Beautiful Thinkers: A conversation with Tommy Zung about communal art, connected architecture and the Middle Way.
Tommy Zung is an architect, designer and tastemaker based in NYC
I first met Tommy when he designed an environment for a design show with Jason Wu. He had a quiet but confident presence when he walked in the room and talked through his designs. After I got to know him, I understood that presence came from an inner peace. He is the godson of Buckminster Fuller and the son of renowned architect Thomas TK, Zung. These two men shaped his view of the world and design but his work and his vision for his studio are entirely his own.
We haven’t spoken in a while. What have you been up to?
We recently opened a new studio store in SoHo. We moved our architecture studio into the space on the ground floor, and we have a little garden in the back. In the front, we have a concept design store with a boutique event space.
That’s an ambitious vision. What inspired you to combine so much in one space?
When I started looking for new studio space, retail was completely dead. I looked at the difference between what we were paying on the third floor and fourth floor in rent to being on the ground floor it wasn’t a huge difference in price. I thought it would be good to show people what we do, because we’re not just an architecture firm. It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around that. They want to put you in a box as an architect or an architecture firm. We do that, but we also design surfboards and skateboards and do other kinds of consulting and design work.
It also made sense to have an environment people could walk in and see our design work. Otherwise we’d have send them to a hotel or somebody’s residence and that’s way too hard. We wanted a space where people could experience something again. We also wanted to showcase the artisans we work with.
What made you want to have a retail storefront?
I just thought it would be interesting. I didn’t realize how much work it was until I got into it. The store wasn’t the end goal, but once I started, I knew I had to do it right. I wanted people to experience something different because people don’t connect as often as we used to. I wanted the space to inspire people again and not be like a homogenous big brand. If that happens, that’s a win. And of course, if they find about the company and the studio at work, that’s the goal.
Who are some of the artisans you’re featuring right now?
Our wall finishes are Farrow & Ball, an English paint company known for their color, and Marmorino Tintoretto, Italian plaster. We work with the artisan who does the wall plastering, and then we do a specific finish on the walls.
Frama is a furniture company in Denmark that works with all different designers to sell their pieces. We have shelving units made of oak and steel. And we carry plates, cups and bowl from a northern Denmark ceramicist named Aj Otto. We have some plates and pottery from Oaxaca in Mexico. Then there’s some other pieces that come from some very old Indian tribes of Cartagena, South America.
Why is connection an important aspect of architecture and design for you?
We want people to connect with something in our spaces that touches an intimate moment within themselves. It’s something that is simple and gentle but very strong. Whether it’s bedrooms or communal living areas, or courtyards, they all have a volume and scale.
Not everybody understands formal architecture, but every human being on Earth understands when they feel connected or safe in a space. It takes their breath away. They feel cozy enough to get a good night’s sleep. They feel inspired in the morning when they wake up because of the light. Everyone innately understands this — children, animals, and adults. You do not need to be an architect to know when you’re in a space that feels right. We can’t put a finger on it, but we can feel it.
If our work is done well, people feel a deep connection through a smell or a color, a sound or a feeling that brings them back to a happier point in life. It’s not about the external environment. If these are connected enough, we get a sixth sense and we’re elevated.
Light is an important element of your designs. What are some ways that you design for the light?
Yes. Yes. We do that whenever we can. We run a program that identifies the sun patterns in the summer and the winter on the specific site to see where the light casts. We try to orient windows according to the light. For example, we can put bedrooms facing east for the ultimate waking experience. The light might be direct, but we can design ribbon windows that soften it and cast shadows in the morning.
Afternoon and evening light are more a communal light. Morning light feels more personal, more intimate. That’s how we deal with the passive and active design aspect of it. We use southern and northern light in public spaces to bring as much solar gain and light or keep out solar gain in the summer so it’s not too hot or too cold. Light is one of the most powerful architectural tools that are given to us. We just have to find it and honor it.
What’s your most memorable project?
I had a client in the Hamptons who was looking to build a custom house where we didn’t do a lot of new manufacturing. He wanted to keep it as sustainable as possible. And he was looking for something unique, something that had a good story. We’d talked about using sustainable wood as accents throughout the house. Bali has some of the most exotic species of wood in the world, so we travelled there together in search of something special.
