Alessandro Munge, founder and principal of Toronto-based Studio Munge, is a multidisciplinary designer and unconventional visionary who focuses on transforming spaces into emotions. “I love to ignite and inspire ‘aha’ moments,” Munge says.
The middle child of three, Munge is passionately Italian, having spent the first five years of his life in Filetto, a small town in Italy’s Abruzzo region. Italian was always spoken at the dinner table when Munge was a child, which instilled in him a lifelong love for family and all things Italian. The 39th recipient of Contract Magazine’s Designer of the Year award and the recipient of Design Leader in Hospitality at the HiP Awards given by world-renowned Interior Design magazine, Munge got his creative start when his mom, Nella, who owned a drapery business, took him along with her to see clients. “I was just sitting at a table, doodling drapery solutions, while my mom talked with a lady,” Munge says. “And then, the customer said to my mom, ‘Nella, why don’t we make what your son is drawing?’ I learned from a young age that I could communicate through drawing, by what I could create.”
That was the aha moment for Munge: there was a business aspect to what he was doing, and people were willing to pay for his creativity.
After graduating from Ryerson in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in interior design, Munge was hired at the Toronto office of Yabu Pushelberg, where he had interned during his time at university. In 1997, he co-founded Munge Leung, becoming well-known for designing the popular Guvernment nightclub for Charles Khabouth, CEO of INK Entertainment (and one of Toronto Life’
s 50 Most Influential People). Munge’s long and successful relationship with Khabouth (they have worked on over 30 projects together) has produced renowned Toronto landmarks such as Bisha Hotel & Residences, Sofia, Rebel, Cabana Pool Bar, and Akira Back, to name a few.
“Alessandro has a good understanding of the hospitality industry,” Khabouth says. “He understands flow and function, as well as how to evoke an exciting dynamic. I care about someone who both can bring out strong emotions and is also a strong believer in what he does. I don’t want someone who just agrees with me. I like fighting with Alessandro — unfortunately, he wins most of the time.”
In 2015, Munge founded Studio Munge, which quickly grew from 25 to 60 employees. The firm’s portfolio has also grown in scale, from clubs and restaurants to outsize hotels, including Khabouth’s Bisha Hotel & Residences in Toronto, as well as hotel projects in Vancouver, the United States and three projects in process in China.
Committed to diversifying his business, Munge’s focus has evolved from singular design concepts. In fact, Munge says that design is becoming step two, rather than step one, in his repertoire. As a result of being in such high demand, Munge has less face time with some of his clients. “But his design team embodies his spirit,” says Jack Scarangella, president, co-founder and partner of Mercatto Hospitality Group, as well as co-founder of AlterEgo.
“I have phenomenally talented people in my office,” Munge agrees. “I want them to enjoy what they are doing. I want them to get something out of their journey with me.”
"I am becoming a bit of a disruptor in the industry"
- Alessandro Munge
A cornerstone of Munge’s creative approach is to partner with like-minded clients, ones who are willing to see not what is there, but rather what can be envisioned. “Whenever Alessandro gives us a presentation, it is always a highlight for our team. He inspires ‘aha’ moments,” Scarangella says. “We get stoked to see how he has elevated projects from what we initially proposed.”
Calling himself a Curious George, Munge is passionately interested in observing the expressions on people’s faces as they move through one of the projects that he has created. “I love breaking through boundaries,” he says.
As he has evolved from designer to visionary, Munge has become an intrinsic part of clients’ visions from the ground up. They often get him involved before they even sign a lease.
Munge knows when a space is right by its emotive rather than physical aura. In that sense, he feels blessed that he can capture spaces and communicate those layered characteristics to contractors. “There needs to be authenticity to the work I am doing — it has to resonate,” he says. “The results have been pretty phenomenal.”
One of Munge’s long-term working relationships is with Mercatto Hospitality Group, with whom he has worked for over 20 years. Their collaborations include Constantine at The Anndore House and Cantina Mercatto, which is opening on Wellington Street in late October. “It is great to see the growth in Alessandro’s business and professional life,” says Scarangella.
A patron’s experience when journeying through a restaurant or hotel is key to Munge’s vision. He subscribes to the theory that each space needs a story and must resonate emotively. “Every step is a journey — a memory, a mood that you can feel,” Munge says. “Winning awards is secondary for me. What people see and how people feel within the spaces we create means much more to me. When I start a project I look at it as a blank canvas on which I create a custom, one-of-a-kind vision for the client.”
Madison Group chose Munge for its latest high-rise project, Nobu Toronto, the brand’s first integrated hotel, residences and restaurant project in the world, to actualize its luxury mystique. “Alessandro is extremely talented,” says Josh Zagdanski, vice-president of high-rise, Madison Group. “He is able to envision the full experience, all of the elements, with the end result of evoking an emotional experience. There is a real authenticity to what he delivers.”
As Munge’s global impact evolves, travelling has become a fundamental component of his life. The opportunity to meet people of different cultures, different perspectives and different religions is inspirational to him. “Travel is the most incredible gift I have been given, although I call it a blessed curse,” he says. “It takes me away from my family, but I get to see the world, and there is so much inspiration in that. I have the confidence to push things in my work because of the things I have seen in the world.”
Munge and his Italian-Canadian wife, Grace Zeppilli, who as a prominent art consultant herself shares office space at Studio Munge — and, in fact, selects artwork for many of her husband’s interiors — are in the midst of renovating a home for themselves and their two teenage daughters. “I am excited about what our home is going to do for myself and my family,” Munge says. “Not from a monetary aspect, but as a retreat. To journey through the house is an experience, which begins when you turn into the driveway, and culminates on the rooftop, with its spectacular views of Toronto.”
While Munge is “ridiculously passionate” about what he does — he eats and breathes his work — he also knows how to live la dolce vita lifestyle. Family and design are the two pillars of Munge’s life. He and Zeppilli are passionate art lovers and often visit galleries in their travels, as they are guided by art and design in all forms — from fashion to architecture, furniture and objects, textiles and interiors. A fun break from the norm for Munge is a good day of wakesurfing or kickboxing, which gives him the opportunity to immerse himself in something other than design. “I don’t watch TV, as I fall in love with the picture and the backgrounds rather than the movie,” Munge says. “I’m more of a sensory guy than a book guy.”
Scarangella, who knows Munge’s family personally, says that in spite of Munge’s passionate devotion to work, he knows how to kick back. “Alessandro knows how to enjoy life with his family. It’s not all work, work, work for him,” Scarangella says.
His commitment to inspiring emotive experiences for both his clients and their clients is one that he says is not an accident. “Now, of course, the only thing I am short of is time,” he says with a laugh.
By Cece M. Scott for Dolce