Lab Design and Furnishings

Professional Profile: Hans Thummel

Lab Manager speaks to Hans Thummel of SmithGroup

MaryBeth DiDonna

Hans Thummel is science and technology studio leader with SmithGroup in Chicago. Lab Manager recently spoke with Hans about his career, experience, and personal interests.

Q: How did you get started in your career? Did you major in your field in college, get an internship, switch careers along the way, etc.?

A: When I was applying to college, there was no Internet search engine. The next best thing was an “interest survey” that matched your responses with the skills of people who were generally happy with their job or profession. My survey results matched with a musician, a photographer, and a marine biologist. I searched for a university with degree programs for all three career paths and I found (and attended) Washington University in St. Louis. I filled my first year of study with classes in all three subjects and even joined a jazz fusion band, intent on choosing one path at the year’s end. 

At the same time, I also befriended several architecture students and became fascinated with their art, technology, and design studios. I found architecture appealing enough that I reconsidered my path and declared a new major. My career has since progressed through internships, graduate school, and roles at successively larger design firms, but I have never lost my focus on the primary importance of design or my belief that beauty and technical resolution should converge. I have also adhered to the advice of that survey and still play drums, take thousands of pictures a year, and scuba dive whenever I can. 

Q: What’s a common misconception about your job?

A: As a designer working in the field of science and technology, I sometimes encounter the perception that those involved in scientific or technical occupations are molded strictly by the regimented and focused nature of their research and are unconcerned by anything that lies beyond their occupation or field of study. My experience designing spaces for discovery and research has shown me this is often not the case. I have found many scientific researchers, leaders, teachers, and professionals to be deeply compassionate towards the humanities. Oftentimes they make the most sublime or profound connections through their words, actions, or pastimes to our most basic human origins and artistic expressions. This inspires me to stay curious and reminds me to look beyond my own horizons for those unexpected and mutually beneficial relationships. 

Q: What is your favorite building, lab-related or not?

A: This is an impossible question to answer, because there are many buildings that uniquely capture the timeless essence of their purpose. My favorite buildings are often houses because of their unique and personally expressive nature. I’m also struck by any building of any condition or age that shows a strong respect for artisanry or a resonance with its natural surroundings. The Salk Institute for Biological Studies and its orientation to the ocean horizon comes to mind.

A few of the buildings I have experienced as particularly moving include: The Neues Museum in Berlin for the dialogue of contrasting materials it employs to visually connect our history and our future; The Shed in New York City as a manifestation of ultimate flexibility and resilience; San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice as a locus of inspired artisanal creation and balance; Beijing National Stadium (aka The Bird’s Nest) whose quantum figural motion captures the intensity and unpredictability of athletic competition; and St. Thomas Church in Leipzig where the creative force, Johann Sebastian Bach, spent the last 27 years of his life and where an ancient window still bears the stained-glass image of my family crest.

Q: What lab projects are you working on at the moment? 

A: As the science and technology studio leader in SmithGroup’s Chicago office, my current lab projects include identifying campus sustainability strategies for Argonne National Labs that will dramatically increase energy efficiency and help accelerate future planning and research, a quantum science research facility and diverse lab cluster facilities serving as anchors to innovation district-inspired city master plans in China. 

Q: What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you at work?

A: If by “funniest” you mean the “most unique,” it would be the time I traveled overseas with the national design director of the firm where I was working to attend project meetings for a new coastal resort. The design director had planned to stay only two days to make an important presentation while I planned to stay a full week for multiple follow-up meetings. That all changed right after we landed due to a last-minute rescheduling by our very important client, who pushed the presentation date back three days. Two days later, the design director flew out as scheduled, en route to his next client meeting. On the third day, I made the presentation as the only American in the room to our client, the Prime Minister of Lebanon.