German kitchen brands are household names across Europe, with roots reaching back more than 100 years
4 August 2016
In Europe, German kitchen brands have been dominant in the market for decades. Now they are expanding into the US and Asia as well. What is it that makes German kitchen systems so popular? Five factors contribute to their strong reputation at home and abroad.
1 German kitchens have a long history
If you do something for many years, you gain experience and have time to improve. And Germany has probably the oldest kitchen brand in the world. Poggenpohl, based in the east Westphalian town of Herford, has manufactured full kitchens since 1892. Other well-known German brands include Eggersmann, founded in 1908, Alno in 1927, Leicht Kitchens in 1928 and SieMatic in 1929. These companies deliver full kitchens that include cabinets, drawers, worktops and more.
The period during which many current German kitchen manufacturers were founded was also the era in which the world was being influenced by Bauhaus and the Deutscher Werkbund (German Association of Craftsmen). These movements also influenced modern kitchen design.
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky developed the Frankfurt kitchen (pictured) in 1926, which served as a precursor to the modern, functional, built-in kitchen. Designed on the model of an industrial workplace, the arrangement of the equipment was intended to optimise workflow. Shortly afterwards, in 1928, Poggenpohl presented a kitchen that consisted of connected cabinets, a separate shoe cupboard, a sink, a table and a chair. It also had a practical new surface, the “10-varnish” surface, so named because it was varnished five times on each side.
In 1960, SieMatic introduced the first kitchen with integrated handles (pictured). Developments like these helped shaping the appearance of the modern built-in kitchen.
A SieMatic kitchen in Germany.
Many German kitchen manufacturers are family-operated. “I do believe that family-owned companies have a special culture that, combined with a market strongly shaped by small family businesses – in other words, specialised dealers – functions beautifully,” says Ulrich Siekmann, managing partner of SieMatic and a member of the company’s third generation.
“When circumstances demand it, one can accept a little suffering in the short term in order to be able to pass the company on to the next generation,” Siekmann says.
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A Häcker kitchen in Dubai.
2 “Made in Germany” has a good reputation worldwide
“The early bird catches the worm” – and he who exports first has the best chance of being top dog. The success of German kitchen brands in Europe dates to the 1950s and 1960s – the years of Germany’s economic miracle. It was during these years that most German kitchen manufacturers began to export.
The companies’ strongest markets are traditionally Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, France and the UK; recently, countries such as Russia, China and the US have become a focus. German kitchen manufacturers typically export their products to up to 60 countries. Their export percentages range from about 40% of production (Häcker) to almost 80% (Bulthaup).
The industry benefits from the broad range of kitchens offered by German brands. Italy, another kitchen producer, is known more for luxury brands, such as Boffi, with smaller volumes.
Fun fact Even in the Pope’s Apostolic Palace in the Vatican you’ll find a German kitchen (SieMatic).
A Leicht kitchen in the UK.
Today, specialised German kitchen studios are based in countries around the world, from the US to Australia and Holland to the UK. The label “Made in Germany”, introduced in Britain in the 19th century – and intended then to deter people from making a purchase – has become a hallmark of quality.
An Eggersmann kitchen in Copenhagen.
Exports are the growth engine, but the domestic market, with comparably high purchasing power and eager competition between brands, is the foundation. It’s an all-German game there: in 2014, export volume exceeded import volume by a factor of 14.
Foreign kitchen manufacturers can hardly get their foot in the door in Germany. For upholstered furniture, it looks completely different – two-and-a-half times as much is imported as exported.
Market and production volume are an advantage: they assure good prices, which provide good revenues, which make investments in production and research possible, which result in better products, and the cycle repeats.
A LeMans pullout by Häfele.
3 German kitchens profit from engineering traditions
Germany is – if you’ll pardon the cliché – a land of nerds and engineers. This finds expression not just in the car industry, but also in the bathroom and kitchen industries.
A kitchen is a complicated product, and functionality is foremost. How easily does a cabinet open? How useful is the internal layout? How long will everything last with daily use? “I believe we in Germany have a good background in the field of engineering. In the case of kitchens, this, for example, means the fittings industry,” says SieMatic’s Siekmann. “These companies have contributed to the development of the kitchen industry in terms of quality and functionality over the past 40 to 50 years.”
There are hidden champions, such as Häfele fittings from the Swabian town of Nagold – also founded in the 1920s – that are renowned worldwide. Techniques are often developed in exclusive cooperation with a particular manufacturer.
“Made in Germany” refers, in the case of kitchens, to practically every component. It’s interesting, in this regard, to note the geographical clustering. For example, 33 of the 76 German full kitchen manufacturers are located in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia; 57% of the 16,400 people employed in the kitchen industry work there. Many other manufacturers are located in Bavaria and in Swabia, and with them, their suppliers.
Why is that clustering important? Because the distances are short, cooperation increases over the long term. For example, Häcker Kitchens has been working for more than 50 years with fittings manufacturer Hettich, located nearby. Häcker’s head of sales, Markus Sander, says, “We can ride there on a bicycle! Despite the long-standing attachment, they naturally have to constantly keep up with competition, but as long as they grow as innovatively as their competitors, collaboration survives.”
A Nolte kitchen in Moscow.
