Interviewer Judith Arellano Torres
Images Jagnus Design Studio
The two friends were classmates at the University of Santo Tomas in the late 1990s, friendly rivals who were always trying to one up the other with grades and plates until a professor paired them for a design competition, which they won.
That win encouraged Sonny Sunga and Arnold Austria to pursue a partnership after graduation, along with other friends. The partners made money primarily from construction projects until Austria and Sunga broke off from the big group to form Jagnus Design Studio in 2010.
The completion of Jagnus’ first project, Ronac Art Center (a landmark building in San Juan City inspired by a mattress) also in 2010 ensured that the newly-minted architecture firm would garner much press attention and be remembered. Sunga and Austria share what they believe make for a strong partnership.
They say you shouldn’t mix friendship with business. Why do you think?
Sunga: Many friendships and relationships are ruined by a partnership gone bad. Partnerships between friends tend not to last as long as those of family members and spouses. Partners share losses and liabilities, and their personal assets may be used to pay for the partnership’s debts, even when only one partner incurred them.
Austria: These risks are not as big an issue between spouses and parent and child because the marital and familial relationship inherently assumes responsibility for each other to begin with.
What’s the number one requirement for a successful partnership?
Sunga: Trust and respect are the foundations of any successful partnership. Without trust and respect, the partnership is doomed.
Austria: You have to trust your partner to be equally dedicated and hard-working as you, and to decide in the interest of the firm.
How did you earn each other’s trust and respect?
Sunga: We were lucky to have established our friendship, mutual respect, and trust before starting Jagnus. Of course, we each earned it by being honest and open. Exposing one’s vulnerabilities and being present when needed. Going through life’s highs and lows together strengthened and tested our partnership.
Austria: Yes, life’s ups and downs have a way of unraveling defenses and revealing a person’s character, and I believe we both measured up to each other’s standard. But trust and respect alone do not guarantee a successful design partnership. Things go awry when the partners’ core values are incompatible with each other.
You had almost ten years to learn each other’s values before establishing Jagnus. What do you tell designers who might not know their prospective partners as well as you two did?
Austria: Sit down and discuss what goals you want to achieve, and what values you should adhere to in your practice. Aligned goals and values allow you to create a design and work philosophy to guide the direction and operation of the firm.
Sunga: Before establishing Jagnus, we had set up a design-build company in the early 2000s with several other partners, also our friends. But we left after two years because we didn’t agree with the company’s vision and goals, and decided to set up our own so we could pursue and execute our architectural vision.
Have your goals and values changed over the years, given experience and maturity?
Austria: Our goal is constant: to do good work we can be proud of and make a living out of it.
Sunga: Although we share the same goals, sometimes our values differ. We are both centrists, but I tend to be more liberal and Arnold more conservative. The funny thing is, sometimes the role switches. I guess we’ve reached a state of equilibrium.
What other essentials are there for a solid partnership?
Austria: Commit to the partnership! Each partner’s dedication and commitment must be equally firm. The daily stress and strain of work and meeting obligations could affect the dynamic between partners. In our case, our shared passion for design and dedication to improving our cities through architecture is what fuels our commitment and carries us through challenging times.
Sunga: Know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Design is a collaborative exercise of creative solution finding. Having two minds focused on solving problems is one of the advantages of a partnership. It is best when you and your partner’s skills complement each other.
Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses to formulate an efficient working dynamic. Outline what you can offer and what to expect from the other. Dialogue and be as transparent as possible. Agree on how to fortify each other’s strengths and neutralize your weaknesses. Our awareness of each other’s traits and capabilities has helped us process and break down problems into smaller, manageable parts appropriate to our respective skills.
Based on your strengths, who’s in charge of what?
Sunga: It depends on the workload, but mostly, I deal with the big picture while Arnold takes care of the nitty-gritty. I value his taste in the tactile aspects like finishing, color, furniture, and composition.
Austria: Sonny is in charge of the architecture and planning while I concentrate on interior architecture. Overall, every project that comes out is borne out of conversations, choices, decisions, and even mistakes we both made in the studio.
Sunga: One of the benefits of having a partner is sharing the workload that comes with managing a firm. It doesn’t necessarily mean splitting the number of projects between the two of you. The distribution of work could come down to letting one partner handle the technical and production side of the firm while the other takes care of drawing up the design concepts for each project. One could run operations while the other handles marketing. This is why knowing each other’s strengths is vital.
Austria: Put the division of responsibilities down in writing, as this will serve as your reference in case disagreements over the workload arise down the line.
Do you consult each other on every decision?
Austria: Yes, we do. It’s just natural in partnerships. Even when the work is divided, you still have to consult your partner in every company decision. This will help avoid conflicts down the line that stem from a partner not being informed of a decision he doesn’t agree with.
Sunga: Confidence in our decision is strengthened when we are both in agreement, and a unified stance on all decisions by the partners is good for the firm.
How do you resolve disagreements? What do you tell others having difficulty overcoming differences in opinion?
Sunga: It’s simpler now that we’re more mature. When one strongly disagrees with a choice, then we don’t do it.
Austria: Be direct, have an open mind, and use your instincts.
Could you cite an example of a challenge that rocked your partnership, how you overcame it, and how it made the partnership stronger?
Sunga: Our friendship, not partnership, was tested a long time ago, back in the early 2000s when there were more than two of us in the office. We were ten back then, all good friends from college. It all started great, but after a while, it got too complicated. Some issues compromised not just our friendship but also our ideals. To cut it short, Arnold and I chose to leave everything behind, start from scratch and sacrifice financial security. That’s when we established Jagnus.
Austria: Our friendship, love for design and freedom keeps us together.
What do you say when younger designers ask you for the reason behind Jagnus’ success?
Sunga and Austria: Success? Not yet. Ask us again in 10 years! •
Judith Arellano Torres is the former editor-in-chief of BluPrint magazine, which she led for ten years. She edited four books, Blueprints for 2050, Design Better, Tropical Architecture for the 21st Century Books 1 & 3, and co-wrote the latter two. Before BluPrint, Judith worked for 17 years in television in a variety of roles, including COO of the ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC); COO, executive producer, and editor at Probe Productions, Inc.; and producer for CNN International, covering the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.