Arkitektura Assembly:  Bringing together the world of Design

DESIGN IN MIND: Matteo Thun

Matteo Thun is one of today’s most well respected architects. His firm, Matteo Thun and Partners, has a diverse range of work all over the world: Portugal, China, Italy, Germany, the US, Switzerland, Austria, to name a few. The work ranges from hospitals to hotels, spas to residential spaces and retail. He also designs products: bathroom, lighting, kitchenware and so much more. But what he may be most infamous for is being the co-founder of The Memphis Group, a collection of designers who disrupted design in the early 80s setting the ground work for what would be deemed design for that decade and beyond. And while you heard that he still is seen as one of the bad boys of design, is success and the respect he receives cannot be overestimated. Matteo Thun is legendary. He also believes in a healthy and balanced lifestyle so he adheres to a Mediteranean diet and he does yoga and pilates everyday. As for home, the world is his oyster. We spoke with Matteo Thun when he was in Milan.

Matteo Thun:

I believe that sense of reality was, since my childhood, part of my life. And the childhood memories, full of different informations to my eyes, to my nose, to my ears. I grew up in a wonderful surrounding.

Arkitektura:
Why do you think that is? Was it because your mom was creative? Was it because Italy is so special? What was it? Why do you think that was so potent for you?

Matteo Thun:
First of all, there was no money. So old toys, I had to make myself with clay. I created my own toys. My first toys, when I was maybe four, was a turtle because it’s so easy to make a turtle. And I did small turtles, big turtles. And I remember when I was seven, I did my first horse because to do a horse in clay is not so easy. So it was big fun because of a very, very simple life in nature, surrounded by mountains, and very close contact from my early days in wood.

Arkitektura:
Very interesting. Yeah. I mean there’s this myth I guess, I don’t know if it’s a myth, but that abundance is what we always want, but simplicity can make things so much clear to us too.

Matteo Thun:
Yeah. Simplicity combined with no money for toys. So if you have to create, you have to use your own fantasy to have fun as a child. That’s the best that can happen.

Arkitektura:
So now that you know you’re very successful, you’re known throughout the world, and you have all that you probably … You can get the things that you want. How do you find ways to get back to that simplicity? How do you bring yourself back to that space?

Matteo Thun:
Very difficult question. First of all, I follow Ettore Sottsass, and his logic of doing very, very simple things. The more digital we become, the more simple our architecture and our design has to be.

Arkitektura:
I mentioned this recently I think in an interview I did with the architect … Well, the designer, the artist, Ross Lovegrove, that I had interviewed Naoto Fukasawa early on in this series, and I remember he told me the story about building a house, and he wasn’t using any power tools to get water for concrete. He would carry buckets of water from the local stream, and just his desire to just get very, very simple was so strong because when you’re successful it’s hard to find simplicity. And it was really important to him to find those those moments.

Matteo Thun:
Yeah. Absolutely right. I learned in the Salzburg Academy with Oskar Kokoschka to look very, very carefully on whatever surrounds you. Try to understand what is the synthesis, what is the real … What are the basics of what you need to do. And Kokoschka teached us in this famous school of seeing to speed up the process, and focus on only the absolutely necessary thing. That was painting and the sculpture class I attended as well, when I was between 16 and 17 was bronze sculptural with Giacomo Manzù, a famous Italian sculptor. He became famous for the doors in the Vatican. So I was always very close to material and to materiality.

Arkitektura:
Yeah. And your first introduction I think, it was through clay, and that’s such a tangible medium. I mean you just feel like you’re playing with the earth when you’re working with clay, and then it’s very tangible. So architecture, we experience architecture in so many different ways, and one of them is through buildings, other ways or through massive sculptures, and when did you start realizing that architecture was a career path for you, what you wanted to do creatively in your life?

Matteo Thun:
I wasn’t sure if I should be a pilot because I like flying. So my mother who was trained as an architect she said, “Just try it.” And of course I fell in love with architecture because it’s a very holistic approach we have here in Milano. We do the famous word from Ernesto Rogers who said, “From the spoon to the town.” What does it mean? In the morning, we do a chair. In the afternoon, we do the master plan for a town, we work on lighting, we work on landscaping. So we are what Italians called, tutologie. That means we do a little bit of everything, but we know nothing.

