There’s always a story behind luxury travel that usually involves somebody’s dream. Part of the traveller’s experience, is becoming part of, and immersion in that dream.
This is true of possibly the most unique villa on Lake Como. The heyday of villa construction on the lake was the turn of last century, when literally thousands of Liberty Villas were built. Singularly unique are mid-Century villas designed by a world renown architect. Such is the story of Villa Ponti, 7kms above Bellagio in the centre of the lake.
When Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, German forces occupied most of Northern Italy. Life in Milan was tough and dangerous. For Signore Fossati, a wealthy Milanese industrialist, it was past time to get his wife and children to safety. He installed his family in a rented house in the picturesque town of Civenna, overlooking Lake Como, to wait out the war.
A year later, while having his afternoon aperitif, the barman told him that a nearby block of land, with the best views Lake Como has to offer, was on the market. He met the owner within the hour and a handshake deal was sealed.
Gio Ponti, Italian architectural icon, founder of the world’s foremost architectural magazine, Domus, and family friend of the Fossatis, became engaged. To capture the spirit of the site, which floats in the sky, often above the clouds, Signore Fossati decided to build an ocean liner.
This theme was close to Ponti’s heart, who was also famous for designing transatlantic ship interiors. So the Domus architects incorporated ship funnels, lights, wood panelling and marble flooring into the landlocked ocean liner, sailing on the edge of a cliff dropping steeply down the forested hill to the lake.
It took two years of clever engineering and hard work for the three-story holiday house to be launched. The ship metaphor is captured by the curved living areas, with sleeping areas in angular cubes, joined by the spine of a central spiral staircase.
Surrounding the house are several acres of gardens, including a cedar forest, creating a lush, completely private enclave. The 180-degree views of what many regard as the world’s most beautiful lake are simply jaw-dropping.
The family spent every weekend and all holidays at the villa until the children were grown, married or moved away. Gradually the treasure of Signore Fossati fell into disrepair, becoming all but abandoned.
A few years ago, three Australians, including a best-selling author, found themselves searching Italy for a European holiday home, to both use and rent out. During numerous expeditions over four years, they looked round Rome in the centre, in Sicily, Florence and Venice, but could not escape the magnetic force of Lake Como, located an hour north of Milan.
They had in mind a traditional Italian villa with frescoes, marble statues and Juliet balconies. But then they saw the iconic Villa Ponti. “It’s completely different from what we set out to find,” said author and house owner, Barbara Biggs. “Instead of ancient history, we found breathtaking modern Italian design. While Australia has mid-century architecture, we’d never seen anything like what we walked into that day.”
The Melburnians bought the house and began a massive renovation in July 2017. “We wanted to keep the architectural integrity of the house, respecting its nautical themes. clean lines and 60s style, while adding luxury,” said Jan Owen, another owner.
To this end, most of the original Mad Men bathrooms were in perfect original condition, and were retained. The owners considered replacing them with modern fittings but every style guru and architect they consulted said it would be akin to ‘murdering the house’. So, where possible, every intact original feature of the villa was retained, recovered or restored. Including some of the 60s furniture left in the villa.
Then, in an incredible find, the owners discovered a gigantic 3000mq furniture store cum social venture which sends out six trucks each day to deceased estates and arrives at the warehouse filled with antiques and furniture the Italians call Modernariato, or mid-Century design.
“It’s all very fashionable now of course, and fetches huge prices, but to honour the period of the villa, we had to furnish it in the same style,” said Biggs. Even the lightfittings have been chosen for their authentic mid-century design. With one exception, the dining room wave lights by Spanish designer Arturo Alvarez. “The 16-seater Formanova lacquered table was so long nothing else we found would work in the space,” she said.
The only other area where the trio deviated from mid-Century, was the kitchen, which is bespoke cherry wood cabinetry and a feature brass cube for the island, hand made by local artisans.
Now, Stage One, renovating 500mq of living area including eight bedrooms, three living areas and two kitchens as well as 200mq of terraces, is complete. Stage Two, a garden wellness centre replete with spa, saunas, and an infinity pool, will be completed before May 2019, when the summer tourist season opens.
A landscape designer known on the lake for his work on famous gardens, such as Villa Carlotta, has been engaged to restore the extensive gardens, which will wend their way through the new wellness centre. This will include a spa and sauna located on a platform overlooking the forest, lake below and Grigna Mountain Range opposite, snow-capped from November to March.
One of the reasons this villa is so unique is it’s position. From every floor, most bedrooms, both top and middle floor living areas and all but one of the terraces, you have 180 degree views of the Lecco arm of the lake, from Bellagio almost to the other end at Lecco.
“As well as the wonderful house and gardens, and absurdly beautiful views,” said David James, the third owner. “We’re only 15 minutes from Bellagio, The Pearl of Lake Como as it’s known and right in the centre. Perfect to explore all the region has to offer and also close to Milan.”
And with instagramableness being one of the most sought after features of a luxury travel experience, Villa Ponti has it in spades.