Matteo Thun, disruptive spirit

Matteo Thun is the founding member of a multicultural architecture and design studio, based in Milan and branches in Shanghai and Munich, that works internationally for the hospitality, residential and retail sectors, as well as designing headquarters for brands and working on urban design and master planning. For the boating world, he has come up with the idea of a floating island

by Claudia Giulia Ferrauto

ARCHITECT MATTEO THUN HAS AN ITALIAN HEART, A SOUTH TYROLIAN SPIRIT AND INTERNATIONAL RENOWN. In his forty years in the profession, he has achieved incredible success in the worlds of both architecture and design. He got off to an excellent start as one of the co-founders of the Memphis Group and the Sottsass Associati design studio, before launching his firm in 1984, which in 2001 finally took on its current name, Matteo Thun & Partners. Over the years he has shown remarkable versatility in tackling a range of objects, materials and attitudes: everything from ceramics and Swatch watches to the United Nations building in Geneva and Porsche showrooms, not to mention the famous Vigilius Mountain Resort in Merano.

The building provides an allegorical representation of the brand. The glass volume surrounded by a wooden lattice, which provides shade, symbolizes the company’s textile products and mitigates the building’s impact on the surrounding landscape. The building is designed in a sequence of layers that provide climate control and comfort through a sort of external diaphragm, which acts as a filter for sunlight entering the building.

For the last thirty years, he has been a leading designer for many different aspects of the hospitality sector, from the Marriot Hotel in Venice to the Waldhotel Buergenstock, and he has also designed headquarters for companies like Hugo Boss and Barilla and carried out design work for leading brands such as Illy and Artemide. Matteo Thun, therefore, designs everything “from spoons to cities” with an interdisciplinary approach that has seen him win the ADI Compasso d’Oro award an impressive three times. The list of awards he has won and designs he has created would run to many pages: suffice to say he was added to the Interior Design Hall of Fame in New York back in December 2004.

MatteoThun&Partners Waldhotel©AndreaGaruti.
The architect Matteo Thun (Bolzano, Italy, 1952) was born and raised in the bilingual German/Italian region of South Tyrol. He was taught by Oskar Kokoschka and Emilio Vedova at the Salzburg International Summer Academy of Fine Arts. He graduated in architecture from the University of Florence in 1975 and moved to Milan in 1978, where he met Ettore Sottsass. In 1980 he was one of the co-founders of the Memphis Group. He opened his studio in Milan in 1984. In 2001 he founded Matteo Thun & Partners, which today has premises in Milan, Shanghai, and Munich (Germany). He has won the ADI Compasso d’Oro for design excellence three times, as well as the Good Design Award and the Simon Taylor Award for Lifetime Achievement, both in 2011. He was added to the Interior Design Hall of Fame in New York in December 2004 and is a member of the Royal Association of British Architects (RIBA).

I have so many questions about your years of varied, meticulous and creative work, but I can’t resist asking you about your early days at the Memphis studio. What did you take away from that experience? We founded the Memphis studio on 11 December 1980, so exactly forty years ago. I still have the same disruptive spirit I had then: a desire for innovation, and refusal to accept nostalgia or rhetoric. Nothing has changed for me, and the same is true for many of us. Sadly Shiro Kuramata passed away some time ago, as have other valued members of the group, but the group’s spirit remains. It is certainly still alive in the way I tackle my design challenges.

Vigilius Mountain Resort – Merano
The hotel, set at an altitude of 1,500 metres in the Alps above Merano, is only accessible by foot or by cable car. The Vigilius Mountain Resort, an extension to the existing Vigiljoch Hotel, is a long, two-storey structure (plus basement) that runs north to south, following the profile of the mountain and the paths that traverse it. The design offers a modern interpretation of traditional building practices, using stone, wood, clay and glass. Each room has a clay wall between the bathroom and bedroom, which helps to regulate the temperature – its thermal mass absorbs heat, which is radiated out in the winter and stored in the summer, keeping the space cool. The accessible green roof helps to prevent the building from getting too hot. The large windows collect solar energy in winter, while a long brise-soleil runs along the length of the façade, providing shade in the summer. Radiant heating panels have been installed in the clay walls and bathroom floors, and heat recovery and geothermal ventilation systems are integrated with the triple-glazed bedroom windows.

Talking of challenges, you have faced many in your professional life, incorporating everything from design through to architecture, produc-
ing some excellent results and engaging many people. Do you have a favourite field? My favourite thing is whatever I am doing now – every day and each time. At the moment, we are working, among other things, on developing three hospitals: on the French Riviera, in Bavaria and Berlin. And this does not just stem from the pandemic, but from our strategy that seeks to reorganize our social infrastructure. As a result, we are now applying the expertise we have gathered over the years from designing hotels to hospitals.

What are the similarities and differences between these two forms of hospitality in terms of design? Hospitality and hospitals are not that different, and indeed the words share the same root, the Latin word hospes, meaning ‘guest’. The main difference is the way time and space are used in these environments. In hospitals, people wake up early, with a series of things to do linked to treatment times and schedules and clinical checks, but these can be reorganised, and the customers/patients can be involved in the process, something we are partly doing through digital channels.

The Waldkliniken Eisenberg campus was designed to promote a connection with nature and to enhance guests’ wellbeing. The façade of the circular building is clad with local wood, and it contains 128 wards with 246 beds. The architectural language combines the aesthetics of hospitality projects with the needs of the healthcare sector.
Waldkliniken Eisenberg, Turingia
Waldkliniken Eisenberg is the largest orthopaedic centre in Germany, with an internationally renowned orthopaedics department at the University of Jena, located at the centre of the Saale-Holzland district in the Thuringian Forest. The architecture and interior design of the new Waldkliniken Eisenberg campus fits the Thun studio’s concept of ensuring “patients become guests”. The Minister-President of Thuringia has praised the building for its environmentally friendly, sustainable and affordable concept.

