Olga Polizzi Gives London’s Oldest Hotel a Ravishing Reboot
A staple for the sophisticated set, Brown’s Hotel is undergoing a sprucing up of its 115 guest rooms and suites, and its bright new patterns have already been generating buzz around town and on social media. “I’m sort of in my wallpaper period,” says Olga Polizzi as she walks through some of her recent renovations at the Mayfair establishment, founded in 1837, which owns bragging rights as London’s first hotel. “I’ve had my gray-and-beige period . . . and I’ve nearly kicked the habit.”
Earlier this year, Polizzi, who is the director of design and deputy chairman of Rocco Forte Hotels, Brown’s parent company, oversaw the renovation of the hotel’s reception area. She commissioned the British artist Adam Ellis to create an exclusive hand-painted wallpaper that features whimsical, oversize wisteria in a harmonious pattern of blue and mint green hues. “I wanted something very original in reception,” she explains, “and I wanted it overblown—really large scale. I think overscaling is always better than underscaling.”
Polizzi’s sense of proportion certainly works. She not only enlarged the space by knocking down walls to a former storage room in order to create a new, corner-hugging dedicated concierge stand but also leveraged Ellis’s original print to open up an otherwise traditional Georgian-style townhouse with an airy sense of a British garden. Polizzi enhanced the impression of the outdoors even further by installing a new Belvedere glass roof, which floods the reception area with light. An ornate Venetian-style chandelier dripping in clear and green glass of varying cuts and sizes looks as if it was custom-made for the space, when in fact it was a fortuitous find. “I went absolutely everywhere to find a chandelier,” recalls Polizzi, who is known to scour both antique stores and art fairs in a relentless search for original pieces that would be appropriate for any of the jewels in the Rocco Forte crown. “Finally we found this rather mad one, but it’s rather nice. It goes with the wallpaper.”
Polizzi bears a resemblance to a 1980s-era Vanessa Redgrave and has a certain patrician aura about her, but she is a sleeves-rolled-up businesswoman who is immediately familiar and warm. Raised in London to parents of Italian-British heritage, Polizzi is part of hotel royalty. Her father, Charles Forte, Baron Forte of Ripley, was the founder of the British hotel and restaurant company Forte Group, which, in its prime, owned some of the world’s most venerable five-star hotels, including the Plaza Athénée and George V in Paris and the Ritz in Madrid. Lord Forte’s empire faced a hostile takeover in the 1990s that eventually left his only son, Sir Rocco Forte, to reinvigorate the family name and build a hotel company from the ground up. Sir Rocco, the only male of six siblings, was able to enlist but one sister—Olga—to join him. The two have been evolving the family’s storied name with a succession of storied properties ever since.
Back at Brown’s, on a wet, wintry London day, the freshly revamped ground-floor restaurant, Charlie’s, exudes a bright, almost tropical escape from the dampness outside. Again, it’s all in the wallpaper. Polizzi commissioned another custom print of plant fronds and soaring birds to add a certain splash to the space. The restaurant proved difficult because she had to keep the original wood paneling everywhere in order to preserve the distinctly English essence of the room. “The only thing was to do this frieze of color,” she states, “and wallpaper immediately dresses a room.”
She also cleared out a linear wooden banquette that used to dominate the center of the room and divided the restaurant into three new parts: a back, slightly more private area; a comfortable lounge and bar at the front; and a contained middle room, which fosters intimacy so that guests don’t feel lost in a long space. She lined the walls with new semicircular banquettes that show off a splashy mix of scenic prints and a solid velvet. She installed three impressive busts by the modern British stone sculptor Emily Young that had originally been purchased years ago for a different Rocco Forte Hotels property. “When we sold Manchester,” Polizzi says, of the sculptures’ former home, “we said, ‘Well, we’re not selling Emily Young.’ And so now they look rather nice here.”
Across from Charlie’s is the enlarged Donovan Bar, named after Terence Donovan, the famous English photographer of the ’60s who also happened to be one of the hotelier’s close friends. Here, the ornately trimmed traditional walls are finished with oversize black-and-white prints of everyone from Twiggy to models in Hardy Amies fashions. The room’s color palette combines British racing green with tones of white and gray, in a nod to Donovan’s work.
