Tommy Zung on growing up with Buckminster Fuller and continuing an architectural lineage

In the DNA

portrait of Tommy Zung

Although not a household name, Tommy Zung, founder and president of New York–based Studio Zung, wears more than one hat. Yes, he is an academically trained and licensed architect, but he’s also the owner of a design store in Soho, president of the Buckminster Fuller Partners Foundation (and even grew up with Buckminster Fuller), and someone with over 30 years of experience blurring the boundaries between architecture, fashion, design, art, and…surfing.

One of his local hangouts, Manhattan’s Altro Paradiso, was the perfect lowkey, relaxed atmosphere for Zung to recall his fascinating story. Right off the bat, he began with his father, a partner of Buckminster Fuller: “My father was told architecture was a white man’s profession, which offended him and made him work harder.”

Having an architect in the family didn’t mean the multihyphenate would follow in the same footsteps per se. “My father always told me I would become an architect. I rebelled and started a clothing company,” he admitted. “I mixed surfing, travel, and art and moved to New York, but I didn’t feel like I was changing the world. I then decided to go back to what I was rebelling against: architecture.” So begins an insightful, inspiring, and honest conversation with Zung.

Studio Zung completed the interior design, architecture, and art curation for an apartment in Tribeca (Jonathan Hökklo)

Gay Gassmann (GG): Let’s go back to the beginning and your unusual and unique childhood which more or less set the groundwork for a life in architecture.

Tommy Zung (TZ): My father, Thomas T. K. Zung was born in China and moved to New York to study at Columbia University. He worked with the visionary Buckminster Fuller and became one his partners. Bucky was my godfather and I traveled with my dad and spent summers building models and doing site visits. I was hanging out with Bucky, Noguchi, Ruth Asawa, Merce Cunningham, Josef Albers, and everyone at Black Mountain College. I realize now what all of this meant but not then. I was absorbing all of this not knowing what was happening. Bucky was talking about the metaphysical aspect of architecture and he told me, “Don’t let the formal stunt you.” Bucky was always thinking big.

GG: What happened before you decided to set up your architectural practice?

TZ: The big architecture my dad was doing wasn’t resonating with me. Then, I went to La Jolla and I became infatuated with Louis Kahn and the Salk Institute. Light, shadow, nature—this changed me, plus the influence of Bucky and his metaphysical attitude. And I learned to surf. I traveled the world through surfing and art. I rebelled and started a clothing company after school. I moved to New York and did fashion shows, but I didn’t feel like this was changing anything.

GG: So you finally decided to go into architecture?

TZ: I studied environmental design at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and got my bachelors of architecture at the New York Institute of Technology. After my fashion stuff, I decided to go back to what I was rebelling against. My way was smaller, personal, and residential; not universities and institutions like my dad. I was interested in how people live and understanding the nuances of their lives. I still wanted to surf, but that’s when I started my practice. I had only worked for my father.

Studio Zung’s Maison Duane
For Studio Zung’s Maison Duane, the firm reimagined a Romanesque prewar building (Adrian Gaut)

White oak wood details and subtle curvature add a welcoming and light touch to the interior (Adrian Gaut)

GG: What were those first projects?

TZ: My career started small. I bought surf shacks in Montauk and renovated them. I got a taste of real estate development when I bought my first home in Ditch Plains, Montauk, in 2000. We renovated it, lived in it a few years, and then sold it. I continued to purchase, renovate, and sell, eventually creating the brand Atelier by Studio Zung: turn-key eco-luxury residences.

My first big, private client project was a Hamptons property on Meadow Lark Lane. This was a ground-up home and we did everything. We included an edible garden and both passive and active solar energy systems. The client gave me carte blanche creative control and we talked about the experience he and his family were looking for. We traveled together to Bali and acquired a 100-year-old tree which had been cut down and buried by the Dutch for about 80 years to petrify the wood. The tree had been abandoned. My client acquired it and we incorporated it into the staircases, some furnishings, and in the sauna. Other details we incorporated were cultural and personal. He loved Jean Michel Frank so we inlaid bamboo marquetry for some doors and cabinetry.

GG: What did you learn from this first private client?

TZ: I learned that the client matters. I didn’t know this before. I learned how important the client is through the process. If we aren’t interested in what they are doing and what they are interested in, then there is no magic.

Maison Meadowlark is a ground-up project in Bridgehampton, New York that Studio Zung completed (Jamie Lopez)

GG: You mentioned eco-friendly luxury homes. What does this mean?

TZ: This means we use passive and active sustainable design in both ground-up and renovation work for residences. These can include solar power, evacuated tube systems for hot water, geothermal systems, smart IoT landscape irrigation systems, and low-VOC specifications for interior finishes and construction materials. We model the entire structure around both summer and winter conditions. I also include sustainable gardens and Zen gardens, wells, etc. Perhaps these things are not always thought about but we have an absolute duty to do things differently today.

I grew up with Bucky. He taught me that you have to incorporate all of the elements into what you are building.

cabinet against tan wall
For a project in New York, the designers embraces wabi-sabi aesthetics (Jonathan Hökklo)

GG: You are clearly involved in other activities and pursuits in addition to architecture. Please elaborate and also, what’s next?

TZ: Due to my wonderful ignorance, I also have a shop in Soho—Shop Zung. Leading up to Covid I started looking at commercial real estate and I found this storefront and wanted it to be a showcase for my furniture, as well as the work of other craftsmen and artists. Why not? We opened five years ago, but were shut down for two years during lockdown!

We showcase anyone in alignment with our artisans. Nothing is off limits. And my firm, Studio Zung, is located in the back. I am also the president of the Buckminster Fuller & Partners Foundation. I need to respect the legacy, and we are ramping up to be huge. We are moving the headquarters to the Hamptons and we will have summits, educational programs, and more. And I have a mission to help invest in sustainable projects.