Most may think architecture was simply in Tommy Zung’s blood. It’s a fair assumption, particularly with architects like Thomas T.K. Zung for a father, and Buckminster Fuller for a godfather. Fuller (or Bucky as Zung calls him), is widely considered to be the father of the geodesic dome – having popularized the structure’s use – and is one of the most influential neo-futurist architects of all time, was a major figure in Zung’s childhood. His father, a student of Fuller’s, had made a name for himself at Edward Durell Stone, where, among other major projects, he helped design the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, the New Orleans International Trade Mart, and United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, before merging his own practice with Fuller’s to form Buckminster Fuller, Sadao, and Zung.
His formative years were a juxtaposition of two distinct forces. Through his father he found order and structure in the ways of the world, while his godfather taught him to appreciate the “thirst for life” a traditional education couldn’t teach. At boarding school he was expected to get all A’s, while at home he would listen to the likes of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Josef Albers – all innovators in their own fields – and other colleagues of Fuller’s from Black Mountain College discuss art and science around his living room. Though he didn’t quite comprehend all the information he gleamed from listening to those conversations as a child, Zung recognizes their importance in shaping his worldview, helping him develop a great respect for those from whom he could learn, but always remaining cautiously skeptical of authority and institutions. As an adult, he’s always tried to walk “the middle way,” keeping one foot in the order taught to him by his father, and the other in the metaphysical world of Fuller.
After graduating college with degrees in environmental design and architecture, Zung went to California. Though his father had expected him to begin working at his firm, as he had every summer since high school, Zung spent his time surfing and snowboarding with his friends. “[I] needed to live life in order to have substance and authenticity behind the design,” says Zung, reflecting back on the somewhat rebellious nature of his time in California and the influence it has had on his work. He and some friends founded Zung Clothing out of a garage in Laguna Beach, informing the label's design with elements of snowboarding, street-wear, and Graffiti culture. Though he’s the first to admit that the label was a very young, thirsty, and naive endeavor, Zung feels that attitude is what made the line special. They initially “just wanted to get some hats and shirts and put a logo on them,” but eventually the label turned into a platform under which creatives of all different mediums – many of whom went on to start their own extremely successful endeavors – could create and collaborate. The label eventually grew to the point where Zung moved to New York and became more involved in the fashion industry, but his favorite memories from Zung Clothing all happened while collaborating with his friends in that garage in Laguna Beach.
Speaking to Zung, it’s easy to see the ways in which his past experiences have shaped who he is today. Still a frequent surfer, he speaks with a laid back, contemplative tone, frequently bringing up metaphysical concepts about sustainability and the connected qualities of our planet. He’s tried to integrate these ideas into his architectural firm, Studio Zung, mixing them with the naivety and collaborative ideals from Zung Clothing. Founded in 2013, the firm brings architectural, interior design, and branding services under one roof, treating each service as part of a whole and never putting one element above the another. “At this point everybody wants their company, their home, their hotel, their school, their office to be part of what they visualize as their brand,” says Zung. “Even if it’s an individual or a couple doing a residence or a small upstart company, they always want it to be viewed as part of them.”
To that end, Studio Zung works to make sure they approach every project holistically. The team at Studio Zung consists of urban planners, interior designers, architects, graphic designs, or copy-writers, all of whom work on every project they take on. Throughout the project, everyone on the team listens to, collaborates with, and influences everyone else, creating a what Zung sees as a seamless work environment. “There’s no walls between it,” says Zung. “There’s no differentiation, cubicles, or disjointedness at all.” This interconnected approach lets the studio explore more with each project, delivering more for the client and implementing ideas that might have fallen through the cracks if the firm had adhered to a more traditional, compartmentalized model.
The collaborative nature of Studio Zung speaks to the firm’s creative ideology. Almost everyone in the company surfs, and the projects they take on are almost always aligned with that lifestyle and interconnected philosophy adopted by many surfers. “I think at this point with the world being flat, or smaller, or however you want to say it, there’s not seven degrees of separation any more.” says Zung. “There’s two, there’s three. There’s more connectedness within the world. There’s a knowledge of what’s happening.” This interconnected ideology Zung and his colleagues adhere to helps shape the projects they work on, and encourages them to employ sustainable, environmentally conscious materials and design processes, in the hopes of leaving the world better than they found it.
Zung himself is always fighting to make sure his work doesn’t become stagnant. “It’s dangerous if we’re not always wondering if we’re not doing great work,” says Zung. He acknowledges the importance of going to his own influences for guidance, but actually finds himself going to younger people, particularly those who intern at Studio Zung, for inspiration. With mentors having played a major role in Zung’s life, he tries to fulfill this role in his firm, but recognizes that he can learn as much from his juniors as they can learn from him. “People who abandon a lot of the formality of architecture do some of the best work out there,” says Zung, explaining the importance of remaining somewhat naive in any creative pursuit. In his mind, naivety prevents creativity from falling into a box, from becoming about what somebody wants to express rather than what he does.
As the firm continues to grow, Zung has begun to think about whether or not his company’s ideology can translate into something bigger. Though he’s not sure a larger agency would be able to sustain the same creative and collaborative environment as Studio Zung and is very careful about the rate at which his firm grows, Zung does recognize the importance of taking on larger projects. Though he’s not planning to take on large scale projects like the ones that defined his father’s career, Studio Zung has taken on some larger undertakings going forward, even collaborating with a hotel company to develop a whole new hotel brand that adheres to Zung’s philosophy of simplicity being the new luxury. “My love is more bespoke, even if [the projects] are large scale,” says Zung. “It’s more realizing the emotional quality of form, mass, space, light, materials. The essence of design in life, the acknowledgement of impermanence and how all these materials and designs are coming out of nothing, becoming something, and eventually will become nothing again.”
Though there is some concern that the larger firms of the world will not be able to adopt his methodology, Zung feels that more people are beginning to pay attention to design, and the visual elements that effect everyday life, and that this awareness could easily lead to a marked improvement our lives. He’s excited by the way the world seems to be turning, seeing the increased connectedness of our culture as confirmation of the ideas he tries to live by. Ideas that, to Zung at least, can be traced back to his childhood living room, listening to his father, Bucky, and their colleagues discuss art, architecture, and the metaphysical nature of life as we know it.
Header Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons