Matteo Thun. - Credits: Nancho Alegre
The Vigilius Mountain Resort in Lana, South Tyrol, 2001. - Credits: Vigilius Mountain Resort
Chalet in the Engadin region of the Swiss Alps, 2013-2015. - Credits: Laura Rizzi
The 160-room Waldhotel Health & Medical Excellence in Burgenstock, Switzerland, 2018. - Credits: Andrea Garuti

An interview with Matteo Thun

“Blue is for glass. Brown is for earth. Yellow is for light sources.” At his Milan office not far from the new Porta Volta skyline, the architect-designer Matteo Thun is justifying the colours of the dozens of pencils lying on the table in the conference room.

The window looks out onto a courtyard with an uncommonly Parisian atmosphere. “You don’t think they’re here for decoration, do you?” he asks cheekily. “On my desk alone there are hundreds of them. There’s no substitute for paper. It might sound like a paradox, but the more digital we get, the more we need paper and pencils, a place to fix our thoughts.” This green, planet-friendly architect is no stranger to new concepts and ambitious challenges.

Born in 1952, he began his career mixing with creative types like Oskar Kokoschka, Emilio Vedova and Ettore Sottsass. In 2001, after collaborations, awards and professional experiences the world over, Matteo Thun expanded his office by taking on partners and a team of some 70 designers who work on products, interiors and graphics. Thun professes a credo of three zeroes: zero kilometres, zero carbon dioxide and zero waste. Among his numerous projects is a (secret) one due for completion in four years’ time, set in grasslands inhabited by roe deer, red deer and rabbits.

Industrial design was born 100 years ago. What is its future? 
There is no consensus of opinion. As Ettore Sottsass used to say, I don’t know what design is. If it corresponds to the beginning of serial production, then it began in 1920. But it ended with the September 11 attacks in 2001. That was a watershed year; the tragedy woke people up. Before, everything was accelerated. But then we slowed down, began to consume less and became more aware. Back in the 1980s, many of our colleagues operated like hairdressers. They cut without thinking, without understanding that the future of design is connected to the cultural and sociological context and sustainability.

What are the phases of sustainable design?
First of all, we need to get back to human thinking, back to drawing by hand, meaning pencils and pastels. Then we need to define a nature-based concept of sensorial qualities. If a thing lasts over time, it is sustainable. If it doesn’t, it isn’t: the person buying it is aware of its finiteness. To all effects, this is a political outlook. I believe the younger generation is aware of this. Greta Thunberg won’t have missed the fact that things are changing. I’m very optimistic.

Sustainability is such stuff as dreams are made on, Shakespeare would say today. What constitutes a sustainable philosophy?
Materials. We use only ones that produce a patina. Patina creates sensorial qualities, like a face with wrinkles. Wrinkle creates character, which in turn creates trust. Trust creates friendliness.

In The Adventure, a Michelangelo Antonioni film from 1960, we hear the question, “What’s the use of beautiful things today? Before, they had centuries before them, and now only 10 or 20 years at most.” Assuming we still have centuries before us, can we claim the right to beauty?
Beauty is a human necessity on a par with eating and drinking. More or less up until the end of the Renaissance, beauty belonged to the realm of politics. Now we need to slow down and have the courage to consider beauty a human need.

You coined the term “botanical architecture” to define your designs. What does it mean?
It simply means that we take nature as the cornerstone of all the architecture we develop. Nature predominates. It is the first quality that must be respected. It’s linked to our choice of materials, wood above all.

Innovation goes hand in hand with research. How important is it? 
In the office I run with Antonio Rodriguez, we simplify as much as we possibly can. We do so in many of our projects, whether it’s a saucepan or a hospital. It’s not at all simple to do simple things now that complexity is increasing so enormously. Sometimes we have to arrive at a synthesis.

With Sottsass, with whom you were part of the Memphis group in the 1980s, you familiarised with the concept of limits and exceeding them. Taking into account today’s real and imagined fears, what do you advise?
It’s better to do something rather than nothing. It’s better to take risks (and maybe make mistakes) than wait around. We have to make up our minds. Sitting on the fence won’t get us anywhere.


Article published on the March issue of ICON DESIGN.