2018 Designer of the Year: Alessandro Munge

Alessandro Munge, the 2018 Designer of the Year. Photograph by Brian Ferry

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Genuine, warm, and gregarious, Alessandro Munge is the very personification of hospitable. No wonder that the founder and principal of Toronto-based Studio Munge has focused his career on the hospitality sector. Bringing people together in style, awakening their senses, and giving them a memorable experience: That is his life’s work.

Since rebranding and expanding nearly three years ago, Studio Munge has gained increased international recognition for innovative, luxurious hospitality projects that are consistent in their levels of detail and beauty. Munge’s portfolio, which has grown in scale from clubs and restaurants to entire hotels both in Canada and the United States and soon in China, includes The William Vale Hotel in Brooklyn, New York, and the new Bisha Hotel in Toronto. In the midst of a career-defining moment, he is on a trajectory to do much more. Munge is Contract magazine’s 2018 Designer of the Year, the 39th recipient of the award.

Alessandro Munge: Contract 2018 Designer of the Year from Contract Magazine on Vimeo.

An Italian influence in everything
Both Munge and his wife, Grace Zeppilli, are Italian-Canadian. Zeppilli leads her own art-consulting business, GZ International, which selects artworks for many of Munge’s interiors and shares an office with Studio Munge. Together, the couple is immersed in the world of global hospitality while raising two teenage daughters and now renovating a home with dramatic views of Toronto. “It’s all-things-Italian at home,” says the expressive, intense Munge. “How I like to live and who I am is 100 percent Italian.”

The middle child of three, Munge spent the first five years of his life in Filetto, a town in Italy’s Abruzzo region, until his family immigrated to Toronto. Once in Canada, his mother, Nella, operated her own custom drapery business. Early on in his teenage years, Munge would join his mother as she met clients, and eventually he began to sketch drapery solutions for her. “This evolved into me helping my mother build little storyboards for her clients,” recalls Munge. “She’s my hero. I saw a woman grow a business from nothing and employ people. It created an emotion in me, a connection to people through design.”

Munge graduated from Ryerson University in Toronto with a bachelor’s degree in interior design in 1994. During his last summer of school, he interned at the Toronto office of Yabu Pushelberg, led by George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg, Contract magazine’s 2002 Designers of the Year. He continued with the firm after graduating, learning the craft of hospitality design from the duo.

But Munge yearned to create his own interiors. In 1997, he and Sia Leung, a colleague at Yabu Pushelberg, founded the firm Munge Leung that quickly became well-known in Toronto for designing the enormous and popular Guvernment nightclub for Bechara “Charles” Khabouth, the head of Ink Entertainment, who is regarded as Toronto’s “King of Clubs.”

Guvernment was the start of a long, important working relationship between Munge and Khabouth. Munge has designed a number of clubs and restaurants in Toronto for the impresario over the past two decades, including the nightclub Rebel in 2016. “I always felt most comfortable with Alessandro because he’s able to recognize concepts, needs, and budgets, and then design for function,” Khabouth says. “A lot of people can design, but the function often falls short.” After Guvernment, Munge Leung enjoyed a steady upward climb, raking in awards and developing a strong client base. Successful Munge Leung ventures included the Rosewood Hotel Georgia (2011), a detailed restoration of a 1920s landmark in Vancouver, Canada, which incorporates the Hawksworth Restaurant, a sleek venue for the creations of David Hawksworth, one of the country’s most celebrated chefs. Since splitting with Leung in summer 2015, Munge has continued the practice as Studio Munge, which has quickly grown from approximately 30 to 60 employees and is thriving with large projects both in Canada and abroad. “For me, the moment right now is like a blank canvas,” Munge says. “My business is evolving. I’m evolving. I feel like I’m growing and bursting out and finding myself, which is the most beautiful time I’ve ever, ever experienced in my career.”

Studio anchored in process
For the studio’s home, Munge purchased a 15,000-square-foot former factory building in a light industrial area of northwest Toronto in 2014. His own desk is purposely open to the rest of the studio because he spends most of the day among his staff. “To me, the best solutions are the ones in which the team is around me, almost like it’s around my mother’s table,” Munge says. “I feed off the energy.”

His multidisciplinary team incorporates industrial designers. Taking a holistic approach, Munge fashions custom furniture for most of his interiors, whether a hotel, restaurant, or other project type. “In my desire to control the environments and to control the guest experience, we have excellent examples of where our pieces have blended beautifully into the interiors,” Munge says. “I built a studio that has six super-talented industrial designers, and they work very closely with me to create this custom furniture.”

While the genesis and fruition of each Studio Munge interior is different, they all share a similar gestation. Before the blank canvas is filled, three elements are considered: location, brand, and clientele. Munge enjoys getting to know a site, immersing himself in context, and connecting with the client and their business. He also intently studies people to understand how they will interact within a given space, and how the interior may function.

Next, Munge and his team create a large, physical storyboard. “We always build a narrative through images of inspiration and try to understand the ‘why.’ That’s the first way we pitch,” Munge says. “Our narratives are the most important part of our projects, allowing the team to be creative based on a specific direction. We believe that if we build a narrative that everybody believes in, then it can, ultimately, be followed through in all aspects.”

The storyboard always includes visuals that are infused with emotion. “I want to understand the project, not through images of other interiors but rather through ethereal images you have to dive deep into in order to pull a design out of them,” says Munge. “Even though you may not understand it, or you may not believe it, guests will always feel it. They will know when something doesn’t feel right within the space.”