Beyond furniture, many other components – from auxiliary equipment to electrical appliances – are crucial elements in a kitchen. And here also, noted manufacturers can be found in Germany, many of them small or family-run companies with similar values to the kitchen manufacturers.
In the area of auxiliary equipment and sinks, this would include, among others, Dornbracht, Blanco and Hansgrohe (founded in 1901 in the Swabian town of Schiltach). When it comes to electrical appliances, there’s Munich-based BSH Home Appliances, the largest home appliance manufacturer in Europe; Miele, founded in 1899 and still family-run; Gaggenau, which can trace its origins back to 1683, in the ironware industry; and Neff, founded in northern Baden in 1877.
These kitchen supply companies also profited from German engineering know-how. At the end of the 19th century, Carl von Linde founded modern cooling technology the Linde process. Before then, iceboxes and ice cellars were cooled with ice! Linde AG, founded in 1879, quickly became the leader in cooling technology throughout Europe.
The first industrially suitable, modern refrigerator in Europe was developed in 1927-28 by the Zschopauer Motor Works in Saxony. Years later, in 1992, the world’s first chlorofluorocarbon (CFC)-free refrigerator in modern times was produced by the Dkk Scharfenstein company (later under the name Foron) in Saxony.
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A Poggenpohl in Atlanta.
4 A German kitchen is finished on time
However, anyone could theoretically get good materials nowadays. When asked what generally distinguishes the German kitchen manufacturers from all the others, Michael Wunram, managing director of Eggersmann, replied, “It must surely be more the reliability in delivery and execution than the creative aspects.”
Stefan Waldenmeier, chairman of the board at Leicht Kitchens and the Association of the German Kitchen Furniture Industry, says, “German kitchens are distinguished by their total package, consisting of the availability of quality digital planning data for the various kitchen suppliers, a clean graphic order confirmation, control of the orders, delivery logistics and adherence to delivery dates” – alongside quality in production and design.
A Nobilia kitchen in Switzerland.
In short, no matter which manufacturer or CEO you ask, they all see a distinct strength when it comes to delivery. “It’s more difficult to send 40 or 50 kitchen components, ranging from cabinets to bases, to a point somewhere in the world than to ship a sofa there. And I believe the German kitchen industry has mastered this subject well,” Siekmann of SieMatic says.
In the end, a kitchen buyer does not want to have to wait another two weeks for the oven and four for the missing fronts to arrive; he wants everything on site at the same moment. The close network of suppliers on hand in Germany then becomes a clear advantage also for logistics.
A Bulthaup kitchen in France.
5 Form follows function
Is there, then, nothing wrong with the German kitchen? Many would probably name design as the weak point – since Germany is not exactly known to have a lot to say when it comes to style. In spite of all the know-how, efficiency and functionality, style often falls by the wayside in Germany (and not just with kitchens).
“The Italians are naturally a benchmark in design competence, of course, and one looks to them to try to learn something. But they can also learn something from us,” Siekmann says. “Also, the individuality of North American manufacturers, who use a country-style kitchen approach, is noteworthy.”
An Alno kitchen in London.
But Germans are trying to catch up. Stefan Waldenmeier of Leicht points to the “development of a German design that follows out of the Bauhaus tradition and is finding international acceptance”.
“Less is more” and “form follows function” are maxims that describe the “typical” German style well. For kitchens (and bathrooms), this perhaps fits the needs well, as straightforward and restrained design is more in demand for these long-lived purchases than any decorative trends, and both room types have big technical demands.
A Leicht Xtend+ shelving system.
“If people in the US see a German kitchen, they feel it’s very futuristic,” says Mayan Metzler, who sells German kitchens in New York. That might be because German design innovations are often technology-driven.
The Xtend+ light shelf unit by Leicht (pictured above and below) is an example. The wall-mounted aluminium shelves with integrated LED lights hook onto electricity-carrying vertical tracks in any desired position; no additional wiring is needed. The slatted doors covering the shelves open with the push of a button.
The SieMatic S1 was lauded in 2009 for its integrated illumination systems, hi-fi components and iPod docking station. Several manufacturers, including Tielsa and Sachsenküchen (with its Ergomatic) have recently added height-adjustable kitchen islands to their offerings.
Häcker is offering an integrated, invisible sound system within its kitchens, in which the base of the kitchen is used as a resonating body. You can connect via Bluetooth; no need to have a docking station on your worktop.
Eggersmann Unique series kitchen in limestone.
Some German boutique manufacturers have also recently established themselves as a result of their special designs. A good example is Eggersmann, a small company that produces about 5,000 kitchens annually, including the Unique series (pictured).
Eggersmann’s Wunram, a fourth-generation company man, says: “In this series, we are using only authentic materials, such as genuine stone, hot-rolled stainless steel and Corian – and consistently, not just for the work surfaces.” That makes sense only when precise workmanship is at hand.
Warendorf’s Hidden kitchen.
Warendorf, meanwhile, has developed a Hidden Kitchen, a single-wall kitchen that can disappear completely behind panels that have the look of Cor-Ten steel – suitable, perhaps, for large lofts. But come to think of it, the German kitchen hardly needs to hide.
Are you tempted by German kitchens? Or do you have one already? Share your views of them in the Comments below.