Stroke of Genius by Jeanne Beker
An exclusive interview of Alessandro Munge for Living Luxe Magazine.
Passionate Alessandro Munge is on a creative high.
"The second I walked through Bisha's grand doors, I was floored by the arresting drama that greeted me. It was dark, rich, sumptuous and incredibly sexy."
As one of the world’s most successful multidisciplinary designers, the 50-year-old dynamo is luxuriating in a sea of diverse and coveted commissions, from international hotels, resorts and residences to some of the most glamorous and memorable restaurants imaginable. And during these uncertain times, when lifestyles as we knew them continue to evolve, Munge’s courage, drive and optimism are serving him exceedingly well. He’s determined to make the world not only a more beautiful place, but a more interesting and inspiring place, challenging conservative notions by injecting elements of storytelling and unabashed glamour into the spaces and places we frequent and inhabit.
I’ll never forget the opening night of the Bisha Hotel in 2017. I’d long admired owner Charles Khabouth’s sense of daring ingenuity as a restaurateur who was determined to make an exciting mark on our city. But the second I walked through Bisha’s grand doors, I was floored by the arresting drama that greeted me. It was dark, rich, sumptuous and incredibly sexy — an environment that actually seemed a little un-Toronto to me. And that’s what made me love it more: The unexpected had finally arrived.
Munge — Bisha’s designer extraordinaire — concedes that the feel of the hotel might not be for everyone. But that’s precisely why it works. “Our hospitality in our city is just not blowing up to the extent which it could,” Munge laments, realizing that some clients are not as ready to push the envelope as others. “But there’s a certain kind of tribe, a certain kind of person out there who understands what we do. And when we bring it to life, it’s clients, guests and customers like that who enjoy these spaces and really make that energy.”
Munge’s early foray into the design business is heartwarming. Growing up in the northwest end of Toronto, his family had immigrated to Canada from Italy when he was only two years old, and his mother, Nella, ran a drapery business. “When my mother went to homes of potential clients, I’d see her struggle to get business, to bring these contracts to life, so she could bring food home,” he reminisces. “I remember when I was about 13, I was sitting at a table with my pen and a piece of paper as my mother was going through magazines and showing her client these drapery solutions and trying to piece it together for them. I was doodling some drapery ideas in the corner when the woman asked my mom to pause.
"You can't take a Valentino gown and put it on someone who only wears Helmut Lang. They won't connect with the garment - it doesn't make sense."
‘What is your son doing?’ she asked. And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know; I’m just kind of thinking about what you’re saying, and I drew a solution to what you guys were trying to talk about.’ The lady looked at my drawing and said, ‘I’ll take it and you can do it everywhere!’” The young Munge was gobsmacked with the realization that he’d just put together a solution that would help put food on the table at home. And so came the understanding of the business of design — how people had desires to take their ideas and turn them into three-dimensional solutions. By the time Munge was 15 or 16, he was closing all kinds of deals for his mother. And while she was often miffed at how some of these commissioned projects would actually materialize, her confident, talented son took the bull by the creative horns and managed to turn dreams into realities.
It’s that kind of magic that Munge wants to recreate in all the spaces he designs today — wildly original places like Bisha or Yorkville’s lush Sofia Restaurant and Bar, or the exotic new Lebanese eatery, Amal — even though he reiterates that these dramatic, detailed environments may not be for everyone. “We’re not producing McDonalds,” he stresses, “so we don’t have to tap into 3.6 billion people, right? We just need a certain demographic to keep that business consistently busy. That’s why those seeking a traditional five-star luxury experience are very different from those seeking a hip, cool hotel. They’re different kinds of guests, different profiles. It’s the same thing in fashion, right? You can’t take a Valentino gown and put it on someone who only wears Helmut Lang. They won’t connect with the garment — it doesn’t make sense,” he says.
