As Japanese accents appear in Oslo and Italian touches take root in Tokyo, a familial Lebanese home has been rebuilt following a devastating fire. Around the world, custodians are connecting heritage stories and traditional hospitality with modern sensibilities.
A cheerful hum fills the air as Monocle visits Villa Inkognito on a bright spring morning. A few days before the official opening, almost every room of this former private residence from 1870 is being tended by people tweaking light fixtures, adjusting tapestries or perfecting bowls of pomegranates.
The property sits next to Sommerro, the spectacular 231-room hotel that opened last year in the art deco former HQ of Norway’s state energy company in Oslo’s West End. By contrast, Inkognito’s 11 rooms, run by the same team, are places for relaxation and privacy.
Built by architect Thøger Binneballe as an office, the building hosted the Algerian embassy from 1980. As the hotel’s name suggests, it is supposed to feel mysterious and there is indeed an atmosphere of delightful discretion here – it’s part fairy tale, part Orient Express.
The supervisor, (dubbed the lady of the house) Deborah Wigardt, guides Monocle past interiors that are a mix of classic Norwegian, art nouveau with hints of arts and crafts, and a bit of Japonisme, all rooted in the history of the building, which was brought to life by interior design company GrecoDeco.
Start your day by ordering eggs benedict and coffee in the cosy open kitchen (Sommerro will provide chefs on request), then catch up on the news in the blue snug before working up a sweat in the private gym. An evening at one of the seven eateries at Sommerro follows, which you can enter via a direct – and characteristically discreet – passageway that links the two buildings.
This passageway is also handy if you would like to swim in Sommerro’s wellness area, Vestkantbadet, which features a spectacular restored walrus mosaic by Per Krohg. Back at Villa Inkognito, have a cheeky nightcap in the Lily Pad room or indulge your curiosity in the Poppy Library (books are on loan from the National Museum library) before you curl up in the comfort of your bed.
Artist Rosie Mennem’s hand-painted and botanically inspired work is on show throughout the villa. Mennem also took cues from Norwegian landscapes to create bespoke decorative pieces that appear across the hotel’s cabinets and woodwork.
To get a sense of the overwhelming scale of Tokyo, it always pays to view it from above. And where better to see the city’s magical jumble than from the new Bulgari Hotel Tokyo, an amber-hued oasis that occupies the top five floors of the city’s latest skyscraper, Tokyo Midtown Yaesu. With its basement walkway to Tokyo Station, busy shopping and office floors, and even an elementary school, this new development is a microcosm of modern Tokyo. For Milan-based architectural studio Antonio Citterio Patricia Viel (ACPV), responsible for the design of all eight of Bulgari’s hotels, it was an irresistible proposition.
“We liked that the project maintained the complexity of the old neighbourhood,” says Patricia Viel. “To build a liveable place, you need a mixture of real life and aspirational life.” If the school provides the reality, the hotel brings the aspiration and more than a touch of Roman glamour. Doors slide open, the Bulgari scent wafts through the air and black-and-white photos of film stars at Bulgari’s Via Condotti shop adorn the walls. Jewels appear in cases, including a signature diamond-studded Serpenti watch and a jewelled brooch made in 1972 that boasts an image of Mount Fuji.
The hotel’s colour palette is all warm caramels, rich saffrons and deep browns – a deliberate contrast to the concrete world outside. “The colours in Japan are always a little dusty, very sophisticated,” says Viel. “Tokyo is a very medium-grey kind of environment, which I like very much, but we thought we’d bring some colour into this picture.” There’s Italian travertine, Japanese wood, custom Italian mosaics and handblown Murano lights. And, everywhere, those Tokyo vistas.
Design cues are drawn from Japan and from Bulgari’s own story, which started when Greek silversmith Sotirio Bulgari opened a shop in Rome in 1884. The elm wood lobby portals echo the entrance of Bulgari’s Via Condotti flagship as well as the bell-shaped windows of a Japanese Zen temple. Bulgari’s classic fan-shaped “Diva” motif, inspired by the ancient Roman baths of Caracalla, looks like a traditional Japanese pattern when repeated here on mosaics and silk walls.
