Olga Polizzi, design director and deputy chairman of Rocco Forte Hotels, isn’t the only hotelier out there infusing properties with a sense of local character; she just happens to do it exceptionally well. Take Masseria Torre Maizza (above): For the intimate resort in a former farmhouse in Puglia, she went up and down Italy’s Adriatic coast to see what local artisans were producing, stopping in towns like Grottaglie, which is famous for ceramics. She ended up buying 300 handmade plates, which are among the many touches that make guests feel they’re unmistakably in Puglia, rather than Milan, Venice, or anywhere else.
“I like people waking up and knowing where they are,” Polizzi says. “The hotels seem to know what they want, and if you look around you get a feel for what should be done in them.”
Most hospitality companies hire a design firm for each new property they open, but Polizzi has designed each and every one of the hotels in the collection that she and her brother, Sir Rocco Forte, started in 1996—and her refined yet whimsical touch can be felt in them all. Creating one of Europe’s most prestigious hospitality companies came naturally to them; after all, their father, Lord Charles Forte, ran one of the largest hotel and food service companies in the world, Forte PLC, which included more than 800 hotels during its heyday.
“My father used to say the best people go into the hotel business, and I never used to believe him,” Polizzi says. “But as I got older, I realized they’re people who want to give other people a good time. Only that sort of person should go into our business, because you should have a love of looking after others.”
A Hospitable Upbringing
Polizzi and her five siblings grew up in London, surrounded by people who lived and breathed hospitality. At meals, the adults discussed hotels, food, and travel. Every summer, the family would go and stay at one of her father’s hotels. Anytime they flew, they arrived at the airport early so they could see how the restaurants were being run. (Lord Forte operated the first catering facility at Heathrow.) After attending art school in England and then Rome, Polizzi began working in the design department of her father’s company. “I worked under some good people, and bit by bit I learned the trade,” she recalls. “I made my mistakes in the beginning. I always used to do things in light colors—cream or white—and then six months later the place got trashed, because everything was so dirty.”
Now, by contrast, she’s known for eye-catching designs that feature lots of flowers, colors, and patterns, with eclectic furnishings mixed in, such as an odd hand-shaped table lamp from an antiques fair or a gold-leaf mirror by Florentine workshop Il Bronzetto. “Sometimes it just works,” she says. “Other times, I agonize over things and keep changing them.” For the Hotel de la Ville, which opened last year in Rome, she and acclaimed designer Tommaso Ziffer created bespoke canary-yellow wallpaper stamped with Piranesi prints, and they peppered in antique furniture and marble busts as a nod to the statues of Roman emperors seen in the city’s museums.
Of course, when designing hotel rooms, she believes comfort has to be number one. She insists on having plush beds, spaces where you can put things down, a spot for writing, a place to eat. “You put in the bones, then you put in the comfort, then you put in the look,” she says, “and you have to be quite brave with the look.”
The Next Generation
Next up, Polizzi is renovating Villa Igiea in Palermo, a grande dame originally opened in 1900 that has hosted movie stars, royalty, and heads of state. In homage to that glorious history, she plans to hang old photographs of its famous guests in the hotel’s library. She’s also fixing up the old chandeliers and replanting the gardens, all in time for a spring 2021 opening. And she has a variety of other projects in the offing, such as a refresh of the beloved garden at the Hotel de Russie in Rome and room renovations at Brown’s Hotel in London and The Balmoral in Edinburgh.
With so much work to do, Polizzi can hardly go it alone. Fortunately, good taste runs in the family. One of Polizzi’s nieces, Lydia Forte, is the group director of food and beverage for Rocco Forte Hotels; another, Irene Forte, is the wellness director. Her nephew Charles works on the development side. And earlier this year Polizzi and her daughter, Alex, launched The Polizzi Collection, a boutique hotel portfolio with three properties in the south of England.
“I love working with the younger generation of the family,” Polizzi says. “They bring fresh ideas, and we often bounce new designs off each other, making the results innovative and creative, as well as practical. I often think of how lucky I am to have been able to work with my family, with my father first and then with my brother Rocco, who gives me his full support and trust in my choices. I don’t remember ever having a row with him but then, he is still the boss, of course.”
Next-Up: 20 New Hotels for 2020