We ended up finding a 100-year old tree that had been buried for 8o years, so it was completely preserved. We bought the entire 40-foot teak tree and used it throughout the residence. Even the stairs were made of it. Giving a second life to a tree from across the world to create an intimate family environment brought everything full circle. It represented the pinnacle of luxury, since no one else in the world has that story.
How did having a well-known architect for a father shape your creative upbringing?
That’s a really interesting question. Actually,… I’m having an a-ha moment. I’m thinking of the photos that were in my rooms. My father drove the aesthetics in the home more than my mother did. I guess that was because he was an architect, but there were a lot of textures and a lot of devotion to materials. I think maybe it’s because he worked for Edward Durell Stone, where there was a big material emphasis before he had his own practice.
I didn’t realize until now, but that probably informed why I’m a purist of materials. I like concrete to be concrete. It has its own innate nature and it’s different than glass which is different than stone which is different than wood which is different than concrete. They each have their energetic quality. I use all those materials to create an emotive experience, but I probably did it because I grew up around these things. It was very eclectic.
We had a really beautiful home when I grew up, but my father didn’t build our home. He was building colleges and dorm rooms and things like that, so the lineage I have from him was the art that he had, the furniture that he had, and the materials that he used.
You’ve combined architectural practices with your dad. How does he feel about your career?
I think he’s proud of what I do. I could never do what he does, and he says the same thing about me. I have such respect for him—building these large scale projects and working with Bucky. It blows me away. His projects seem too big and hard to navigate. There are so many moving pieces and a political environment. I get to stay connected to big architecture through him. I’m just like, “Whoa,” and he’s impressed I can do my work the way that I do.
I love working on things with him. He’ll come into the studio when I’m working on some residential designs and come up with crazy ideas and draw elevations and plans. And I get to help him work on Buckminster Fuller exhibits or the archivist. He is devoted to making sure Buckminster Fuller’s way of thinking stays alive. I’m honored to be able to support that endeavor. He’s 86 years old and still going strong. That’s pretty incredible.
You’ve talked about living the Middle Way. What does that mean?
I guess it’s a little cryptic. I’m a Mahayana Buddhist, which is the practice of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. There are three ways of Buddhist meditation: one is the mind-only school of thought the other is when you say a mantra which could be enlightened, and then there’s the Middle Way, which is using your mind and your heart to find compassion.
I grew up with two very different male figures. Bucky was part of the metaphysical realm. He could see multiple dimensions whereas my father, who’s a classic architect, felt intuition came second. Between the two of them, I choose the Middle Way. There’s the essence of the universe and then there’s the mind that can solve and define issues. If you combine that you can walk the Middle Way. That’s where I’m most useful.
It’s a personal spiritual path I don’t really talk about often, but you have to practice it in your work life too because work is being done 50-60 hours a week. There has to be synchronicity between work and life. It’s challenging to differentiate or to divide one’s personal practice with their work life.
Your approach to business is refreshing. Have you gotten any criticism for it?
We don’t really get backlash from people close to us, but we do get advice that we should stay concentrated. But for me, it’s more organic, more authentic. We would like to share as an open source system for a design lifestyle, a way of living. These things take time, especially when you’re not monetarily driven.
Over the last 18 years, I’ve put together an advisory panel to help me bridge the gap between creativity and fiscal responsibility. But we put the majority of our profits back into the company so we can create something new.
And now you’re designing surfboards.
Yeah, we’re just finishing up a new line. The surfboards have been incredible. Surfing is something that I have to do in order to stay sane, stay connected to nature and myself. It’s also an amazing connecting point because it makes us approachable. Some people think of architects as anal-retentive people and who are egomaniacs and a little bit shi- shi.
Everyone surfs—men, women and kids. It puts everyone on the same plane. You can be a construction worker, an artist or a billionaire. It doesn’t matter what you do, and it doesn’t matter what demographic you are. It also seems to be getting us some good work.
What are the tools you can’t live without?
Pencil, paper and scale. I don’t go to the computer, the black mirror, first because it’s limited. It seems so expansive and limitless, which makes it limited. The paper is a direct expression of the mind. The nice thing about my profession is as long as I have a paper and pencil and a scale, I can work anywhere in the world in any language.