Arkitektura:
And we got that, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” Yeah. I mean it’s interesting the way so many of the designers I interview, particular the Italian ones, are architects. Fundamentally, that’s what they studied, but then they became furniture makers, or lighting designers, but their sort of degrees are in architecture. So you know in the US, when we think of architecture, we think someone that’s building, you know creating buildings, houses, interiors, but in the context of Italy it means sort of everything.

Matteo Thun:
Yeah. This holistic approach is a typical Milanese attitude, and of course we refer and we would love to copy the Renaissance approach and the early Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raffaello. All these guys are our heroes. Of course, because of democracy, everything became a bit more complex.

Matteo Thun:
We are happy to live in a democracy, but the big superstars like Caravaggio is my superhero. Caravaggio, he was an architect, he was a painter, he was a photographer. Caravaggio was the result of a completely different period with less complexity when he started to do his work.

Arkitektura:
Is it possible to have a Caravaggio of today?

Matteo Thun:
Impossible. Democracy doesn’t allow to have this kind of complexity.

Arkitektura:
Why do you think that is? I mean democracy, in a political way, or democracy in one for all, everyone gets an opportunity?

Matteo Thun:
I believe in a politic way because we have to care about sustainability, about legislations, about restrictions. Of course, we love democracy because it gives a new freedom, but in the very same moment, as a creative person, you suffer because of the many many restrictions.

Arkitektura:
Yeah. I mean do you feel restricted yourself?

Matteo Thun:
As an architect, of course I am, because you have to follow a lot of bureaucracy. 80% of our creative work is bureaucracy, and 20% is real creativity.

Arkitektura:

So when do you feel, in your life, least restricted?

Matteo Thun:
I’m used to live in the system so I feel completely free, and I enjoy my work. Whenever I start to sketch something new, I just love it. I don’t feel I’m at work. I’m just having fun with what I do.

Arkitektura:
So your mother must have been quite an inspiration for you, at least it sounds like because you’ve mentioned her a couple of times. She was an architect, you became an architect. What are some of the things that you feel you learned most from her?

Matteo Thun:
I think I learned the behavior of accepting to do simple things in a complex surrounding. She teached me curiosity. She teached me, and my father as well, critical thinking, coordinating with others, and definitely the simple life. They showed me their simple life. They were entrepreneurs, and they were not employees.

Arkitektura:
Yeah. I think I come from a long line of non-employees as well. Have you been an employee?

Matteo Thun:
So you understand what I mean? As an entrepreneur, everyday you have the chance for a new risk and a new opportunity, and new opportunities bring a lot of fun in your life.

Arkitektura:
Do you still feel that having grown as much as you have?

Matteo Thun:
No. My teacher, when I did my PhD, he said, “Eventually the business of architecture will disappear, but if you are lucky after 60, you start to do something.” And maybe in the next 10 years, I’m going to realize something interesting.

Arkitektura:
Did he say that after 60?

Matteo Thun:
After 6-0, yes.

Arkitektura:
That’s amazing. Well you-

Matteo Thun:
That was Adolfo Natalini, the founder of Superstudio. A great, great teacher, and a very intelligent man.

Arkitektura:
I love that because it also … There’s this sense that you have to do everything when you’re young, but so much happens when you’re older.

Matteo Thun:
If you look at Mies Van Der Rohe, you look at Corbusier. These guys, they became great after 80. Philip Johnson did the best work over 80.

Arkitektura:
Amazing.

Matteo Thun:
Jean Nouvel is over 80 [he’s actually 73, but close!]. Renzo Piano, one of our real big big heroes, he’s 83.

Arkitektura:
Is he a hero for you, Renzo Piano?

Matteo Thun:
Absolutely. He is the master of Italian architecture.

Arkitektura:
Yeah. We are very lucky we have a Renzo Piano in our city, in San Francisco, and it’s beautiful.

Matteo Thun:
Yeah. Fantastico!

