Multi-lingual Federico Toresi’s passion for travel and different cultures not only helps inform the interiors projects he leads, but is a perfect fit for international architecture and design practice, Aedas, which prides itself on being ‘built on the belief that great design can only be delivered by people with a deep social and cultural understanding of the communities they are designing for’.

Federico himself describes his offices in London as ‘really well-balanced, international, multi-cultural, with people who are well travelled and have worked in many countries’. With over 20 years’ design experience, he has worked closely with operators such as Fairmont, Ritz-Carlton, Hilton, Radisson and Jumeirah on projects across the UK, Europe, Russia, Asia, the Middle East, the Americas & North Africa.

Originally born in the cultural treasure trove that is Rome, Federico’s story encompasses not only the spectacular residential and hospitality projects he has worked on, but how his work led him to encounter Freddie Mercury’s kimono, and why church bells near where he currently lives in Kensington remind him of childhood in Italy’s capital city…

But, before we begin, we’d like to give Federico a warm welcome to the World Interiors News Awards 2015, for which he’ll be judging both Residential Interiors and Residential Development Interiors.

What appealed to you about becoming a judge in these two residential categories, and what will you be looking for in the winners?

Well, having worked in high-end residential for a few years now, especially when I was employed by Anouska Hempel, I’ve gained an absolute understanding that with residential interiors you’re not just creating a space, but also dressing it so it has a character. That character needs either to have impact, or run with the tastes of the user, and that is shaped by two very different things: it’s either a person commissioning you to create a home for them, or it’s a corporation that’s giving you a commission to create a home that a lot of people will like.

So, what will be interesting about the residential developments that I’ll be judging will be to see not only how the personality of whoever commissioned it transcribes into the design itself, but also how well it has been executed and how well it has been received. And, also on the technical front, to see that money has been spent wisely, and how the detailing has been applied to make sure it’s a successful development that doesn’t require any alterations, amendments or quick-fixes afterwards.

What’s the most enjoyable/exciting aspect of your current role as Director at Aedas Interiors in London?

We’re lucky enough to work in a very exciting part of London, and also with very exciting people and projects. The best thing about working in hospitality and residential is that you get to talk to a lot of people from all walks of life, many different nationalities, and you get constant exposure to other cultures and attitudes. We don’t really have a house-style, but design according to a brief and take our inspiration from so many wonderful people from all over the world. A lot of my work is not just about delivering the project, but also about gaining the trust of potential new clients.

Do you travel a lot as part of your role?

Yes, I’m in at least two other places every week, and not necessarily on these islands [the UK]. Plus, travelling is my passion, so I not only do it for work, which I thoroughly enjoy, but I do it for leisure. My wife and I spend a lot of our spare time in different places in the world, just exploring – we love it! Neither of us is from the UK so we’re used to travelling.
Most recently, my last work trip was to Switzerland. It has become almost my second home, as we have quite a few projects there, and I also love Switzerland as a country and have friends there. We travel out there at least once, often twice, a month to follow up projects and meet potential new clients.
The last pleasure trip was to Provence over Easter. I go to Russia quite often as well because of projects and family. And work takes me everywhere really – I’ve been to Chile and China and North America, South Africa, and all over Europe, although I’ve yet to touch North African soil. I’ve worked on four projects in Morocco now but somehow I’ve not had the opportunity to go there, and I’d love to.

Do you have a favourite private residential or residential development for Aedas, and what gives it the ‘wow’ factor for you?

We’ve just completed the design for some amazing apartments in in Southern China where luxury was key, but the budget was fairly middle-of-the-range. We’ve managed to design some incredible looking apartments that have a lot of European influence in them with just a slight Asian touch – which is desirable in the Chinese market where ‘European’ often equates with ‘kudos’.

What we’ve done is to play with materials and the use of very beautiful and clever detailing to add layering. So, for example, where there was going to be a plain marble wall, we decided to carve the stone instead – adding bit of art without buying any art. We also worked with a very, very good lighting company called Visual Energy, and the lighting is essentially curated and makes our work look even more beautiful.

We’re also looking at some larger volume urban developments in London, and that’s going to be quite an interesting task. We’re essentially designing two and three bedroom apartments that have to be different from everybody else’s two and three bedroom apartments. So we’re having a bit of fun with that at the moment!

As well as the residential sector, you also work extensively in hospitality interiors. You’ve expressed a particular enthusiasm for a Swiss project you headed up for Aedas, namely the gorgeous Montreux Jazz Café and Funky Claude’s Bar at the 5-star Fairmont Le Montreux Palace hotel in Montreux. A couple of questions on that – who is Funky Claude, and what do you like so much about the project personally?

The story goes back nearly 50 years. You know the Deep Purple song, ‘Smoke on the Water’? That was about Funky Claude – Claude Nobs – who was the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival. He sadly passed away just over two years ago in a skiing accident. The first editions of the Festival were held in the Montreux Casino, which caught fire and burned down during the event in 1971. Claude felt the Festival was too important to ditch after a few years of trying, and 45 years later was still running it with Quincy Jones.

The Claude Nobs Foundation and the Montreux Jazz Festival decided they wanted to bring his spirit back in the form of some spaces – and there was no better place than the Fairmont Le Montreux Palace, which is where Claude held his first meeting to set up the Festival. There’s a brand called the Montreux Jazz Café, which has outlets in Harrods and some world airports. These have a modern take on Claude’s vibe, so we were asked to essentially create the ‘mother’ of all these cafés that would be more curated and act as a platform for the rest of the brand.

The memorabilia in there is phenomenal. You’ve got Freddie Mercury’s kimono hanging on the wall, the largest library of live music recordings– which makes the Montreux Jazz Archive the only one in the world with UNESCO recognition – and photos of Claude with everyone he had played with over the years.

