The hotelier and designer Olga Polizzi talks about her plans for the capital's first Rocco Forte hotel.
Rocco Forte comes to Abu Dhabi
A vision of elegance in a turquoise dress and heels, Olga Polizzi strides briskly into the immaculate suite at London's Browns' Hotel and immediately heaves an exasperated sigh. She lunges for the coffee table and rearranges the three leaf-wrapped glass bowls of hydrangeas that stand on it. Still not content, she then drags an enormous sideboard a few inches to the right until it's exactly symmetrical with the picture hanging above it. I hover awkwardly, as does the PR girl and the waiter with the tray of drinks.
"I do notice immediately if something's not quite right," she says when she finally sits down, slightly breathless. She acknowledges that this obsession with symmetry and neatness is a "form of madness, but it's also something you need in a hotel if you want it run in a certain way".
And it doesn't stop at the furniture. "I have very strict rules on how I want the flowers done and how I want the beds turned down," she explains. "I like the beds made with the sheets right to the end, with a big, proper turndown. These are my manias."
Polizzi is a formidable perfectionist when it comes to a hotel room. She's created literally thousands, first for her father, Lord Charles Forte's Trusthouse Forte empire, and then as design director for her elder brother Sir Rocco Forte's famous collection of five-star hotels, which includes Rome's Hotel de Russie and Berlin's Hotel de Rome.
The siblings' latest venture, a curvaceous five-star hotel near Zayed Sports City, is just the start of a planned expansion into the Middle East. Set to open next year, it will be followed by a hotel in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and a golf and spa resort in Marrakech, Morocco. On the day we speak, she's been hard at work designing a prototype room for a revamp of Cairo's famed Shepheard's Hotel.
What will Abu Dhabi's first Rocco Forte hotel be like? "We've tried very hard to make it elegant and contemporary without being too glitzy," she says. "I think that people are wanting something a bit simpler these days. It will be loose covers, lots of earthy colours and cushions."
She always likes to feature local art in all her hotels: here, there will be work by the poet/artist Ali Ahmad Said Esber (aka Adonis) in all the bedrooms - "he's my favourite," she says. Salwa Zeidan's abstract and lyrical paintings will adorn the suites, and a huge triptych by Fatema al Mazrouei will dominate the lobby. "It's nice to see something a little unusual," Polizzi says.
Lord Forte offered his daughter a job after her first husband died in a car crash in 1979. For years afterwards, when Polizzi was asked how her brilliant career was launched, she would answer "nepotism". But in fact, the company was lucky to have her. That's not to say that she didn't make mistakes. "I remember I always wanted everything very white and clean, and I'd come back a few months later and it would all be dark and ghastly. Now I go for the happy medium and make sure fabrics can be cleaned at least.
"And I hate those rooms where I came up with 20 ideas. You only have to have one or two good ideas, and make sure a room is relaxing, for it to work," she says.
By 1994, Polizzi was company design director and the highest-paid female executive in the UK, with a salary of more than £2m (Dh11.4m). But a year later, shortly after Lord Forte had passed his empire to his son, Sir Rocco - by now spanning everything from roadside Happy Eaters to the Savoy - the Granada hotel chain launched a £3.8 billion (Dh21.7bn) hostile takeover bid.
The family fought back but their efforts were in vain. Even now, Polizzi looks sad when discussing the loss of the family business. "I think we could have done something very good with that company," she says.
With £300m (Dh1,713m) to ease the pain, the siblings could have licked their wounds in sybaritic luxury for the rest of their lives. Instead, they both flung themselves into new hotel ventures. Polizzi bought herself a boutique hotel, Tresanton, in Cornwall, and started doing it up in the no-expense-spared way she'd always wanted, and acquiring Mussolini's old yacht for guests to cruise on.
Meanwhile, Sir Rocco immediately started raising money to buy back the crown jewels in his father's business, the Meridien hotel chain only for Granada to change its mind about selling. Sir Rocco decided to create a new luxury hotel business instead with Polizzi on the board and in charge of design.
"It has been a real struggle to build up the business from scratch," she says. "It's been very hard work." But unquestionably worth it: the Rocco Forte Collection currently comprises 13 luxury hotels and resorts.
Now 62, the nearest she can get to contemplating retirement is moving to Devon to run her other boutique hotel, Endsleigh, full time. "It's paradise," she says wistfully, "no light pollution, no aircraft noise and surrounded by these wonderful trees ... I love scrubbing floors and cleaning windows and cleaning silver. I like doing things that aren't cerebral."
But with another four luxury hotels to launch first, it looks like paradise will have to be postponed for a few years yet.