A contemporary take on the traditions of the Lombardy region, at Hotel Il Sereno Lago di Como local design skills have been embraced to celebrate the area's long history of furniture making.
It was Lombardy where Italian furniture manufacturers laid the foundations for what has become one of the country’s most important manufacturing regions – and the world's for that matter too. Less than an hour away is Milan, host to the Milan Furniture Fair where the international design community meets every April, and where some of the biggest fashion and design houses call home. Although blessed with the awesome natural beauty of the surrounding Italian Alps, it is Lombardy's culturally rich design history that has helped to shape the magic of Lake Como.
Working with celebrated Milan-based architect Patricia Urquiola and the region’s best furniture makers including B&B Italia and Glas Italia, Hotel Il Sereno stands out as a champion of the region's design heritage. more space spoke with hotelier Luis Contreras about the ideas and design process behind the making of Il Sereno, and what luxury and travel mean to him today.
more space: The name Il Sereno, could you please tell us about its provenance?
Luis Contreras: The name actually comes from the name of the founder of the St Barth’s hotel. Lino Ventura, the French actor, and his good friend from St Tropez, were the creators of the “Sereno Beach Hotel” in St Barth over three decades ago. When we purchased the property, we liked the name Sereno, it gives the meaning of peace and serenity that we have in our properties. What we did was gallicise the name and call it Le Sereno. And when we decided to do a property in Italy I had no doubt the name had to be Il Sereno. Hopefully in a few years time we will have The Sereno and El Sereno…where? We don’t know yet, but we are working on it.
I understand Sereno Hotels is a family business, what skills do you all bring to the group?
Most definitively a family business and I think that changes everything in a hotel. Professionally managed hotels are all right and good, but there is a clear conflict between the long term and the short term; and an even bigger conflict between the management and the ownership which is more often than not two different companies.
We are a family of builders. Mom, dad, a sister and brothers are all either architects or engineers. It is obviously not easy to reach consensus sometimes, but we hope that it is visible that the passion that a family applies to its property cannot be compared to the colder approach of a corporation.
In Sereno we build, own and manage. When we’re building, we are not looking for shortcuts because we will live with the results for many years. And when managing, we don’t care about making a few more dollars overcharging for a drink. For us the value of the hotel is not the results of any particular year; the value is the long term value, which can only come from repeat guests and customer satisfaction. Here the interests of the clients and the ownership are perfectly aligned, and we hope that it shows.
When did you open your first hotel?
The first hotel was the Ritz Plaza Hotel in South Beach opened by my father in the late eighties. The Ritz was the first gut-renovation of an historic hotel in Miami Beach. The South Beach of the 1980s was very different from what it is today, and the Ritz was one of the pioneers in bringing a positive change.
How would you describe the personalities of Le Sereno and Il Sereno?
The personality of each comes from where the hotel is. When we had a white canvas to create a hotel in St Barth, we were Inspired by the style and energy of St Barth and its magical contradiction of luxury and simplicity. That is what we tried to build in concrete, wood and glass. In Italy, we had the magnificent views and the elegance of northern Italy, coupled with the incredible design energy of nearby Milan and the know-how and craftsmanship of carpenters, stone masons and cabinet makers who crafted the hotel.
You have worked with designers Christian Liagre and most recently Patricia Urquiola, what do you look for in a designer?
I guess that we look for compatibility with our vision, coupled of course with talent, which is almost impossible to define but is easy to recognise. Liaigre’s style defined Le Sereno and is perfect for St Bath. When we came to Como, just 45 minutes from Milan and a stones throw away from many of the best furniture makers in the world, we wanted to go with someone from Milan who worked with the manufacturers from the area. The only phone call we made was to Patricia Urquiola, and we were very fortunate that she accepted the challenge.
You have described Sereno Hotels as a combination of "fantastic destination, incredible views, large rooms, exquisite design and a business model centred around creating loyal customers". I also observe great provenance and authenticity – is there also something very personal and more philosophical too?
There certainly is something very, very personal. These projects are projects of love, from the designers, the team, and our family. We live these projects when they are being built, and then we live in the hotels for the operation. The philosophy is to build something beautiful, special. To know that our clients are well travelled, sophisticated; and yet we have to impress them while maintaining our simplicity and humility. Managing these contradictions makes Sereno.