And do you like jazz?

Yes, my wife and I are jazz fans – we go to Ronnie Scott’s regularly and hunt down jazz festivals all over Europe – and finally managed Montreux last year too.

Before joining Aedas you were Studio Director at Anouska Hempel Design, working on a number of very high-end private residential projects and running the studio. What was it like working there, and if there’s one lesson you’ve taken away from it, what would that be?

I think that there are no boundaries to what you can achieve if you really believe in what you’re trying to do. By that I mean if a client comes in with a limited budget but great aspirations, you shouldn’t just knock him back. You should work with them to get to grips with what they’re trying to get to, and push really hard to make it work. Never give up at the first obstacle. There’s always a way to deliver.

Good communication, leadership and people skills seem to have been fundamental to both your current and past roles. What are the qualities you feel you possess that have enabled you to work with all stakeholders (even those with differing agendas) so successfully?

I think I relate to all the different parties quite easily because I’ve grown up in two different countries, where attitudes to life and professionalism can be quite different. But also I grew up in a very practical household and there was never anything we couldn’t do…so when I speak to stakeholders about money, or speak to people about technicalities, or making sure they understand the concept, I think I can lean towards them in a more personal way because I can hopefully understand their world a little bit.

Your childhood was spent growing up in Rome. With its fabulous architecture, art and culture, the city must have been a great influence on you. What were some of your most vivid memories of that time - a sight, a sound, a sensation that has stayed with you?

My formative years were spent in Rome, and there are a few things that will always stick with me. One is the light: the unique colour of the light and it softly reflecting off the buildings, and just the fact that there are more sunny days than not. It does something to your spirit. Then there’s always the sound of the midday church bells that ring around the city. When you heard those bells you knew you were going home from school soon and getting your lunch! Our school was next to about six churches so there was a midday concert every day! And yes, Rome has always been chaotic, but as soon as nighttime falls and all the lights go on, it’s just magical.

You and your family relocated to the UK when you were 14 years old and didn’t speak any English. Where did you first settle, and what were your immediate impressions of this country?

We came from the centre of Rome and moved out to the suburbs of London – from an apartment block to a detached home with a massive garden. So, I felt like I was on holiday – apart from the weather being so wet and cold all the time. My younger brother and I had loads of space to run around in, play football, build stuff and be outdoors - and we loved it, thought it was great. The days at school here were longer, meaning the weekends were free, whereas in Rome we finished at 12.30 but had school on Saturday too – so to us the weekends in London were huge, like a mini-holiday every week.

Who or what led you into studying architecture, or was it simply something you always felt destined to do?

I think I was always design-led – my father was in design and architecture – but I guess it was a three-way toss between going into languages, or a more technology-orientated field, or carrying on with design. I realised that because of my love of languages I wanted a job that I could travel with to find out more about the world, and architecture gave me that. It’s a job you can take anywhere. And having uprooted myself once, I could certainly do it again, so if I chose a profession that allowed me to do that, there would be a certain freedom that came with it.

You trained and qualified as an architect, but have always worked in interior design. Was that a conscious choice, or an organic progression?

The first job I had was at a firm that did a lot of fit outs for offices and banks – and also did architecture – but what I realised was that an interior design project takes about the tenth of the time an architectural project takes to get built, if not less. I’ve always been fairly impatient and I thought ‘I can get the same kicks out of building spaces in interiors as I can in architecture’. I really like the fact that I can shape what people sit on or touch, their environment. Interior design is certainly not decorating – you can shape the volumes around the person, affect their moods, assist their daily tasks - so there’s a lot of architecture in interior design, especially the way Aedas does it.

You’ve described hospitality as your calling. Why so?

I think the calling comes from the fact that I really enjoy entertaining people, and I’m very outgoing and sociable. I just enjoy designing spaces to have fun in. I love it because I get to go and play with the chefs in the kitchens, eat in restaurants I’ve designed, drink in the bars we’ve created. During my youth I worked as a waiter and a barman, and that means I understand a little bit more about back of house design too, which helps a lot.

You’ve designed and built projects on pretty much every continent (except Antarctica!) but never in your homeland, Italy. Is that something you’d like to rectify one day, and what would be your dream ‘Italian job’?

Absolutely. I think it would be nice to go back to my old country and bring back a lot of the knowledge I’ve built outside it, but to interpret it in an Italian way. Even though Italian hotels are very good at the hospitality and the welcome, the facilities, the way the spaces are geared, I think the market there hasn’t kept up pace with the rest of the world.

You met your wife, who is Russian, through an ex-client (now close friend) while you were working on a Hilton hotel project in Yaroslavl, Russia six years ago. We hear you’re learning Russian at the moment – what was the main motivation, and how are you getting on with what is reputedly a very tricky language to learn?

Well, it’s not a struggle, but it is very time-consuming. I can read quite a bit, I can understand a lot of what I’m listening to. Speaking is a bit more difficult, but I can now travel there on my own and get around. I can see the menu and – given enough time – I can understand what’s on it, although after 45 minutes they bring out the English one anyway!

Aside from your native Italian, flawless English, and some Russian, do you speak any other languages?

I have good conversational French, my German is better than my Russian, and I can make myself understood in Spanish and Portuguese – although not fluent, I wouldn’t get lost with any of them.

And when you’re not travelling around the globe working or visiting friends and family, what are your hobbies here in the UK?

the weekends our rainy day refuge is the V&A - it’s virtually on our doorstep. But we really love walking around London. We don’t have a car, and we don’t like to use public transport because it reminds us of commuting, so we walk – perhaps 15 or 20 kilometres in a day - and find beautiful places to eat and drink, or a museum or outdoor space to rest on the way. London’s smaller than you think.

Gail Taylor