The back bar itself has been redone in glass and gold, with a striking green-tinged glass countertop that gives the illusion of water glimmering in an oversize photographer’s wet tray. “These tables I’m very proud of,” Polizzi says, pointing to the low-level bar tables throughout. She secured the Florence-based manufacturer Il Bronzetto to forge the glass tops and then fit them on custom brass bases that have been modeled on the legs of an antique wooden table Polizzi was fond of. The tourmaline color of the Aida velvet upholstery by Pierre Frey picks up on the green-blue tints of the glass that’s everywhere.
Arriving upstairs in the hotel’s premier Kipling Suite—so named for English author Rudyard Kipling, who famously wrote The Jungle Book while in residence at Brown’s—the first thing you notice is a subtle wrought-iron monkey that hangs high and to the left of the double-door entry, a design touch that pays immediate homage to the suite’s namesake. “I always try to do something a bit quirky,” Polizzi says, “something that makes people smile in the rooms.” Another obvious “Kiplingish” (her own adjective) mark of the suite is its signature wallpaper, a tropical-meets-British-green print by Lewis & Wood that could almost be an original from the William Morris archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Though she found it off the rack—or, on the roll, as it were—Polizzi had it customized for the Kipling. The original print was in a smaller scale, which she had increased to a medium-size scale for the hallway and then to an even larger scale for the bedroom.
The shift in scaling has a great effect—not so much trompe l’oeil, but a definite trick of the eye that holds your interest as you transition into the bedroom. The spacious hallway boasts a Swedish-style table Polizzi sourced at the Decorative Antiques Fair in Battersea, and “railing” lamps that she had custom-designed using old railings with lampshades fashioned on top (the railings being a “very British” thing). Contemporary sconces from Porta Romana function as wall lighting and sculptural works of art in their own right.
The Kipling Suite has no shortage of design-element delights, from its cheery wallpaper to the original array of ornamental pieces Polizzi handpicked everywhere from antique fairs to her favorite dealer in Sussex. A strikingly shaped Italian-style lamp in the bedroom is just the right shade of blue to complement the overriding greens and yet not clash with them; she originally purchased it for herself but had to forfeit it when nothing else worked in the room. The opulent bathroom, clad in gray-veined white Arabescato marble, is punctuated by ornate gold vanity wall lights; a contemporary sculptural shell wall light from Porta Romana hangs like a work of art. Across from the freestanding soaking tub, two antique wooden chairs were sourced in East Hoathly, then re-covered with terry cushions.
With floor-to-ceiling windows throughout, views over Mayfair’s Albemarle Street, furniture by Julian Chichester, and sumptuous silk curtain fabrics by Manuel Canovas, the hotel’s location is central to the suite’s design. “Like all of our rooms at Brown’s Hotel,” Polizzi says, “we designed the Kipling so you can feel that you are in London.”
She maintained the original plasterwork on the ceiling and walls in the suite’s spacious sitting room and sourced new timber flooring throughout. The classically appointed parlor-style sitting room features antique busts and stools, but also giant contemporary artwork from auction at Christie’s. Polizzi, a graduate of art school herself, can spot antique alabaster bowls and know exactly how they will look mounted as ceiling light fixtures. (Two of them brighten the suite—one in the hallway, the other in the bathroom.) She likes mixing old and new, is a fan of juxtaposing one sofa in a solid color and the other in a pattern or print, and can repurpose just about any fabric she’s saved over the years to revive a chair simply by adding a new front or back.
“People always ask, ‘Who are you designing for?’” she observes, sipping an espresso on one of the sofas in the Kipling Suite. “And at the end of the day, I’m designing for myself. I think, If I like it, some of the people will like it. Maybe not everybody, but I can’t design in the abstract. . . . It’s for everybody. It’s for families, it’s for young, it’s for the old, so it’s never extreme. Maybe I should be a bit more extreme?” Or maybe not, Ms. Polizzi.