Above Image: The Sala delle Dame, featuring the owner’s collection of female portraiture.
When Pamela Babey arrived at Villa Passalacqua on Lake Como earlier this year, among the first things she noticed were the windows above the Grand Stair. Where walled-up recesses had once blocked out the light, newly hung Murano chandeliers could now be seen at their twinkling best. It was just one of many happy discoveries she made upon returning for the first time to see the Villa since its transformation began, just when Italy was shutting down in the early days of the pandemic. It continued, at a distance, until it reopened as a luxury 24-suite hotel in June 2022. This week, it was named the number one hotel in the world by the World’s 50 Best Hotels.
San Francisco design firm BAMO was charged with reimagining the interiors of this 18th-century neoclassical villa and the adjacent structures when it was acquired at auction in 2018 by famed Como hoteliers the De Santis family. Throughout its long existence as a private residence, it typified the sort of stately Italian retreat where nobles could while away the languorous summer months amid a coterie of enchanted guests; everyone from Vincenzo Bellini to Winston Churchill slumbered beneath its stuccoed ceilings. That spirit endures in Passalacqua’s latest incarnation, where fragrant terraced gardens form the arcadian setting for a property that seems to exist in perfect harmony with its past. “You are there in a creation that is not meant to disturb, but to transform you and give you a little view of history,” Babey observes.
The entry foyer of the Palazzo, a Villa space featuring the spa and eight guest rooms. The Sala Ovale, a grand room tailored to seating four couples intimately on banquettes. Pamela Babey on site, admiring the light and the antique marquetry floor. She shares, “Even the small spaces were full of energy.”
In the course of their many meetings, it became apparent that Valentina De Santis and her parents had a crystal-clear vision for Passalacqua. Shortly before the lockdowns began, Babey and her longtime design partner Steve Henry arrived bearing suitcases brimming with fabric and paint swatches. What followed was a rare immersive sojourn of ten days on-site with the owners, during which they meticulously planned out each room down to the last sconce.
As Babey notes, “A big part of our job at BAMO is that we really design for the client. You have to listen to them and learn and read what they want. Then you have to develop it a little bit beyond what they expect.”
Babey’s own love of Italy means that her connections here run deep—she’s already respected for projects like the Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli on Lake Garda. “The nice thing about using artisans is that the contacts grow and grow as you work with people,” she says. There were opportunities to delve into the archives of Rubelli, which produced a range of textiles, including a special Voile de Como, to complement the unique palette of each suite. Upon waking, guests can glimpse lake views framed by taffeta drapes woven at the local silk mills. When night falls, Fortuny lanterns light the way to beds made up with the softest Beltrami birch-fiber sheets.
The level of detail and respect for the historic bones of the building are evident in every corner. From hand-painted Bordoni leather tables to engraved mirror-trumeau cabinets created by the Venetian master glassmakers of AAV Barbini, Passalacqua is the apotheosis of refined Italian craftsmanship placed in the service of good living. Nothing is redundant, each room revealing a carefully curated cache of antique furniture, prints, and objets d’art that feel like they’ve always belonged here. Even modern amenities manage to blend in effortlessly, such as the vintage-style steamer trunks by Bottega Conticelli that cleverly conceal televisions at the foot of the beds.
Anyone who has spent time on Lake Como will be familiar with the mutable quality of the light, and how the vast glistening spectacle of its waters can transform from one moment to the next. Passalacqua seems to distill something of that magic within its walls. It’s there in the polished Breccia Pontificia marble bathrooms and the soft sheen of damask headboards. Those seeking sweet repose will certainly find it here, but dressed in the sort of warm familiarity that invites you to return time and again. As Babey remarks, “Other hotels draw a crowd. This draws a little family.”