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Kitchen à la Carte

With lightweight materials and a functional wall system, Bulthaup has reinvented the custom kitchen.

More than ever, homeowners want kitchens that truly accommodate the way they live. Features once considered extras—freestanding islands with custom drawers and appliances, baking centers, and built-in espresso machines—are now standard fare. Customization is no longer simply desirable, it's required.

Dozens of firms may specialize in high-end bespoke kitchens, but the German manufacturer Bulthaup has attracted a particularly loyal following. Installing one of its distinctive modern designs is as much a statement as owning a Noguchi dining table or Chagall ceramics. The company has a new line called b3, which completely reimagines how kitchens are laid out. In the past, food-preparation areas were built based on floor plans; walls and other vertical spaces played a secondary role. Bulthaup's b3 kitchens, however, are conceived around a steel-supported vertical, or "active," wall. Appliances, storage units—pretty much anything you want—are hung from the steel framework and positioned according to your exact preferences. Lower cabinets can be rested on the floor or suspended from the wall, creating a work area that seems to float in midair.

Though the look of b3—which starts at $25,000 and can go up to $800,000 for a large, highly specialized space—is one of a kind, the line is receiving accolades for much more than its visual impact. "Bulthaup kitchens transcend fashion," says New York architect Lee Mindel, a partner at Sheldon, Mindel & Associates, who has installed them in homes in London, New York, and Palm Beach, Florida. "The design is so functional, the kitchens are appropriate in almost any environment." Interior designer Mary Wilson chose one for her own home. "What makes it unique is the attention to every last detail," she says. "There's great flexibility in the design, and you can combine the latest appliances flawlessly."

The innovative active wall is built on a sturdy steel skeleton mounted to an existing wall. It's capable of supporting cabinets and appliances of any size and weight—even a massive fridge can be hung off the ground. Among the features are stylish wing lights, whose arms can be adjusted to allow for varying intensities of illumination. The faucet is attached to the wall directly above the sink, freeing up surface space and making both easier to clean. The controls are ingeniously placed at the faucet's tip, letting you regulate the temperature, flow, and direction of the water in one movement.

Equal attention has been paid to ergonomics. For years Bulthaup has built its countertops higher than the standard 34 1/4 inches to reduce the strain that leaning over puts on the body (a move widely imitated by competitors). This system is created so you can place your feet completely under the furniture and relax your body against the cabinet while cooking or doing dishes. Also, the use of function boxes—small storage units attached to the main wall—have reengineered the utilization of the space above the counter. Where most kitchens have a simple tile backsplash, b3's boxes hold everything you might need: jars, knives, cutting boards, sponges.

Often seen in his signature honey-brown corduroy blazer and egg-shaped wire-rims, Gerd Bulthaup—the owner and creative genius behind the brand since 1949—says his designs are inspired by his travels; in a typical month he visits New York, London, Israel, and Munich. "We're also constantly looking to unrelated industries for ideas," he explains. "For example, our welding technology is something we learned from the space industry."

The materials used in a Bulthaup kitchen are thin, but surprisingly durable. Take the stone countertop that's four tenths of an inch thick: Made by layering metal and synthetics, it can withstand just about anything. (Counters also come in stainless steel and laminate.)

Bulthaup, who recently retired, no longer runs the day-to-day operations; he now spends time planning for the future. "The b3 line was ten years in the making," he says. "We're already working on the next generation."

Bulthaup, 800-808-2923; www.bulthaup.com.


Up Close

The genius of Bulthaup's b3 design is found in the cleverly placed and visually pleasing practical elements of the functional storage system.

1 SPICE JARS
Jutting slightly out of the wall for quick identification, these glass-bottom jars are wrapped in rippled aluminum with perforated tops for dispensing spices. The space has room for a dozen jars, but more can be accommodated. The area below the containers, which is perfect for holding other items such as bottles of oil and vinegar, opens at a light touch.

2 CUTTING BOARD
Positioned behind a glass front, this solid beech cutting board can be simply folded out by its handle; inside is a convenient knife block. (A similar function box is available with a foldout electric slicer for safe storage.)

3 HERB POTS
Suspended from a steel bar, these adorable herb pots are crafted from part-anodized aluminum, which is easy to clean. If desired, paper-towel and cookbook holders, knife boards, and shelves can also be hung at varying levels or attached directly at bar height.

4 DRAWER INSERTS
Made of steamed maple with aluminum corner joints, these internal organizers come in four basic forms. Insert frames hold the different configurations and keep them securely in place. The compartment options include a silverware insert, a knife tray, various-size spice holders, and a bread-slicing tray and container.