Interesting: can you explain further? It’s something we’re doing, for example, in the public orthopaedic hospital near Berlin. Every patient receives a tablet when they enter, which provides them with all the information about what they have done and are scheduled to do, and on their stay as a patient/guest. But we are applying dozens of solutions like this: the only difficulty we have is meeting demand.

This is a form of design that promotes awareness by putting people back at the centre of each process, including in the digital and communications sphere; an all-round vision of architecture, beautiful but above all innovative. Absolutely. Something I find difficult to stomach, however, is the fact that many existing facilities in Italy, finished and ready to be opened, have never become operational. It is a terrible situation that leaves me speechless and has nothing to do with recent events. People deserve better. There’s still a lot to do.

Talking of things to do, you mentioned reorganizing our social infrastructure. If I may, I’d like to return to this subject, partly in light of the pandemic. During your career, and especially in recent years, your work has had a common thread of sustainability. We have learned a bit more this year about how damaging our habitat or failing to respect our ecosystem can come back to haunt us.

Winery Guest Houses Longuich
The architect Matteo Thun took a holistic approach to the project, supporting it throughout its planning and construction. The new houses, a restaurant seating seventy people, a new building, and the main house are all nestled among the fruit trees, offering a stay surrounded by nature. (Longuich, Germany, 2010-2012; 900 m² built area, 5,700 m² landscape).
You have been promoting healthy living and a green approach in your designs for years. How should architecture and design take environmental impact and sustainability into account, both now and in the future? There are different ways, but in my view, if you want to talk about sustainability, you first need to remember what the word means. Being able to sustain something firstly means being able to afford it financially before you can start thinking about environmental sustainability. That’s why, to turn
Matteo Thun & Antonio Rodriguez TheTwins Shanghai©Dirk Weibl.

to the focus of your magazine, the future of propulsion on boats, and particularly large boats, must be hydrogen. One thing I don’t understand is why boats are still built with a focus on the number of knots they can achieve – travelling across the sea at 30 knots is simply ridiculous, in my view. Then there’s the related issue of weight: although many of my colleagues are brilliant, many others design the interiors as if they were creating a floating villa. The topic of weight is inextricably linked to the speed, the layout and the flexibility of the layout, which today is practically non-existent. And don’t get me started on helicopters. I once watched a helicopter landing on a beautiful yacht and then disappearing a few minutes later, swallowed up by the bow. Energy, weight and volumes: these three considerations have made me reflect on what I would like for my family, and the future in general, with a much lower environmental impact. What I’d like is a floating island.

ILLY cup
Bar accessories collection for IllyProduct Food & Beverage (2006).
Rara Avis
Rara Avis Collection (Memphis design / Matteo Thun). The courage to break the rules, challenge conventions and design differently. An incessantly enquiring mind that pushes the boundaries of creativity, rejecting predictable and bland functionalism. This is the spirit of the Memphis Group, of which Matteo Thun was a co-founder.

Can you explain in more detail? It’s a vision that has developed over time, as I watch the procession of boats entering Marina Piccola from my little house in Capri, and ponder our planet’s future. I’d like a floating island where children and adults alike can stay, tied to a system, a sort of network of destinations, which we could call “paradise maps”, for those who want to experience nature, those who want a social life, and those who want to be close to the city. There would be some enormous buoys and anchors, positioned at the correct distance and varying depending on the weather conditions, where you could moor these islands. A solution far removed from the racket of finding spaces in marinas, where you are a few feet from your neighbour, with no privacy or freedom of movement – something that is already driving a lot of people away.

Laguna is a collection of accessories, shower cubicles, bathtubs, taps and bathroom fixtures. The range, designed for private projects, was developed over more than two years and features simple shapes, warm colours and high-quality materials.

Why do you call them floating islands and not boats? Because they are wider than they are long, travel at a maximum of 10 knots, and have a completely different propulsion system with a maximum of 1,000 hp, so they create a different relationship with their natural surroundings, whether you’re in New Guinea or the Cook Islands in Costa Rica, two places I’ve been where I thought it would be nice to have a floating island.

As you seem to have quite a clear idea of what these would be like, I’m tempted to ask what materials they would be made from… From wood, like the boats of the old Aprea shipyard. But it is more an idea than a concrete proposal, and I’m aware it is not particularly realistic, particularly for the world’s large shipyards. But the idea stems from something I’ve noticed while watching the sea for over twenty years from my home in Capri. I see these long, beautiful, 100m+ boats arrive, then they stop for ten days or three weeks, and remain anchored there, without being used. It’s like having a Ferrari and keeping it parked on your drive.

I’d be curious to see your idea, do you have a drawing? No, but if I’ve got time I’ll do you a sketch.

Unfortunately, there’s no time for any more questions. The interview ends, with that sense of curiosity that great masters of their art tend to generate still intact. As we say goodbye, Matteo Thun promises to send me a sketch for BARCHE, and he is as good as his word.

Floating Island
“Floating island”. The idea underpinning this concept is a new approach to boating, not just in terms of the shape, but especially the propulsion method and the building materials. A thought-provoking idea that encourages reflection on a different way of life at sea and improved dialogue with nature. This sketch by Matteo Thun was kindly gifted to BARCHE magazine.

(Matteo Thun, disruptive spirit – – March 2021)