From being part of the Memphis Group, to using local larch at an Austrian ski resort, the work of this Milan-based designer is informed by the essence of function and location
Matteo Thun lives in the moment. He is not precious about imprinting his own style on his designs and does not hold on to certain periods of his design life as more important than the next or the last; he throws himself into what he is working on but once it's done, it's done. Perhaps this is the only way to create for someone so prolific in so many disciplines, working as he does in a flexible studio that covers architecture, product design and interior design and styling.
Thun's latest project is additional pieces to his award-winning Onto and Gentle bathroom ranges with Duravit and Dornbracht respectively, first launched in 2011. But the architect's portfolio is as far reaching as covering three years as art director at Swatch (to 1993), hotel interiors, lighting, furniture, kitchens, ceramics and lifestyle products that include glasses with Silhouette, coffee cups for Lavazza, and the Twin 1731 knife for Zwilling.
Thun, who turns 60 this year, was born in Bolzano, Italy and studied at the art-heavy Salzburg Academy under intense expressionist painter Oskar Kolkoschka. After a degree course in architecture in Florence, in 1978 he moved to Milan, where he has lived ever since. He began working with fellow architect Ettore Sottsass, and was part of the Memphis Group, set up in 1981. This collective of creatives were set on celebrating exuberant, colourful, rule-breaking design after the soulless and emotionless world of products made in the Seventies.
Here Thun produced some rather experimental ceramics, such as the provocatively shaped, pink and patterned Laurum Marinus tea and coffee pots. Ceramics is a field that has fascinated Thun ever since he was a child and watched his ceramicist mother at work, who he says still inspires him.
The flamboyant style is behind him now, but he regards his time with Sottsass as incredibly formative. 'He was my master,' Thun says. 'He was the one who taught me to look out for new solutions and to push boundaries.'
While pushing boundaries remains important to Thun, he simultaneously stays grounded by the idea of functionality. This is evident in all his products, which have a simple beauty and a considered shape but are never fussy or unnecessary - what he calls 'zero design'. 'This philosophy means finding that iconic form,' explains Thun. 'Paring everything down to the pure, sincere essence, finding the real character of an object, is key to my work.'
It is also stands him in good stead to address each collaboration with a fresh pair of eyes.
'I approach each task individually with a lot of respect for the brief of the client and the brand we are designing for,' says Thun. This way of working applies equally to his practice's hotel projects, which include the Hilton in Barcelona, Radissons in Frankfurt, Birmingham and Zurich, and Missoni hotels in Kuwait and Edinburgh.
This part of the studio's remit is down to Matteo Thun and Partners, a team of 50 professionals, which he calls the 'big family'. The team taps into Thun's belief in the Roman idea of the genius loci - the spirit of a location - and uses this as inspiration for each specific design.
'All the initial ideas come from the feeling and input we get from being there, and that is what we want to reflect - the soul of the place. This means much of our work is the investigation at the beginning of a project,' says Thun.
Exemplars are two recently completed interior design projects, the first being at the Villa Eden complex by Lake Garda, where the team built the clubhouse and one of six villas. 'Transparency and lightness was what we wanted from the architecture here in order to reflect the beautiful light of the lake. The setting was a huge part of the choices we made; inside becomes outside and vice versa,' says Thun.
The second is the Edelweiss Residences, mountaintop holiday housing in the skiing destination of Katschberg, Austria. Here two cylindrical structures are wrapped by a diamond-patterned structure made from local larch, symbolising the direct association to the environment. 'We paid special attention to landscaping details to avoid adding to the ongoing urban sprawl of this traditional winter sports area. This is why we decided to build vertically,' he says.
The environment is also a key consideration for Thun. 'I call it Ecotecture,' he says of his philosophy. 'It is very much part of my agenda to find sustainable solutions, save resources, and generate measurable economic results, while contributing beauty.'
For this reason you will see a lot of wood in Thun's work: 'For me wood is the material for the 21st century. It is the only renewable building material and its life cycle is practically infinite.' Examples include the Arba lamp range he designed in maple for Swiss company Belux and almost all of his products with fellow Italian company RIVA 1920.
The most recent is the Briccole table, so named because it is made from old briccole di Venezia - wooden posts from gondolier stops in Venice's lagoon, which are replaced every 30 years.
'I was fascinated when Maurizio Riva asked us to work on a piece made from the briccole di Venezia,' says Thun. 'The tabletop is made with the unique boards, always keeping the original shape of the trunk. The crossover legs are fixed sideways on the top, reminiscent of the peculiar lagoon in the Venetian landscape. Each table is a one-off - a piece of Venice at home.'
Wood also features in his bathroom products, including Onto and Gentle, ranges he is adding to for spring. 'The bathroom is the most intimate and private room of the house,' asserts Thun. 'Objects for a bathroom have to have a function - but as a designer it is important to add to that. We touch these products every day when we are often naked, so a natural aesthetic and texture is best. The body is central here and the sensations experienced are the most importance aspect. This is why I like to work with natural materials such as wood, stone in round shapes and use indirect light and daylight.
In addition to working on the new Gentle and Onto products, Thun is currently busy preparing to launch new products with both Italian and international clients at Salone del Mobile (though he won't have to go far), yet Thun takes this varied workload in his stride and sees it as the norm for someone in his field.
'I do travel a lot but when I am in the office I go there by bike and make sure I have a break for lunch. At the office I'm just part of the many teams working on different projects. As is true of many Italian architects I'll work on an interior design project in the morning and a tap in the afternoon. It works for me.'
This article was first published in idfx Magazine.