Away We Go!
A model of a Boeing 777 in Air Canada livery perches on a shelf above the desk of founder and principal Alessandro Munge. But this isn’t a novelty he picked up at Toys “R” Us; rather, it was a gift from the airline after he had logged a million miles in the course of creating luxury hotels and iconic restaurants around the world. The trophy makes sense, because when he takes on a new project for an international client, he likes to get the lay of the land by visiting several of their locations. “It’s exploratory and discovery work, an opportunity to immerse yourself in the brand,” says Munge. “I do this quite a bit with chefs. I love that exercise.”
For example, celebrity-chef client David Hawksworth’s eponymous Munge-designed eatery in Vancouver’s Rosewood Hotel Georgia is five-time winner of Best Upscale Restaurant in Vancouver magazine’s Restaurant Awards. To prepare for their next collaboration, the pair looked for foodie inspiration in London, Toronto and New York. In the Big Apple alone they ate their way through 11 restaurants, “starting at 9 o’clock in the morning and ending at 4 o’clock in the morning. It just went on and on and on,” Alessandro recalls. “Let’s hang together and share a glass of wine and break bread together. That’s how I get into your world when I start to design. I want to get into chef’s mind, chef’s world.”
Why? “Because whatever he puts on the table has to relate to the interiors, so that the experience is holistic. How many times do you eat at a restaurant and you say to yourself, ‘Love the food, just don’t get this place, it’s ugly’; or, ‘What a gorgeous space, but, man, did the food miss”? I have no interest in that. That’s why the business of what we do, especially when it comes to restaurants, is understanding chef.
“Doing so many different venues has taught me that you simply can’t take a singular approach to design when it comes to these spaces. Restaurants are unique because they [provide] moments to escape, forget and journey into another world while you’re having dinner. I don’t believe that a restaurant we’ve done in New York City or Toronto can swap hands. I don’t believe that a project on [Toronto’s] King Street can live in the Distillery. I will study cities, I will study locations, I will study streets.”
Alessandro was born in Germany and lived in Abruzzo, Italy, until the family moved to Toronto in the 1970s. After graduating from Ryerson University’s School of Interior Design, he joined hospitality and retail design powerhouse Yabu Pushelberg. Four years later, he and co-worker Sai Leung decamped and set up their own boutique, Munge Leung, which then rebranded two years ago as Studio Munge.
Alessandro’s better half, Grace Zeppilli, maintains a private office on the studio premises where she runs her art consultancy, GZ International. “She is without a doubt my secret weapon,” he admits. By collaborating with her, “We can control the curation in our projects. We can control the artwork, the accessorizing, so our clients can stay on point through our whole project experience.”
For the fashionable year-old William Vale Hotel in Brooklyn, a five-minute subway ride from Manhattan, Studio Munge had been brought in to handle the food and beverage areas. However, Alessandro said, “The client got really comfortable and started to believe in the philosophy of the narrative that we were putting forward,” and he wound up designing the public areas and guest rooms as well. Instead of taking a cliched cue from the industrial-warehouse neighbourhood’s post-and-beam and exposed brick décor, he asked his wife to run a competition for local artists. “I didn’t want to be contrived [or] thematic,” he said. Thus, the deliberately understated, neutral lobby, with art that expresses the spirit of the place as the focal point, and the generous quantity (up to four pieces) of original art in each guest room.
So how did Alessandro rise from obscurity? It helped that this journal pronounced Munge Leung’s Interior Space: Designs for Living installation at the 2000 Interior Design Show as the “favourite of the four” in our review, and praised the three-year-old firm’s “flawless sense of balance, concern for individual comfort and strict attention to fine detail.”
However, the big break, he fondly recalls, came from a Toronto entrepreneur whose innovative boîte Stilife had rocketed Yabu Pushelberg to international prominence in 1987. “I always look for that one client who’s going to take us to the next point in our careers and for us it was Charles Khabouth.”
In 1999, Bechara “Charles” Khabouth, the Lebanese Canadian nightclub owner, restaurateur, music promoter and hotelier who heads INK Entertainment, hired fledgling Munge Leung to transform “30,000 square feet at Guvernment, a former waterfront warehouse turned party palace, into the current hot thing. There were reports of 1,600 club kids turned away every weekend,” to quote from the Canadian Interiors 2002 Best of Canada Awards citation for Kool Haus, a club with 20,000 square feet of flex space, which was Munge Leung’s subsequent Guvernment gig.
This led to another lucky break. After developer Andrew Sasson, co-founder of Las Vegas-based The Light Group, visited Guvernment, he hired Munge Leung for a condo project on Sinatra Street, just off the Vegas Strip. “They really caught on to me and I’m still working with them; that would be 15-plus years. He’s gone through many world-class designers, without mentioning names, and fired them all.”
“We have worked on about a dozen projects or so and he always brings a fresh, original and incredibly passionate approach to each project, creating incredible experiences for our guests,” says Andy Masi, co-founder and former CEO of Light Group.
Sasson had entered into partnership with MGM Resorts International, whose Las Vegas properties include MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, Mirage and Bellagio. For the last-named hotel, Munge Leung was invited to create Lago by celebrity chef Julian Serrano, to replace Osteria del Circo, a circus tent-inspired fine-dining eatery dating from 1988, designed by the famed New York-based designer Adam Tihany. “On this row are some of the best restaurants and chefs because they all face the fountains. Philippe Starck did a restaurant, [David] Rockwell did a restaurant and Studio Munge did a restaurant. I was so excited,” Munge says with a laugh.
At his level, Alessandro plays in a sandbox replete with outsize Howard Roark, Type A personalities. Yet he comes across as easygoing and simpatico. “That starts with being an excellent listener. I will sit and almost say nothing in the start of a relationship with a client and just suck up and absorb like a sponge.” With loyal A-list clients like these, Studio Munge’s star will surely continue to rise.