“It’s like that blank piece of paper every time, and I’m able to create something new — not stamp out the same things over and over,”
A graduate of Ryerson University’s Interior Design program in 1994, Munge began interning with the celebrated Yabu Pushelberg team during his last summer of school, and worked at their studio until he decided to break out on his own in 1997. He was commissioned by Khabouth to design the mammoth Toronto nightclub, Guvernment. Fast-forward to 2020, and the widely diverse portfolio that Studio Munge has to its credit now is what pleases Munge most. He likens his body of work to art. “It’s like that blank piece of paper every time, and I’m able to create something new — not stamp out the same things over and over,” he says with pride. The trick, of course, is getting your clients to believe in you, almost to the point where they’ll give you carte blanche. However, it’s a trick Munge has mastered, because he’s proved himself so many times over the years. “In the beginning, my career was much harder to do,” he admits, “because I was young and I didn’t have the experience. But today, we walk into a project with a plethora of experience — like there’s so much there that you’d be crazy not to trust us!” he explains. Munge works with some of the world’s biggest and best hospitality and entertainment players. But one of his greatest champions remains Toronto’s own Khabouth. “I mean who does better than Khabouth in terms of entertainment in our city?” asks Munge. Even with COVID-19 having ravaged the hospitality industry, Khabouth is holding his ground. “He’s still doing everything in his power to reinvent the concept of entertainment and keep people excited,” Munge points out. “And I resonate with people like that.”
While this bold designer thrives on projects that allow his fantasies to fly, he also appreciates a good challenge. Case in point: Muir (Gaelic for “sea”) — a luxury waterfront hotel he’s working on in Halifax that smacks of artisanal authenticity, complete with original art and pottery from the region, locally commissioned hooked rugs and a custom-made furniture line. “It’s a challenging project because it’s a balance of subtlety and respect,” Munge says. “It’s tapping into what the fabric of Halifax is, and who Haligonians are, so when you’re in this hotel, there’s nothing pretentious about it, yet it feels beautifully and tastefully designed.” When it comes down to it, that old notion of “location, location, location” is a major influence on Munge’s creative approach to projects. “We get these sleepy, major cities that come to us and say, ‘There’s nothing like what you do here in our city; we want you to bring that life and that energy here!’ Well, we really have to balance that,” he says. “I’m not about to do a Bisha-style hotel in Halifax — it doesn’t make sense. Nor would I create a Bisha-style environment in the Distillery District in Toronto, where we have our other projects, like Cluny Bistro, El Catrin and Madrina. It all has to be specific to the location and the operator.”
“I NEVER REALLY HAD ANYTHING. SO, THE WORLD IS NOTHING BUT OPEN AND POSITIVE TO ME.”
Halifax’s Muir is slated to open summer 2021, but it’s just one of many projects commanding Munge’s attention these days. He’s also working on Nobu Toronto in the city’s entertainment district — Nobu’s first combination hotel, residences and restaurant. And he’s committed to various other hospitality projects the world over. As well, the private residential side of Studio Munge’s business, as he puts it, is “off the charts” right now. “People are seeking a very different experience at home than they were 10 years ago, or even yesterday. They’re trying to bring a different calibre of experience into their homes. Gone are the days of a traditional kitchen, dining room, living room and basement. I’m very much excited by this,” enthuses Munge. “So, there’s a new world opening up as a result.” Munge’s optimism and determination to look on the bright side of these current dark times is infectious. He cites Charles Khabouth’s Amal as the kind of place that’s breathing new life into Toronto, because people are so longing for fabulous dining experiences. “That concept of hospitality will never go away, because as a species, we need each other on this planet, right? So that’s what we bring in when we talk about hospitality, about life for that matter. This is about life,” Munge muses. He admits that we all need to be smarter and safer and more conscientious about the way we live our lives, and that maybe COVID-19 is a springboard to the way we’ll have to responsibly operate in the future. But in the meantime, Munge feels his particular responsibility is to give back ideas and excitement. “I want to be able to contribute to the happiness that people can experience in a two-hour dining outing. And if I do, then I know I’ve done something good in my life. I’ve contributed to humanity.”
Just before our conversation ends, I ask Munge what his mother — his original mentor — thinks of what he’s doing now. “My mother walks into my spaces and looks around and says, ‘I don’t understand what’s in your head. How do you do these things?’ She’s so proud of everything I’ve accomplished from nothing,” he says with emotion. “We grew up in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto. My brother and I would be playing hide-and-seek and people would be doing crack. So I understand the world of nothing. And I have nothing to lose — because I never really had anything. So, the world is nothing but open and positive to me,” he says, ending with a question that pretty much explains Alessandro Munge’s inimitably exuberant and unapologetic style. “What do you have to lose?”