When Ori Kafri announced plans back in 2005 to open a Capri outpost of JK Place, his jewellike hotel in Florence, some loyalists feared that what began as a unique experience for brand-weary travelers was itself about to become a franchise. The original, on Piazza Santa Maria Novella and styled by Florentine interior designer Michele Bönan, opened its doors in 2003 and immediately redefined the Italian townhouse hotel, a place where visitors are treated as houseguests rather than client units. The site Kafri chose for the new hotel—just outside the Marina Grande—didn’t help. This touristy port, where the ferries and hydrofoils arrive from Naples and Sorrento, is the place most Capri cognoscenti leave behind with a shudder, heading straight for the café-lined piazzetta up in the center of Capri, which is considered far more in keeping with the lifestyle of the jet set.
And yet. Perched on the cliffs about a 15-minute walk from the Marina Grande, JK Place Capri, which opened in April, manages to create its own more exclusive version of the piazzetta at sea level. Looking down from the main terrace, the view is mostly of the water and, on clear days, the sweep of the Bay of Naples across to Vesuvius. Rocky Capri tends to look inland, and this is the only hotel on the island to enjoy such a ringside view of the waves. Inspired by this proximity, Bönan, who again designed the interiors, has attempted to, as he says, "bring the sea into the hotel" using various methods: the dark sea–blue paint in the breakfast room, the round Georgian windows in the lounge that hint at portholes, and in some of the bedrooms, framed photos of vintage yachts.
JK Place Capri has clearly taken some inspiration from its Florentine counterpart. It, too, has a library filled with tasteful art, architecture, and photography titles as well as a communal breakfast table. And the short white cotton fringe that edges the silk curtains is a Bönan trademark. But such touches are used sparingly, as part of an overall decor quite different from anything Bönan has done to date. If JK Place Florence is the home of a rather fastidious bachelor aesthete—say, a modern-day version of Gilbert Osmond, the ultrarefined villain of Portrait of a Lady—the Capri hotel feels more like the seaside perch of a suave American couple, tanned sophisticates who tour the Mediterranean in their private yacht. It’s lighter, more coquettish, but with a vein of moneyed melancholy—more F. Scott Fitzgerald than Henry James. The two libraries are a case in point: With its dark paneling, plaster statuettes of famous 19th-century writers, and French-style marble fireplace, Florence’s version is an elegant literary refuge; Capri’s, on the other hand, is a light-filled lounge with white sofas and armchairs, a jazzy fifties office chair covered in outsize black-and-white pieds-de-poule, and a bound volume of the iconic Italian architecture magazine Domus.
In his 25-year career, Bönan has worked with many developers. He restyled Michele Grendene’s deliciously intimate five-room Casa Tua hotel-restaurant in the Art Deco district of South Beach and he’s currently working on Palazzo Tornabuoni, a new private-residence club on Florence’s chicest shopping street. Another Bönan project in Miami, the 209-room Cipriani Ocean Resort and Club Residences, is due to open in 2009. But it’s in his two collaborations with Israeli Italian entrepreneur Kafri that Bönan seems to give his best. His commitment became clear over a conversation at breakfast on the Capri hotel’s first official day of business. Ignoring all the highlights of a beautifully laid-out table, he picked up a packaged square of supermarket butter, sighed, and said, "When I see something like this, it makes me want to give it all up."
The idea that the most elegant space can be ruined by a tiny off-putting detail is something Bönan spends his days thinking about. "Of course decor is important, but with hotels what you really remember are things such as how you were treated and how well you slept," he says. That is why he’s inspired by the Ralph Lauren store in New York. What makes the space perfect for Bönan is "the feeling you get when you walk in that the person behind this has capito tutto—understood everything."
Bönan cites Hubert de Givenchy as one of his role models. "We all have icons," he explains, "and for me Givenchy represents the essence of taste. He’s not about style, he’s about lifestyle." Bönan, too, has a taste for the finer things (he insists that to design a luxury hotel "you have to live the luxury life"), but there’s a huge appetite for work and a mania for detail lurking just below the surface of that playboy persona.
He mixes paint colors himself in his Florence studio, then adjusts them on-site because, he says, "you can never be sure how the color will look until you’ve seen it in that exact room with that exact combination of natural and artificial light." He also uses hotel projects as a test pad for furniture, lighting, and textiles, which are often then put into production. Dissatisfied with most of the furnishing fabrics on the market, Bönan commissioned his own version of a Panama-hat weave from Milanese textile manufacturer Dedar and used it to cover the Capri hotel’s fifties-style armchairs. High-end Florence furnituremaker Chelini also turns out limited-edition pieces (chairs and bedside tables) that Bönan first designed for the two JK Place hotels. It’s a tremendous amount of work, all in the service of an end result meant to seem effortless.
"People sometimes ask me how I would define my style," Bönan says, peering over the top of a pair of aviator sunglasses. "But I don’t have a style. What I hope I have is style, period."
JK Place Capri is open from April to November. Rooms begin at $550 and range to $2,700 for the penthouse suite (39-081/838-4001; jkcapri.com).
Lee Marshall wrote about the Bulgari family in the May/June issue.