Wabi-sabi is sometimes described as the 'Zen of things.' The beauty of things modest and humble, the beauty of things impermanent, unconventional and incomplete, according to Leonard Koren, the design critic who wrote the seminal 1994 book, Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers.

Such an elusive concept might seem an unlikely touchstone for a range of German kitchens, but in fact the connection with Bulthaup’s new 2016 'b1', 'b3' and 'b+' systems is fairly straightforward. Wabi-sabi has its roots in the precise aesthetics and philosophy of the Japanese tea ceremony. Much of wabi-sabi is expressed in the objects we use to feed ourselves. 

Kakuzō Okakura’s classic essay, The Book of Tea (1906), was probably the first explanation of wabi-sabi targeted at a non-Japanese audience. He wrote: 'Great as has been the influence of the tea-masters in the field of art, it is as nothing compared to that which they have exerted on the conduct of life. Many of our delicate dishes, as well as our way of serving food, are their inventions. They have given emphasis to our natural love of simplicity.'

Bulthaup’s approach is to design systems that allow the user to determine the play of light and the shifting volumes in their kitchens. 'The view of the beholder determines everything,' said Stefen Bauer, Bulthaup’s projects manager of products, during this year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan. 

The Bavarian company, founded in 1949, creates kitchen systems of pure simplicity that demand the interaction and the perspective of the user, and in so doing, the addition of the personal and the soulful. 

The 'b3' kitchen system is based around a multifunctional wall that is hung with sliding panels. Some panels are protective, in deceptively light stone and glass, while others are exquisitely functional systems for the storage of knives, pots and spices. All offer a subdued utility – sliding into place pulled by small, tactile leather tabs. The multifunctional wall hides the services and holds the cabinets, so that they appear as if they are floating. 

The flexibility of the 'b3' system allows for the combining of multiple materials and colours. Stainless steel, laminate, solid wood, aluminium and lacquer meet 1cm-thick worktops in synthetic stone and granite. The front finishes are in bronze or grey aluminium or a lacquered finish in colours from across the spectrum. The flexibility is part of the unfinished element, the wabi-sabi lightness of touch that is driven by the multiple, changing needs of the modern kitchen user. Every time a wall panel slides out, a new perspective appears.

For the 'b1' system, your viewpoint changes, the focus moving down from the wall panel to a spare kitchen island-workbench. Eschewing the superfluous, the 'b1' island is a few simple building blocks – a sink, sliding worktops, sliding food-prep blocks and a cooker. Under the sliding sections are inserts and storage areas – even a lockable box – meaning you don’t step away and stoop to access what you need. 

The 'b+' system, meanwhile, focuses on a range of freestanding elements called 'solitaires'. Built on a simple matte-black aluminium frame, the tables, storage units, butcher’s blocks and cooking tables deliberately blur the distinction between living room and kitchen. You put them where you want and you use them however you need to. Flexibility and multiple configurations give the user the power to shape the whole range to their needs, but whatever the accent, the language remains one of overwhelming simplicity. If Edmund de Waal made kitchens, this is how they might look.

Bulthaup creates beauty through simplicity: the essence of wabi-sabi. Okakura encapsulated it best in 1906: 'Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.'

As originally featured in the July 2016 issue of Wallpaper* (W*208)