Going Global: An Interview With Studio Munge

We recently had the opportunity to interview Alessandro Munge, the principal designer of Studio Munge. This Toronto-based design firm has earned a global presence in recent years for its bold, innovative vision. 

At what point did you realize that you wanted to pursue design as a career? What was the first thing you ever designed?

I started my career very early on helping my mother with her interior business. Back then, my parents owned a small residential drapery business and at a very young age, I was brought along to client meetings. It was there that I witnessed the concept of building a business by sewing a great idea, where craftsmanship mattered and made a difference. It was there as well I first experienced a client’s emotional response to a completed project. I was fascinated by the concept of materializing a vision for design: starting from design on paper to being able to see it being put together beautifully.

At 14 years old, while waiting for my mother to coordinate fabric swatches, I developed my first sketch. Her client noticed the work and to my surprise asked if she could build my creation, and this began a new trend. Eventually, I started mixing sketches and the creation of narratives within my parents’ business strategy; it felt like combining the two would make a great interior design service. I quickly grew passionate about architecture and design; I realized my love was picturing people in three dimensional spaces, creating emotional reactions to those spaces.

Your firm has been having more and more of an international presence over the past few years. In which countries are you currently developing projects?

We are so proud to have transitioned from local to global; sixty percent of our work produced is international, a number that is growing exponentially year after year. North America is our strongest foothold; from East Coast to West Coast we do a lot of work all over the States, especially in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Las Vegas. Asia is our second strongest market; we have many projects on the go in China and Hong Kong where we’re working on two Shangri-La and other high-end residential developments and luxury hospitality projects with many of the countries’ best developers.
What about projects closer to home – what are you working on here in Toronto?

We have something very special brewing here in Toronto and the world is noticing! We are both thrilled and proud to be active participants in Toronto’s cultural and urban development; the 6ix is about to experience a wave of Studio Munge-designed Luxury hotels and F&B venues. We now have six incredible hotels in the pipeline to open between 2017-2020 including Charles Khabouth’s Bisha, two Hilton properties (one of which is Canada’s very first Canopy by Hilton), the Park Hyatt Toronto, and a very exciting 5-star newcomer yet to be publicly announced.

We’ve heard that you create models out of paper in the studio when you start ideation on a project. Can you elaborate on your design process?

I have been known to build spaces out of scrap paper to communicate it in the 3rd dimension. It isn’t planned; it usually happens when I want my staff or client to be as immersed in the idea as I am … I’ll do anything to sell a good idea! But models aren’t a distinctive process in our studio  what is, though, is the creation of a unique, experience-focused narrative after extensive research. One of our strengths as design studio is our deep understanding of our clients’ business needs and their guests’ expectations. When designing a branded hotel, for example, we always start with immersion: as a team, we visit the brand’s most significant properties around the world to extract its iconic essence and determine what the guest’s expected experience will be. All of this research informs our preliminary concept package, the frame inside of which our creativity can blossom. The character of the property is then translated into a unique narrative through a series of emotional touch points, a series of memorable moments that encourage guests to interpret the brand through their overall experience. We want that emotive journey to be consistent from the moment they exit their taxi and enter the lobby, to the check-in experience and right down to when they touch the handle of their hotel room door.

What is your design concept for the rooms at the Oceanwide
 Plaza in Los Angeles?

The Park Hyatt Los Angeles narrative is very much informed by the guest’s high sophistication level and the incredible location. We were very inspired by the gorgeous color gradients produced by the sun rising and setting on the city and its wide horizon; we infused those gorgeous colors throughout.

Given the troubles with location and layout, did you have initial reservations about taking on the redesign of Toronto’s Sound Academy?

We walked into an existing venue that simply didn’t function for the new needs and demands Charles Khabouth put on us to figure out. The brief was to create the best venue that could function as a nightclub, concert hall, and corporate venue. Add in an insane deadline that made the rest of the project seem very easy. The venue, now called Rebel, went through so much more than a redesign; it was completely reimagined from a structural and experiential perspective. We flipped it 360 and turned this nonfunctional, decrepit space into the most incredible world class hospitality venue, with a stage capable of hosting the biggest performers. This two level, full-service, adaptable space, with its breathtaking city and lake views, offers the perfect setting for Canada’s largest nightclub, a corporate day meeting space, and a concert hall. An incredible amount of planning, passion, energy, and money was invested into the walls, the sound and light systems, and the custom FF&E pieces to create more than an event space it is an unforgettable immersive experience.

What do you think are the best tools for pushing condo sales in such a crowded, competitive market?

Toronto is an extremely competitive market. Buyers are informed and have more than multiple options; this is actually a great thing for the city! It pushes developers to always re-evaluate and up their offering. If your product isn’t special, it’s just not going to sell … Layouts, finishes, amenities, services, all of those are being upgraded and reinvented. To engage with the potential buyer, nothing beats a high-quality presentation center with well-designed model suites. Buying a prebuild is a daunting experience; it’s important to give the future owners an opportunity to experience those design touch points, to immerse themselves into the community and lifestyle they will be part of. It’s not only a reassuring but exciting experience for the buyers to walk those centers and project themselves into the space they will be purchasing.

How do you balance a busy career with a young family?

The beautiful thing is: I don’t have to balance. Balancing feels like a compromise somehow; I’m so thankful I have the most understanding and loving family one can possibly dream of. They are so supportive of my burning passion for design, and they allow me to fully embrace it. Plus, they genuinely like what I do and gladly participate in my design escapades. In return, whenever I can, I give them my undivided attention and affection.

What does a day in the life of Alessandro Munge look like?  

Every day is different, running around the studio or travelling the world meeting clients, visiting projects. A few elements are constant, though: family, design, and fitness. Wherever I am, I always stay connected with my loved ones. You’ll always see me doodling on a piece of paper and I work out daily to stay energized and grounded.

What in your mind would be your dream project? 

In 2016, we signed some of the best contracts a design studio can dream of: two Park Hyatt, two Shangri-La, two Hilton, a Nobu. We’ve as well completed our first hotel in Brooklyn, New York! It’s a beautiful feeling when dream and reality merge into one. Next on my check list is completing my own home (which should be done this year), a modern art gallery, a conceptual boutique hotel, and a penthouse in NYC.

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