For celebrated Italian architect and interior designer Michele Bönan, designing a hotel, a restaurant or a house is a cinematic undertaking. “I am the director of a movie,” Bönan explains. “The property, the location, the client: they all become parts of a film.”
And when you see the final cut of Bönan’s chic hotels or buzzy restaurants, his film-director analogy makes perfect sense. Using a dazzling combination of glorious color, historic elements, unique art, sexy lighting and custom furniture, Bönan creates spaces that transport you into another, more fabulous world. Add a hip soundtrack and the jet-set crowd that flocks to his projects, and his spaces transcend their role as backdrops to become characters in the love stories and dramas that unfold within their walls. Whether it’s at the new Hotel Marquis in Paris or the Cipriani restaurant in Miami, Bönan delights in watching his spaces come to Technicolor life. “It’s fantastic,” he says. “I love seeing people enjoying my work.”
A lifelong Florentine who designs everything from yachts to furniture to residences for an international roster of fashionable clients, Bönan says “I knew all along that I wanted to be a designer and architect. I never had any doubt.” He attributes his love of beautiful things to the city of his birth — with its romantic Renaissance streetscapes, timeless art and architecture and surrounding Tuscan landscapes — and he credits Florence’s talented army of woodcarvers, metalworkers and furniture-makers for enabling him to translate his lofty design goals into reality.
After completing his architecture studies at the University of Florence, his first big project came in 1980, when he renovated Italian tennis star Adriano Panatta’s circa-1940s villa in the Tuscan Coast resort town of Forte dei Marmi. The project made the cover of Italian Architectural Digest.
His prolific career in hospitality architecture took off in earnest beginning in 1995, when he created Florence’s Hotel Lungarno, the first of nine projects that he has done for the Ferragamo family’s Lungarno Collection of hotels, suites and yachts. Transforming a centuries-old townhouse overlooking the Arno, Bönan gave the Hotel Lungarno a crisp blue-and-white palette to “accentuate the sense of endlessly drifting on the Arno, with the Ponte Vecchio as your point of reference,” he says. Bönan made sure the interiors were just as captivating as the view, designing his own custom furniture and accessories and hanging more than 400 works of modern art throughout, including pieces by Picasso and Cocteau. His latest project for the Lungarno Collection is the just-opened Portrait Firenze, which features sumptuously luxe interiors filled with fine antiques and sculpture and is just steps from the Palazzo Vecchio.
To date, Bönan has designed more than a dozen hotels throughout Europe and the U.S., every one of them unique and more evocative of staying at someone’s glamorous villa than an anonymous lodging. Beige guest room walls are replaced by vibrant teal or deep charcoal. Generic MDF furniture is nowhere to be found. Italian antiques abound. Often the standard lobby is nixed in favor of intimate communal spaces that look and feel like living rooms, complete with roaring fireplaces, interesting books and sofas piled high with pillows. In Florence, the Gallery Hotel Art hosts contemporary art exhibitions. At the J.K. Place in Capri, set in a circa-1875 mansion overlooking the Mediterranean, the “lobby” features photographs by Italian artist Massimo Listri, busts from the 19th century and blue-and-white Chinese ceramics. And at Casa Tua, in Miami, each of the five different rooms is stocked beforehand with the guests’ preferred flowers, films, snacks and more. “I like to say that everyone should live at home like they’re in a hotel, and in a hotel like they’re at home,” Bönan explains. “You want the best of both: hotel service and home comfort.”
“I like to say that everyone should live at home like they’re in a hotel, and in a hotel like they’re at home.”
Achieving Bönan’s first recommendation is made easier by the fact that some of the lighting and furniture found in his hotel projects are offered to the consumer market. For instance, Estro produces his statement Juliette chandelier seen in the Heidelberg Suites hotel, in Germany, where its wide, glossy black shade surrounding six candlestick lights quickly grabs attention. And Chelini offers his iconic oversized wing chairs, which can be found in a J.K. Place, Capri guestroom upholstered in purple ikat and at Paris’s Le 1 Place de Vendome restaurant as black-and-cream, diamond-patterned dining chairs. (Generally, Bönan tends to custom design furniture for each new project. “I started designing because I couldn’t find what I needed,” he explains.)
Two properties that Bönan both designed and owns are the Heidelberg Suites, a 25-suite hotel housed in a series of beautifully restored 19th-century villas in the picturesque German town from which the hotel takes its name, and the Jagdgut Wachtelhof, a 17-room ski lodge in the Austrian Alps. He feels particularly connected to these properties because his German-born wife, Christine Hütter-Bönan, an interiors stylist with whom he has collaborated for 15 years, has family roots in both locales. At the Jagdgut Wachtelhof, the designer’s playful side is on display: The ski lodge signature of mounted antlers and deer heads is turned up about 10 notches — displayed in multiples, everywhere. At the Heidelberg Suites, Bönan, a passionate boat lover, has provided a floating restaurant for guests: The Patria, a fully restored and revamped 1950s yacht done in a crisp red-and-white palette. “These two hotels really show our style,” he states.
One of Bönan’s latest hotels is Rome’s new J.K. Place, which opened last fall in a 17th-century building just off Via Condotti, near the famed Spanish Steps. The 30 guestrooms are painted a vibrant teal or a glamorous slate gray; many have upholstered beds with a slight wing-back design and graphic, mid-century inspired chairs. “The J.K. Rome is completely different from the hotels in Florence and Capri,” Bönan explains. “The inspiration is the dolce vita of the nineteen-fifties and sixties. The Tom Ford movie A Single Man influenced the concept, too. I wanted to create an iconic place, a real Roman hotel.”
While Bönan is primarily known for his hotels, his slate of restaurant, retail, yacht, product and residential projects keeps him equally busy. Bönan’s current works-in-progress list captures his breadth: a new resort on St. Barths; a newly built family retreat in Newport, Rhode Island; and the interiors for a 14th-century Florentine castle belonging to a Russian couple. There are more designs on the way for lighting, furniture and rugs. And maybe another yacht or two.
Bönan loves the mix of projects and the global reach of his work. “For me, design has the same meaning no matter what it is. It’s not important what you are designing but that you are creating.”