The hotel has 98 rooms, some with views of the Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo Skytree, others overlooking the central station and the Imperial Palace beyond. There’s a 416 sq m suite with its own kitchen and gym, artworks, and a headboard by 17th-century Kyoto textile-maker Hosoo. The spa has nine treatment rooms, steam, sauna and hot baths, and a gym put together by London trainer Lee Mullins with an outdoor terrace. The 25-metre-long swimming pool, lined with emerald mosaic tiles, is big enough for proper lengths but has cabanas for snoozing poolside too.
After spending his childhood in the gardens of his great-grandfather’s mansion, Bahjat el-Darwiche was determined to preserve it for the next generation. Sadly, in 2014, a devastating fire swept the family home in the southern Lebanese village of Zefta and destroyed the roof along with everything inside.
Walking through the ashes, says Bahjat, was “painful”. “But my thinking was: no matter what, I’m going to rebuild it better than it was,” he says. “I want my father to see the house that he fought so hard to protect standing tall again.”
The rebuild came together with the help of architect Simone Kosremelli of the American University of Beirut. “My great-grandfather was avant garde,” says Bahjat. “So I decided to do the same, to build for the next 100 years and preserve the spirit of the house while increasing its comfort for living.” Kosremelli incorporated new features such as skylights and wooden beams throughout, and extended the house to create seven spacious new rooms around the cobbled courtyard.
“People thought we were crazy investing so much at a time when the country is going down and running costs are going up,” says Bahjat. “We decided not to leave after the disasters here. Many people have decided that their children have no future in this country. We’re trying to swim against the tide, set the highest standards of service and inspire hope.”
The process took six years, much of it spent sourcing furnishings. Just one armoire survived the fire – the rest of the appointments are a love letter to Levantine design across the decades: sweeping art deco mirrors sit alongside Damascene bureaux with mosaic woodwork and inlaid mother-of-pearl; carpets from Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar coat the stone floors; and Parisian auction rooms supplied finishing touches, such as two Jean Royère Yo-Yo armchairs. A pair of chandeliers by Italian designer Gio Ponti dominate the dining room – after falling in love with the first, it took Bahjat years to find its partner.
“We don’t promote; it’s all word of mouth,” says Ghada Darwiche, Dar Zefta’s guest liaison and Bahjat’s wife. She takes the bookings, discussing menus and plans for the stay. But not all guests are right for the house and she’s selective about bookings. “We’re not a hotel; people who come here want to connect with the house, with its history, with us. It’s a special environment.”
Guests range from Lebanese visitors seeking to escape the buzz of the city to diplomats exploring further afield than the capital, while architects, designers, artists and musicians are regular visitors, attracted by the architecture and decor. The couple use the garden for pop-up exhibitions – Bahjat has many canvases stashed around the house by up-and- coming Lebanese artists who he supports.
Lebanon’s south is best known as the home of the militant group Hezbollah and the site of multiple wars fought against Israel. Bahjat wants to show the gentler side of the area, whose meadows, orchards and rolling hills foster a sense of timeless relaxation. “For many of our guests, it’s their first time in the south. This is a way of giving back. With a project like this, we can provide local employment to inspire new ideas.”
“The house isn’t totally finished,” says Ghada, sipping green tea as the afternoon light filters through leaves of the apricot tree overhead. “Because, as people come, they will bring their stories with them and build memories here, and that will become part of the fabric of the house. It will keep growing with every new visitor.”
Lebanese dining is always special but at Dar Zefta, it’s unforgettable. Averse to the impersonality of buffets, meals here reflect the warmth of Levantine hospitality. Lunches and dinners feature everything from silky kibbeh nayyeh and spiced Levantine lamb tartare to maqluba, melt-in-the-mouth aubergine, roasted tomatoes, courgettes, chicken and crunchy potatoes, all spilling over mounds of stock-rich rice. Every ingredient comes from the house’s orchards or the nearby merchants that Dar Zefta has called upon for generations. The secret? Zainab, the chef, a mother of four from the nearby village.