INTERVIEW: STEFAN RIER & LUKAS RUNGGER, FOUNDERS, NOA*
When Stefan Rier and Lukas Rungger first met and bonded over a few beers, they didn’t realise how significant their friendship and shared design ethos would be. Now, celebrating ten years of noa*, they share their history and hopes for the future in conversation with Sophie Harper.
Many a firm business partnership has been founded on friendship, but great partnerships come from a shared vision, passion, and belief, which is exactly what Stefan Rier and Lukas Rungger have, resulting in the tenth anniversary of noa* the Network
of Architecture. A meeting of minds happened almost immediately when they met whilst both working for Matheo Thun in Italy. “It was a fantastic first meet,” says Stefan. “He called me to ask what I was earning before we even knew each other!” they both laugh. “We kicked things off with a few beers and worked together at Matheo Thun for two years.”
Stefan was introduced to architecture and design from a young age. His father, a carpenter who made furniture for the hotel industry encouraged Stefan to spend his summers working with the architects designing hotel projects. “I thought I would take over from my father so I studied interior design but when I started working with architects who would talk to me about my future, I went back to university to study architecture.”
“I didn’t have the background in hotels that Stefan did,” Lukas says. “Stefan studied in Austria and Italy, I also studied in Austria but I also went to Brussels in Belgium and then I lived and worked in London for five years. My mother is an artist and my father is more into the technical things and mechanics and construction – so two worlds, the creativity and the delivery of things, they were my inspiration to study something creative and to live and to study and work abroad.”
It didn’t take long for the pair to start making plans for their own studio, “I had this fantastic opportunity when my parents bought a site and asked me to design a house, so I went to Lukas and asked if he wanted to be my partner in this adventure. After that, we asked my uncle if he had any projects for us.” Stefan’s uncle told the duo to draw something up and told them if they could get planning permission for it then he’d think about it. “I don’t think he ever expected us to get planning permission,” they both laugh. “But we did, so then he had to build it. It was quite strange really because during all of our time at Matheo Thun, we did a lot of detailed planning and concepts but I was never on site – we didn’t know how to build a hotel, so we learnt!”
“Those were the challenges really of opening up a studio,” Lukas adds. “I think in Britain it’s probably different because you have to run through all the stages before you’re then registered as an architect, I think you guys are prepared a little bit better for this journey. It’s one thing to design a hotel and be creative but then it’s dealing with the building site, the administrative parts. In the early days we had this naive approach of let’s just give it a go and not overthink it.”
In the beginning it was just Stefan and Lukas but now, ten years on, noa* is made up of around 25 people. “In the beginning we introduced maybe one or two people every year,” says Lukas, “so it’s been quite a healthy growth – we made a conscious effort not to explode as we wanted people who would grow with us. The beautiful thing is we don’t really have much of a turnover, we grew as a family and our partners have been with us for the last eight or nine years.”
The network the pair has built is exactly that, a network, which was always the intention. Stefan explains how a collaborative approach is the best way to work. “Everyone loves the projects they work on because everyone brings their own ideas to the projects, it’s not just us coming in, making a sketch and saying ok guys do this. It’s a dialogue between the group and I think that’s the nice thing about noa*.”
Lukas adds: “When we’re interviewing new people for the studio that’s what we tell them – everyone has the chance to be a partner here and the reactions can sometimes be quite funny because some of them are students who are like whoa, what?! We grew and learnt from famous designers and were surrounded by big names as we were learning our trade but it’s not good if you don’t include your employees in the process. We are always asking for everyone’s creative input.”
The two founders pride themselves on being hands-on ‘all-rounders’ but say with the amount of projects they’re dealing with, it’s almost impossible to be involved in every aspect. “We have me and Lukas and our other two partners and we do our own projects – we have 50 projects ongoing and it’s impossible to oversee everything,” says Stefan.
“It’ll never be a case of me doing one thing and Stefan doing another,” Lukas clarifies. “I might do more of the administration and he might do more of the organising – there are small percentages of areas that maybe just one of us covers but we both try to be good at a bit of everything and so we both know everything that’s going on, so if one of us isn’t around for a week it doesn’t matter because we both know what’s happening. It’s always been important to us that we’re seen as a team.”
With two studios having forged firm roots in Italy and Germany, Lukas confirms a third is on its way. “We’re based in Bolzana, which is like the mothership in the north of Italy in the Dolomites then we opened three years ago in Berlin and now we’re setting up a third office near Milan.” I ask if there might be any plans to open a studio in the UK but Stefan tells me he’s not so keen on the rain, so it’s unlikely!
I ask the pair if sustainability is something that plays an important part in their designs. “For me it’s actually not that important, I just hate cars!” Stefan jokes. “No, for me it’s the calculating emissions I don’t like, I prefer to find ways around things like traffic – promoting public transport use instead or not needing to use so much lighting, it’s more about promoting a different way to live, that’s what’s important to me.”
“We’re surrounded with materials that are sustainable on a lot of our projects,” Lukas adds. “Whether it’s the clay that comes from a nearby location or the natural stone, but it’s not that easy, you have to get the client to agree to spend more money to use more sustainable materials. What we’re trying to do is make a story that is honest and genuine. It’s reliant on the availability of construction materials and the ability of artisans and companies. Sustainability is something that has always been there, we’re just communicating it better now. Sustainability is one component among many others, we’re more about building and telling stories. Whether it’s to do with the history of a place or the family, like the Apfelhotel where we built up a story around the apple trees there which impacted the design and the colours. We’re all fascinated by history and stories more so than just seeing something beautiful.”
They tell me about some of the projects they’ve worked on most recently, among which is an old 18th century monastery on Lake Garda which has been transformed into a beautiful boutique hotel and spa. “It was a dream project,” Lukas tells me. “The reaction from the client was fantastic, it’s an impressive building. It will be your next holiday when you see it!” Then there’s the big hotel complex near the Austrian border currently under construction. “They had lots of ideas,” says Stefan, “they wanted a ski slope, a beach volleyball area, an ice rink, the original ideas didn’t quite work so we took a look and changed things around a little and now it’s under construction.” With Lukas adding: “It’ll be a bit of a grown-ups playground, hopefully opening in the winter – it was a 30 million spend in a year so it was a bit mad! There was a moment last year when we were a little worried we wouldn’t have enough work for everyone but luckily projects came in and now enquiries have exploded!”
I ask if they’re doing anything this year to celebrate noa*’s tenth anniversary and Lukas’s response isn’t what I was expecting: “Yes, there will be a funeral!” They both burst into laughter. “It’s so funny because we had this conversation a week ago – of course we would have had the biggest party this side of Italy but because of coronavirus it’s on hold like everything is. But we were having the conversation last week with one of our partners and he said we need a funeral so we can invite lots of people, we’ll make a cross out of our logo and people will carry it through the city, then we will burn it and we’ll go offline for a week, you won’t be able to reach anyone at noa* and then we’ll have the resurrection… so keep an eye out for what might happen! Stefan isn’t quite convinced, but I like it.” Stefan sits shaking his head at the idea, “yeah, this is something he’s doing on his own,” he says.
Funerals and resurrections aside, Stefan and Lukas are optimistic for the future and have numerous ideas and plans for noa* including product design and range launches, but mostly their focus is on the team and growth. “I hope our projects will be more spread out around the world, maybe even taking on slightly different typologies,” says Lukas. “For me it’s the same,” says Stefan, “having added functions and growing the team.” Here’s to the next ten years.