tremendously in terms of design and I would go so far as to say this also applies to the German kitchen industry. This is why at Poggenpohl we say: We must prioritize design even more. That is our strategy. We call the rest the "hygiene factor", which means that in our market segment you must simply offer perfect products. Nobody asks about quality and service, you can't score points with them, these things are taken as given. Nor is "Made in Germany" seen as old-fashioned. It opens doors but design is simply the factor that makes the difference today. This is why when brands are launched we prioritize differentiation: We need products that are absolutely unique and have an unmistakable design idiom. And hopefully this distinction will make a difference when we are looking at the overall development of the product.

Wagner: What does that mean for how you proceed?
Duffner: At the moment we believe that in future the topic of design cannot mean developing something like "island solutions". Specifically, this means that we do not want to restrict ourselves solely to rooms, which are defined by the architecture, in other words, refer to a room that already exists. And that starts with product development. Here you need to have a broader focus, i.e., to conceive a solution informed by the architecture and which is jointly developed with it. So we have to ask ourselves: What will rooms look like in future? How will cooking, eating and living function under altered social and cultural conditions? How does this all fit together? What all too often happens at present is that architects and designers operate separately, alone in their own worlds. What we would like in future is for there to be a more intensive exchange between these disciplines at an earlier stage, not least of all because experience has taught us that many customers want to have everything as a unfired whole with a striking handwriting.

Wagner: In other words you are not so much an advocate of collage designs. You argue: Our experience speaks in favor of us offering certain concepts and product lines as a unified whole and working with architects and designers to advance them and give them the appropriate quality and sturdiness.
Duffner: Yes, that is how we envisage it.

Wagner: How great is the influence that designers have? Does the technical development continue with a designer getting in on the act every now and then? Or do engineers and designers collaborate closely from the start?
Oberle: A good example of such a process is our P 7340 kitchen, developed jointly with Porsche Design. It was a case of close consultation between the designers and engineers from the very beginning. In the context of such a process you cannot separate the technology from the design because ultimately the function is decisive for the product's success - even if the design is very important as far as the brand identity and corporate image go. The idea that a designer creates a draft proposal and our engineers then build the kitchen to realize it is simply not a practicable method.
Duffner: The one side is the cooperative process, the other addresses the question to what extent new products emerge from the topic "home - architecture - living". Today, there are already architects who already collaborate with local cabinet makers to realize such products. In other words, the fact that an architect not only has an idea for the layout and façade but also a concept for an entire room lays the basis for more intensive cooperation. In this domain, we would simply like to see more visions and ideas from the architects as regards kitchen, space, light, design language, wall thickness and materials. And we believe such input is already there as a palpable trend. A kitchen is no longer an isolated area that is simply planted in the middle of the house.

Wagner: When we say we want to overcome the isolation not only of the kitchen, but also its users and kitchen producers then we are in a totally new ball game. We no longer know exactly: Where or rather what will the center of the house be in the future - will it be the bathroom, the living room or the kitchen? If I see it correctly then there is a Modernist concept behind all of this. Essentially, the juxtaposition of living, cooking, sleeping and working is a loft concept as practiced by artists and architects in New York since the 1970s. In these lofts the bathtub stood in one corner with the kitchen right next to it and then came the dining table and five meters away a seating area. Everything was open plan. Admittedly, the concept has become more chic over the decades and its realization less improvised but as a concept it has more or less remained the same.
Is this the concept that you perceive provides the successful model to follow internationally and through intercultural exchange? And what does that mean for you as a manufacturer? Must you offer a complete apartment at some point? Are you not ultimately selling a way of living rather than just a kitchen?
Duffner: I really like this idea of marketing a specific form of living or concept of living. However, it remains to be seen whether this trend will emerge worldwide. Bear in mind that in Germany 90 percent of kitchens are still closed-off rooms. What we largely sell today is a complete makeover. A wall is removed, the room is opened up, and the kitchen is given a new enhanced status. Personally however I believe that this open "habitat" strikes the best chord with prevailing zeitgeist. Even though it cannot always be put into practice.
Oberle: New buildings in particular are already getting fairly close to meeting people's needs for such a form of living.

Wagner: But if the architect has only planned a small kitchen you have no scope ...
Duffner: True, but sometimes kitchen planning goes in exactly the opposite direction. Only recently when I asked a customer from East Europe how much space would be made over to the kitchen she replied: "Make me a proposal for how the kitchen might look. I am still building the house."

Volhard: Are the experiences you have in Asia totally different from those you have in the Arab world?
Duffner: In Asia every apartment is sold with a fully equipped kitchen. This means that, if only because of the price, there is not much room for maneuver. But here, again, you have to distinguish between standard apartments and penthouses or so-called duplex apartments where the customers prefer individual solutions. In Hong Kong, where we have been well established on the market for a long time, you will encounter any number of brilliant individual solutions.

Wagner: Do you get competition there from Great Britain?
Duffner: There is a handful of English firms that sells a fair number of kitchens in a traditional, more or less colonial style. Some of them look very opulent. What is remarkable is that this more opulent style is also very popular in Russia. Both in America but also in Russia we are very successful with our programs and yet we are forever being asked whether we don't have something more opulent in our range or can make something in the plain Shaker style...

Wagner: Let me ask my question again the other way around: What do you incorporate by way of cultural patterns or intercultural issues? Do you take up concepts and solutions from other regions of the world? Are you considering hybrid products perhaps especially for certain markets.
Duffner: No, at the moment that is not on our agenda. In recent years we have focused more strongly on nurturing our brand identity and have infused our products with a cosmopolitan design. Then we turned our attention to making our design more cosmopolitan. Will we later include a larger mixture of elements? I would not like to rule it out.

Wagner: In other words, at the moment you are relying on continuing to be successful in the future with what you offer?
Duffner: Times are changing. And you must not miss trends. But in many countries, say in the USA the kitchen is still very traditional. This is why it is important in a first step to emphasize our unique design all the more and give it a stronger presence. Owing to the brisk pace of new construction work in the Gulf in recent years much has happened there and we were present in the region with our products and we were chosen. So far we have not been asked to integrate alternative elements. But in the market there, things are changing all the time, too. I get the impression that in Dubai, developments have already peaked. Abu Dhabi is already even further down the road, and also more laid-back especially when it's a matter of giving things a more sustainable design. It is possible that if only out of respect for the local culture the product managers will soon need to develop new concepts there.

Elmar Duffner