Arkitektura:
Yeah. Fantastico!. So one of the things that I read that you had said was that before you design a building for a location, you go to that place again, and again, and you just feel the air, see the light at different times of the day, get a sense of what it’s like. And I haven’t asked many architects about their process, and I wondered if is that is that a common thing to do? And if not, can you tell me a little bit more about that, and about why that’s important for you to feel all of that?

Matteo Thun:
I presume all architects spend a lot of time on the construction site before they start to think about the project. I’m just back from the desert and I spent 48 hours, from morning to the evening, to see where the sun comes up, where the sun goes down, how they say shadow looks, where from comes the wind, the smell, and the soul of the place you can experience only if you stay there for a long time.

Arkitektura:
I mean that sounds like such a wonderfully meditative process. Just to really experience the elements for a concentrated amount of time, and just be really present with them.

Matteo Thun:
Yeah Tania. That’s like a marriage. That’s like if I want to get married to Tania, I have to spend time with you.

Arkitektura:
So we get married?

Matteo Thun:
Si! Let’s see!

Arkitektura:
Let’s do it. So, of course your team, you know you can’t create everything, that’s one of the values that they must have. They must go and spend some quality time with a place before even thinking of what it’s going to look like.

Matteo Thun:
Absolutely, yes. The soul of the place, the soul of the brand, the soul of a company, if you do product design, you can just get a mail with a briefing, you have to go to the factory, you have to see how they work, you have to see who are the employees, you have to see smiling faces. People should have fun whatever they do. Only after experiencing that, you can start design.

Arkitektura:
That’s fascinating. So I guess those are one of the criterias for how you choose your clients as well, is that there has to be some joy there.

Matteo Thun:
It has to be some joy. I’m just back from a three-day conference held in a Italian factory. All the employees were not only fast, they were so happy because they know whatever they do, it’s a great job. It’s a great result, and they are very proud to work for the company. That’s why the company is producing fantastic product.

Arkitektura:
It’s so important. I mean it sounds like they feel very … I mean to use a very California word, but it’s true, that they feel very empowered, they feel like they have an impact, which is so important.

Matteo Thun:
Yes. It’s not the only in California, but it happens all over the world. We are lucky to work for industries and companies. They really enjoy what they do. That’s why they are worldwide successful. I think it is very important to have a fantastic, motivated team. You have to motivate them, you have to teach them where the limits, where the critical points for re-discussing a briefing.

Matteo Thun:
Right now, we do a huge project in Saudi Arabia, and everyday I explain that we have to be in a very critical mood for doing our best in this fantastic region.

Arkitektura:
Are you good at that? Are you good at motivating your team? Is that something you enjoy doing?

Matteo Thun:
We look at movies from the desert, we look at, all together, at books, pictures, stories, history. Just for better understanding the DNA of the place.

Arkitektura:
That’s great. So let’s talk about Memphis. You are, I think, yeah you’re the first person I’m interviewing that was part of the Memphis Group. And I’ve asked several people this question. I just want to get it out of the way because it’s probably a question so many people have asked, but I’ve never gotten an answer. So let’s just get it out of the way. But why Memphis? You know I’m familiar with Memphis because of Memphis, Tennessee. Does it have anything to do with that?

Matteo Thun:
Yeah. It was because of the Bob Dylan movie, but the real point why we were successful is Memphis because we were full of angry. We were totally disappointed in the partnership of clients. They had only form follows function. The only color allowed was gray. So it was a kind of emotional explosion, and the idea is to find new limits of shape, find your limits of emotions. In our case, form followed a new vision.

Arkitektura:
So can you take me to that moment, I mean you know when I think of sort of revolutions happening, or big movements happening, I imagine a group of people sitting around the table saying, “We can’t take this anymore, we’ve got to do something about this.” How did it really … What what was the first sort of catalyst that made it come about?

Matteo Thun:
For several years, working with Ettore Sottsass, we experience that the industries who asked us product design, they did not accept sense of reality. They did not accept colors. They did not accept any risk. So we decided for ourselves to become our clients. We had no clients. Nobody asked us to do Memphis. We did this after 9:00 PM, from 9:00 PM to midnight. After working day, we started Memphis.