What took you to Lake Como and how important was it to rub shoulders with historic houses like the Villa Pliniana and all the wonderful Italian history?
We were looking for a new project after the success of Le Sereno Villas in St Barth. I was lucky to meet a husband and wife couple of architects from Milan in the pool of Le Sereno, both clients and design lovers. We had a nice conversation and I gave them my business card. More than a year later, I got a call from Italy telling me that there is a property for sale in Lake Como! That’s how the Italian adventure started. Villa Pliniana came later Since the very first time I came to the lake I fell in love with Pliniana; the majestic façade, the loggia, the huge waterfalls. The renovation of Pliniana happened at the same time we were building Il Sereno. My curiosity was piqued as to what they were doing and whether we could be part of it. In the end, we managed to acquire control if this majestic property and Patricia Urquiola put all her talents and infinite energy to mix her modern style with the Villas classic interiors.
Can you describe the collaboration you had with Patricia Urquiola, was it the first time you had worked together – and what design ideas did she bring that define Il Sereno?
This was the first time we worked with Patricia. What ideas did she bring? I can’t answer that… there are too many. Patricia is an endless source of original ideas and has a fantastic energy that can be channelled to create beautiful things. I guess if I am forced to choose one thing, I would say her mastery of textures and materials. Especially her brilliant choice of Ceppo Lombardo as the stone for the façade that was later chosen for interiors and even furniture.
Another brilliant idea was her use of the sliding wooden shades in the façade of the building that allow the client to have shade without really knowing it also changes the look of the building’s façade. For me, it’s like a Piet Mondrian painting. It is a really fabulous idea that I have to admit I didn’t fully understand when she first presented it.
What was your role in the design process – and for you personally, what are some of your favourite things about Il Sereno’s design?
Me and my family provide the vision of what we want, and then allow the talent of the designer to create, while maintaining certain constraints in regards to product, budget... It is a very iterative and fun process, especially if working with a group so talented as Patricia and her team. We would spend hours going back and forth on decisions of layouts, materials, spaces, volumes…
There is real beauty in the connection your hotels have with nature. How does Lake Como change the Il Sereno experience across the seasons?
The connection of the hotels with nature is one of the main propositions for staying at a Sereno Hotel. The other main one is service. We hope we can make a beautiful hotel; but we have the humility to understand that our hotel would never be as beautiful as what is outside the window which is the same in St Barth and the extraordinary Cul de Sac Lagoon. So the focus for the project always has to be how it connects to the environment and the landscape. That is the starting point for everything else.
What is luxury to you and has it changed over the years?
Difficult question. Luxury is feeling great, being at peace, being surprised, and being very comfortable. Luxury is not a golden faucet, a guy wearing white gloves, or someone you don’t know interrupting you to ask if “everything is OK?”.
As to how it has changed, I’d answer with the old adage, plus ça change… plus c’est la meme chose. Sure we need to have many plugs next to the bed now, whereas not so long ago we spent a fortune hiding the plugs… but that is not luxury. The relaxed service that we give, with a usually very young, but very attentive and motivated staff, can be described as being different from the service in, for example, one of the old grand hotels in London; but the end is the same.
I imagine that you are an avid traveller, what do you look for when you travel?
I do travel a lot, and even though I personally have to travel a lot for work; whenever there is a little free time we always travel as a family. I look for either something familiar that I can’t normally find at home, any trip around Italy to eat an extraordinary local specialty and drink their wine, for example, or the opposite, something new that shows us how other people live and hopefully enlarges our horizon.
Where have you travelled to recently and where will you go next?
I write this as I board a plane flying to St Barth; and I am just arriving from the fantastic Bachanal of the white truffle festival in Alba… one of my favorite weekends of the year. Great fun, lots to do, amazing wines, incredible landscapes, and of course, Tajarin with truffles!
Thank you Luis.
Il Sereno Lago di Como was designed by Studio Patricia Urquiola who collaborated with local furniture makers including B&B Italia and Glas Italia. The Sereno Hotels group is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World.