An ‘anti-office’ design studio with a soul

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The office of Jagnus Design Studio may be located in the basement of the Ronac Art Center but that doesn't mean it lacks vibrance. Two Daft Punk bearbricks (right) are happy reminders of when principal architects Sonny Sunga and Arnold Austria used the Morse code of the song "Stronger" by Kanye West and Daft Punk for the window arrangements and indentations of Ronac Art Center. Photos by KITKAT PAJARO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — At first glance, the headquarters of architectural firm Jagnus Design Studio looks like a cramped space. Hiding under the art galleries of Ronac Art Center in San Juan, the office, upon entering, is a square-ish room with a slightly low ceiling and no windows. A small conference table stands beside a row of about four or five computers, occupied by junior architects. Despite the compactness, however, a certain warmth in the air completely obscures the threat of claustrophobia, as if a certain surprise hides within.

Entering the office, one is welcomed with three drink options: a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, or a bottle of beer. Getting the beverage of your choice requires going up a small flight of stairs in single file, to the elevated platform. On the platform, an iMac stands on a wide table, looking over the whole 38-square-meter area. There the iMac gleams. This is the table of Sonny Sunga, co-principal architect of Jagnus Design.

"Our goal all the time is to use materials that are authentic," says Sunga. "That’s the beauty of natural materials. They age better. Even if the wood is already rotten, it still looks better than plastic wood." Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

“When we designed this, we made each [element] multipurpose,” says Austria. Tables in the space are all for working, meeting, and eating. “It’s easier to convince a client when there’s food.” Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Beside the area is a narrow passageway, at first inconspicuous, leading to part two of the office. This is the surprise: a long room of many more square meters, where you’ll find more people on more rows of computers, a pantry, and a conference room with a longer conference table. This spacious area is where people cease to run around in single file.

In this room is also the table of Jagnus’ second principal architect, Arnold Austria. Behind it is a wall of bearbricks and action figures. Austria is a toy collector. He is also an extrovert, he confirms, which explains his tendency to place himself in the larger part of the office. “If you’re an extrovert, an open space will be good for you,” says Sunga, the introvert between the two.

“When we designed this, we made each [element] multipurpose,” says Austria. Tables in the space are all for working, meeting, and eating (“It’s easier to convince a client when there’s food.”). They make use of the economy of the space by maximizing sections and furniture as much as possible, as well as making sure not to place walls that divide the room, to keep it open.

Jagnus Design Studio is located at the basement parking of Ronac Art Center, which allows clients to easily walk in after parking their car. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Principal architect Arnold Austria is a toy collector, which explains the many designer toys displayed in the office. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

With the elegant display of toys they’ve made and acquired throughout the years, the colorful row of books, the music that pleasantly fills the room, and the plants that manage to always stay fresh, it’s hard to remember that Jagnus Design Studio is located in the basement of a building. Sunga and Austria have managed to maintain the warmth of an open office despite the lack of sunlight.

“We don’t know how to run an architectural office,” Sunga says. “Everything is about experimentation.” A typographic structure rests atop a white shelf stretching across the wall of half of the room. It spells “IMAGIBATION,” because why not. Formerly a text mistake sent to a client, who “loved that word,” the two architects put up the sculpture as a fond reminder of the incident, and now it serves as proof of their sense of humor.

Roughly a decade ago, Sunga and Austria (who have been best friends since then) started their design firm office in the former’s home. The two left a construction company — where they played things by ear due to their little work experience at the time — to fully pursue design. In that 15-square-meter room, they were able to take on their first project, a resort-type development in Djibouti, Africa.

The elevated position of principal architect Sonny Sunga's table allows him to easily watch over the junior architects' work. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Although the structure never took off, they took home enough money and a growing reputation to further fuel their budding company. Shortly after, they were given the opportunity to design Ronac Art Center before its fruition, when one day Austria bought an item from designer toy store Fresh Manila, owned by Bigboy Cheng, who at the time was making plans for the building and looking for a designer. Later on, Cheng offered, “Since [you’re designing] the building, why don’t you put your office there?”

After much deliberation, Sunga and Austria decided to “take the risk,” which today turns out to be worth it. They now receive projects from clients for several galleries, high-rise condominiums, and restaurants, among others.

When asked what single architectural vision they keep for every project they take on, Sunga says, “We should exceed the functional side. We have to go beyond that.” He adds: “Design should be functional. But how do you make it stand out and go beyond that? Hindi lang basta function, you also have to answer the spiritual and emotional needs.” Austria adds, “[After you answer those needs], saka mo siya lagyan ng soul.”

On the shelves are a variety toys and trinkets, some made by Jagnus and some they've acquired as gifts throughout the years. Photos by KITKAT PAJARO

"An open office allows us to blur or break the hierarchy usually found in corporate environments," says Aaron Quinto, one of Jagnus' project architects. "Helpful sa'min kasi we are creatives, so it’s more beneficial to us because our practice is more about collaboration." Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

he soul of Jagnus’ space can be felt not just in the playful elements, but also in its use of authentic materials. For instance, parts of its walls are made of exposed steel, left to rust gracefully, and not much paint goes around, since “paint doesn’t really age well,” says Sunga. “That’s the beauty of natural materials. They age better.”

Altogether, the materials and furniture contribute to the free flowing creativity within the space. Thinking out of the box is part of Jagnus’ design philosophy, which explains why the office feels so fresh and open. Part of this, the two architects assert, is also about drawing inspiration from things that are not directly related to design. Austria explains, “Students now rely on architectural books or websites. But you can draw inspiration from different things, like music, what food you eat, from the clothes you wear.”

When Sunga and Austria were doing facade studies for Ronac Art Center, they took inspiration from the song “Stronger” by Daft Punk and Kanye West, using the chorus’ Morse code for the windows’ arrangement and indentations. Two Daft Punk bearbricks beside their pantry table happily remind them of this endeavor.

Coming from a home office, it was only natural for Jagnus to adopt such a casual space. Now with approximately 15 other young creative architects, they are living testaments to how a space “always depends on the culture of the [people in it].” Sunga concludes, “Design cannot be transferred, unlike an object. Houses and buildings need to be site specific and user specific. Architecture should respond to the light, the wind.”