Arkitektura:
Amazing. Amazing. You know we’re in a moment right now where there’s a tremendous amount of anger and frustration, at least certainly in America, well even in parts of Europe as well. And I think we need something like that. We need a Memphis, at least political Memphis. Do you think we need a Memphis in design as well?

Matteo Thun:
No. We cannot repeat Memphis because it was a very precise moment in the early 80s. Now, we should work on sustainable solutions for the planet. We should talk about botanical architecture. We should talk about healthy life. We should really invent our self in terms of protecting our planet, and trying to give to our children what we experience when we were young.

Matteo Thun:
So the revolution is not in terms of design, the revolution is, we need right now a completely different behavior to our planet.

Arkitektura:
Yeah. I know I mean it’s obvious as we’re hearing all this news around that and yet, will people really make change? It’s so hard to know.

Matteo Thun:
Yeah. Definitely. As an architect, in many many regions, I would not allow to myself to build. We have to stop expansion and consuming land. We have to create a new density in our cities. We have to re-compact. As architects, we really have to change your life.

Arkitektura:
So going back to Memphis, you were really surprised by how you were received at Salone. And can you tell me what happened?

Matteo Thun:
We were received as perfect idiots. We were received as clowns, as non-competent designers, not understanding the function, and we still suffer the fact that we are Memphis like. After 30 years, we are still suffering because the engineering world do not accept us.

Arkitektura:
Do you still think that after 30 years you’re still suffering from it?

Matteo Thun:
Absolutely, yes.

Arkitektura:
Really? But it’s so revered, the Memphis Group. I mean anytime I say, “Oh, I’m interviewing someone from the Memphis Group.” They’re like, “That’s incredible. That’s amazing.” Yeah. What do you what do you feel are the consequences of it?

Matteo Thun:
Very simple. We pushed sense of reality to the limits, and functionality was not our starting point. We were not interested in pure function. Our function was a sensorial function, and this of course is rejected by many, many, many engineers and technically, all technicians. They believe that we are just colorful, funny boys.

Arkitektura:
But I mean now you’ve proven them to be completely wrong.

Matteo Thun:
We still have to prove that every day.

Arkitektura:
Interesting. Do you feel very proud of that? What do you feel about that?

Matteo Thun:
After 30 years, I ignore all those who tell me that I’m an idiot.

Arkitektura:
Yeah. It’s fascinating.

Matteo Thun:
Because functionality follows different directions. There is a German Anglo-Saxon approach to functionality, and as a Memphis designer, we have two completely different idea for improving sense of reality, and real relations to the object, and to our surrounding.

Arkitektura:
And how about the relationships with those in Memphis? I mean when a movement happens with a group of people that you feel close to, it can be very powerful, it can be very galvanizing, but it can also cause rupture because it’s so intense. Do you do still feel close to your fellow Memphis Group members?

Matteo Thun:
Yes. I feel very close to a very special moment of my life. We had big fun, and we had also big, big fights. And also fights can be fun.

Arkitektura:
That’s right. They can be. And they can help you discover new things.

Matteo Thun:
Absolutely. Yes.

Arkitektura:
So interesting that you still feel it after all these years. What would have happened in design if Memphis hadn’t happened? Would we just be in some boring gray world?

Matteo Thun:
I think because of the digital world, because of new medium, the so called “gray kings” of product design, they automatically disappear. So I don’t care about this super functional approach of … Specially German design.

Arkitektura:
Why did it end? Why did Memphis stop?

Matteo Thun:
Any revolution, a real good revolution is normally a very short period. If you look at the Russian Revolution, it was a very short moment, very intense moment. So Memphis, the real Memphis was two years, maximum three seasons. And all what happened afterwards was just nostalgic interpretation of the revolution.

Arkitektura:
Just a nostalgic interpretation?

Matteo Thun:
I believe that every revolution happens in a very, very short time. So eventually, one Memphis collection would have been enough.

Arkitektura:
So when you think of yourself, you’ve created many different things, architecture is one of the main things that you do, but you’ve done many other things. So how do you identify yourself?

Matteo Thun:
I follow a very old Milanese tradition. I learned from my masters, and I try to go on by coordinating architects, interior designers, furniture designers, light designers. Communication is becoming very important part in my daily work. And to have all of them around the table, and nobody has the priority because normally, the architect says, “I am first and interior comes afterwards.” In our company, it’s the opposite. Everybody has the same power and the same impact from the beginning.