Having a keen sense for hospitality clients and their guests has enabled Munge to produce sophisticated interiors that are attractive to targeted audiences. For example, the eatery Figo (2016) for Khabouth’s Ink Entertainment is a modern Italian restaurant designed to appeal to women in the city. Located at the nexus of Toronto’s entertainment and fashion districts, the initial inspiration was a spring collection by Dolce & Gabbana translated by Munge into a fresco-like floral ceiling that is “very subtle, not overly ornate,” he says. The interiors are light and airy, thanks to a pale color palette and furniture such as wire-mesh barstools and glass-topped tables with shapely blonde wood bases.

The William Vale: Munge in New York
An essential example of the recent transformation in Munge’s practice is also his first project in New York: The William Vale Hotel (2016) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Designed for Riverside Developers, The William Vale illustrates the power of the Studio Munge narrative process. “We [initially] went through an interview process just for food and beverage [services] because the client already had a designer for the rooms and public areas,” Munge says. “But the client was blown away by our narrative, and as a result, we got to do the whole hotel,” which includes the restaurant, Leuca; the rooftop bar, Westlight; all public spaces; and 183 guestrooms and suites.

His pitch? Instead of referencing Williamsburg’s industrial past, Munge focused on its dynamic artistic present. Commissioned artworks by Brooklyn artists pervade the hotel from the lobby and lounge to the suites. Guestrooms are bright and modern, and double-height living spaces in the presidential suite amp up the luxury quotient.

“From the first day we met and discussed our vision for The William Vale Hotel, Alessandro and his team worked through many drafts to come to the final masterpiece, which continues to get rave reviews from our guests,” says Benzi Herbst, project manager for Riverside Developers. “The attention to detail is unbelievable.”

The hotel’s southern Italian restaurant, Leuca, has a particularly poetic subnarrative: The restaurant’s chef, his wife, and their young daughter moved to Brooklyn from Italy, and the cuisine is reminiscent of their homeland. The warm, earthy oak-paneled room, with its spacious leather-upholstered custom banquettes, is a romantic evocation of their Italian country house.

Up on the 22nd floor, Westlight, The William Vale’s white-hot rooftop bar, is crisp, refined, and cosmopolitan. Visitors arrive via elevator and proceed through a corridor for a sense of heightened procession on their way to Westlight, which features stunning, sweeping views of New York. It’s one of Munge’s most satisfying achievements. “How we take people up into the elevator, narrow them into a corridor, and then blast them out into the dining room— that compression and expansion is exactly what we wanted and is exactly what happens when people walk through it,” Munge says.

From clubs to Bisha Hotel
The evolution in Munge’s work continues in Toronto, where his most significant project to date, Bisha Hotel, opened just two months ago. Developed by Khabouth, whose nickname is Bisha, this high-end hotel tracks the upward trajectory of both client and designer. Khabouth, an operator of several Toronto clubs and restaurants, is now an hotelier, and Munge, who has completed many venues for Khabouth, is crafting entire hotels. This dynamic duo has defined and energized Toronto’s social scene with style and showmanship. “I think we’ve designed 15 projects together,” Khabouth says. “It’s been a bit of a challenge because we’re both strong-headed. We’ve been able to keep up with each other, sometimes try and outdo each other, but the end result has been satisfying for both of us.”

True to Khabouth’s nightlife background, “Bisha Hotel welcomes and celebrates the animals of the night that we are,” says Munge, who designed all 96 guestrooms, the lobby lounge named the Mister C Bar Room, and the restaurant Kost on the 44th floor. The seduction begins in the lobby. Custom-cut black-and-whitepatterned marble floors, crushed black velvet wall panels, a reception desk cut like a diamond in etched gold-colored metal: Together, they suggest an opulent temple of desire. Guestrooms are luxurious and contemporary, featuring custom furnishings by Munge in such tactile materials as velvet and leather, abundant mirrors, and fabulous modern art and photography. To stay at Bisha Hotel is to feel younger, richer, and sexier—or that is the promise.

The guest experience is thoroughly considered in the Mister C Bar Room, where one can be seated in plush velvet chairs or sofas near an ornate fireplace, or at an onyx bar at one end of the expansive room. Lighting is alluringly low. Art lovers will appreciate six oversized framed scarves, creations by Damien Hirst for Alexander McQueen, with their silken fabrics festooned with imagery of skulls and ethereal butterflies.

Mister C Bar Room is as dark and mysterious as the restaurant, Kost, is light and effervescent. Here, woven rattan chairs and ivory banquettes with orange detailing suggest a sensuous coastal resort. A folding glass wall extends the dining space onto a generous terrace, complete with a glistening rooftop pool. Munge emphasizes that this dining experience—44 floors up with views of the entire city—is unlike any other in Toronto.

Nobu Toronto and a bright future
Today, Studio Munge is brimming with activity, with key projects in multiple locales. Lago, a restaurant by Julian Serrano, is due to open this year on the top floor of the Bellagio Shanghai after a successful Lago by Munge opened in Las Vegas in 2015. Design development is underway for the new Park Hyatt Hotel and Residences in Los Angeles, across from Staples Center, opening in fall 2018, and the renovation of Park Hyatt Toronto will be complete in 2019. In China, Munge is designing interiors for two Shangri-La Hotel and Resort locations, in Nanning and Shanghai, to open by 2021.

Perhaps the most heady current endeavor for Munge is Nobu Toronto, for celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa and actor Robert De Niro, set to debut in 2020. Munge is planning sumptuous interiors—hotel rooms, private residences, and a Nobu restaurant—within the 49-story twin towers by Teeple Architects. Just a block from Bisha Hotel, Nobu Toronto promises to rocket Studio Munge to a dizzying level of design fame.

Gratified to be named Designer of the Year, Munge admits to being a bit flummoxed to be recognized for “things that I’m truly passionate about every day—things that come naturally to me. It’s fun! I get to create beautiful spaces.”