Q&A: Olga Polizzi on Renovating a Grande Dame, Instagram’s Influence, and Working with Family

Fresh off a whirlwind renovation of the Hotel Savoy, the Rocco Forte Hotels director of design sat down with Robb Report.

The task of reimagining a grande dame is always a prickly one, and it takes an expert to walk the line between honoring a property’s deep-running roots and updating spaces to fit the tastes of the modern traveler—Instagram-worthy vignettes included. And at the Hotel Savoy, a Rocco Forte hotel, director of design Olga Polizzi has done just that, revealing the artfully updated interiors of the 125-year-old property earlier this spring.

Polizzi, sister of the hospitality group’s patriarch, Sir Rocco Forte, pulled off renovating the hotel’s interiors with aplomb—carving out bigger guest rooms and dreaming up a design that mixes traditional Florentine craftsmanship and 21st-century amenities in just six months flat. Now, when guests step out of the imposing Piazza della Repubblica and into the property, they’ll find swishy marble-clad interiors that feel just familiar enough thanks to plenty of Florentine-made touches: Think glistening crystal chandeliers strung from the ceilings, classical statues dotted throughout the lobby and plush guest rooms, and paintings by modern-day master Luca Pignatelli.

To celebrate the landmark reopening, Robb Report sat down with Polizzi to discuss all things interiors. Read on to discover the biggest challenges of tackling such a massive redesign, from navigating trends to working with family.

Did you find it intimidating to redesign such a historic hotel?

Any redesign is slightly intimidating. There are so many directions you can take for the project, but you have to decide on a route and be brave enough to follow it through. A well-known historic building [like the Savoy] needs a sensitive touch, and we’ve tried to respect it.

We’ve used a wonderfully diverse group of artisans that work in glass, metal, wood, and plastic throughout the property—we wanted to incorporate as many local workshops as possible in the new design, and have done just that.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in renovating such an old structure?

We had a lot of small rooms at the Savoy, so the complete restructuring of the rooms and bathrooms was probably our biggest challenge. We had over 100 rooms, and now we just have 80, so we formed many junior suites and some very large suites. And we did all this work in only six months—which was a big challenge in itself.

Can you tell us a little bit more about these new suites? The Duomo Presidential Suite looks particularly over-the-top.

Well, first off it is much easier to design small spaces. I am so used to doing small or medium bedrooms that I know what I have to get in there. You need a desk, two comfortable chairs, a reading light, and maybe a bench at the bottom of the bed . . . so it’s quite easy. But when you’ve got something really large, and the Presidential Suite is large, it’s always difficult to decide how you want to play with the space.

One of my favorite details is in the suite’s big sitting room. We put big bookcases in, and then I chose all of the books. I love the idea of being able to pick up a book and read a bit, even if you are only there for a couple of days. We also added two big sofas into the sitting room and comfortable arm chairs. I mixed and matched some old pieces in there, as well.

Why did you tap Emilio Pucci to collaborate with you on this property?

It’s always nice working with an outside designer; they bring in new ideas, something different to mind. When you think of Pucci, you think of Florence. And Laudomia Pucci [Emilio’s daughter] is totally different from me—she used a lot of pinks and pale blues and blacks. She brought some freshness and fun to the design.

How do you approach trends when putting your designs together?

Thank god in interior design [trends] don’t change so quickly, so I try to design rooms that will look current for at least 10 years. I’m never too far out. I like a bit of modern and some traditional, and I try to always communicate the feeling of the country that each room is in. So hopefully when you’re in Browns, you feel like you’re in London and that you don’t wake up and think, “Where the hell am I?”

In Florence, I get to be a bit more playful, and I’ve used many pieces here that I actually probably couldn’t use in any other hotel—especially the wallpapers. Paint is easier to maintain, but because [the Savoy’s] rooms are very large, I’ve papered a lot of them. It just fills the room; as soon as you put wallpaper up, the room is already half dressed.

Does Instagram and social media ever play a role in your designs?

There is no use in not paying attention to [its role]. I fought it for a long time, but I have to go with it now. You have to know what’s really Instagram-worthy, and so I try to have something particularly photogenic in every place.

What is it like working so closely with your brother on the Savoy and other Rocco Forte hotels?

I don’t think I’ve ever had a big row with my brother, though of course we sometimes disagree. But in the end, he’s the boss. I find my corner, and he leaves me to do what I have to do, and I leave him to do what he has to do. We trust each other.

And now that the younger [generation of the family] have come in, I’m finding we all have something fresh to offer, something new. It’s really nice having family to work together, especially since we all have our own roles—but it’s quite nice bouncing ideas off of each other.

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