Arkitektura:
And when you think about new creatives and new architect coming into your firm, what are the main sort of values that you impart upon them?

Matteo Thun:
We created a kind of self certification because certifications are definitely necessary in our architectural work, but the national certifications have a very high complexity, and the consumers of our architecture wouldn’t understand elite, gold, or diamond, or silver and so on. So we invented a formula called triple zero, and that means that our architecture is sustainable in terms of zero kilometer, zero CO2, and zero garbage. That’s easy to remember. That’s easy to understand. And this is what we try to achieve in all our work.

Arkitektura:
That sounds very challenging.

Matteo Thun:
Yeah. I think this is the answer for sustainable attitude, and for preserving the planet from future disasters.

Arkitektura:
That’s right. Well, yeah, and it’s especially wonderful now because of what we’re hearing now about where our world is, but I guess you’ve always sort of … That’s always been a value of yours.

Matteo Thun:
Yes. I believe that as an architect, we can give a strong contribution to a healthy life, and to a simple life, and to a better life, combined with the 4.0 opportunities, and not fighting against digitalization. We have to use digitalization in a clever way.

Arkitektura:
So you said that many of the great architects and creatives of the world did their best work in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and do you feel that way about yourself?

Matteo Thun:
Yes. I hope, in the next 15 years, to produce something interesting. It takes time, and it’s not always easy to find a simple approach to a complex problem.

Arkitektura:
You say that I hope to create something interesting. Do you not feel like you’ve created something interesting?

Matteo Thun:
Not really up to now.

Arkitektura:
Wow.

Matteo Thun:
You can decide about quality of architecture only after two or three generations after building something. So it’s far too early to say if one of my jobs will last, and will have a good patina in 50 or in 100 years. So Tania, we should meet in 2050, and discuss again if something good was done or not. It’s not a joke. I’m serious.

Arkitektura:
Okay. I believe you. I completely believe you. And I mean I think that also if you say to yourself, “Okay. I’ve done great work. That’s it. I’ve done brilliant work.” You might not have the incentive to push yourself further.

Matteo Thun:
It’s not about incentive. Our work is based on technical durability. That means it should still look good after 50 or 100 years. And of course I’m very keen for aesthetic durability that’s why I do very, very simple things. Aesthetic durability means step out from any fashion moment. And we are surrounded in Milano by fashion, so we believe that our fashion attitude is updated.

Arkitektura:
So I don’t have many more questions, but I want to ask this, I mean because this has come up several times this term, simplicity. And I think about younger architects that might be listening to this, or even even very well-established architects who want to access that simplicity, but don’t know how. What does simplicity mean?

Matteo Thun:
Simplicity means technical and aesthetic durability. And in order to achieve that, you have to use super simple material, super simple details, and you have to find the econography for a long-lasting statement, and not a fashionable moment saying what should be the deactualized and architecture should be dynamic. You understand what I mean. So I’m not really friend of deconstructivism.

Arkitektura:
Is your life simple as well, aside from all the traveling?

Matteo Thun:
I tried to have simple life otherwise, I couldn’t survive. Fresh food, and simple food, and yoga, and Pilates every morning.

Arkitektura:
Really?

Matteo Thun:
Absolutely, yes.

Arkitektura:
Great. Okay so yoga and Pilates every morning, and your food again, say again.

Matteo Thun:
Fresh, simple, Mediterranean food, including Japanese food.

Arkitektura:
Yes. Well, I really appreciate the conversation, and I really appreciate that Memphis happened, and that you had the bravery to shake things up in that world, and I don’t know what it would have been like if you hadn’t done it. And I’m sorry that sometimes you still have to fight against proving yourself, but from the outside, anytime I mention the Memphis Group or anybody mentions it, it’s with such reverence and honor, and yeah I mean it’s one of the many things you’ve done in your life, but it’s a great thing that you’ve done in your life.

Matteo Thun:
Tania, thank you.

Arkitektura:
Thank you so much.

Matteo Thun:
Goodbye and enjoy.

Arkitektura:
Ciao!