The architect Luigi Rosselli has designed homes for mining magnates, famous sports people, the CEOs of three major banks in Australia and high achievers of all kinds.
“Even penniless journalists and artists,” Rosselli chuckles during our Wentworth Courier interview.
“They’re all fantastically wonderful people.”
Many of his clients choose to fly beneath the radar — others publicly celebrate the architect’s work.
One of his first commissions – after arriving in Sydney in 1984 – was designing a gate for Malcolm Turnbull in one of the homes he owned in Bellevue Hill.
“He was happy, but I think the next owner demolished it,” Rosselli says.
Other early works included an office for Leo Schofield and homes for members of INXS and Wallabies captain George Gregan. He also turned a Potts Point brothel into Cicada restaurant for Peter Doyle.
And since then, Rosselli’s popularity has only grown.
“He’s certainly the darling designer of the east and also other parts of Sydney,” said real estate agent 1st City principal Brad Caldwell-Eyles, who has just three apartments left from the 10 on offer in the upcoming Rosselli-designed Pointe tower in Edgecliff.
“And during COVID, there’s been a growing desire from many who can afford it to live in something beautiful.”
Rosselli’s thoughts on Harry Seidler, modernism and even minimalism? Not a fan.
“All that white … it’s so bright people have to wear sunglasses and there’s nowhere for the toaster,” he says.
His focus is “humanism … to basically make life more enjoyable.”
Post COVID, he believes apartments will need to be bigger with more outdoor space, but the challenge is how to make them affordable for younger people — who have been particularly hard-hit by the coronavirus.
“It has to be a political decision,” he says, and suggests eastern suburbs homeowners be encouraged to subdivide their land for multiple dwellings.
Born in the Italian design capital of Milan, Rosselli, now 63, had competed with his brother as a young child in their shared bedroom building bridges out of Lego.
He says growing up in Milan was the DNA of his career: “The fact that I grew up in that environment meant I developed those important aspects of design — good proportion, good materials and good shapes and that’s very important.”
Having decided to be an architect and attended the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique Federale in Lausanne, Switzerland, it was a competition to design the new Australian Parliament House that would bring him to Australia.
At the age of 23, he’d just started working at the New York offices of influential architect Romaldo Giurgola, when he got his big break.
Says Rosselli: “We had a famous art critic come into the office in New York after we won and he said this was the most important project of the last century.
“I was really chuffed and happy.”
Of the completed Parliament House, today, he says: “I think it is a unique building with some beautiful work.”
But just as COVID-19 is changing the world as we know it, he admits the 1980s were “a very different time” to today.
One of the things he loved about the building was that the people could walk the grassy slopes that make up the roof. But three years ago, a high metal fence was erected because of terrorism fears.
“It breaks my heart seeing big fences around it … once the fear was that people would throw tomatoes at politicians, but today we have to worry about bombs and guns and killings,” Rosselli says.
He met his wife (now ex-wife), Juliet Holmes a Court, a cousin of the late Robert Holmes a Court, in Canberra, and after returning to Lausanne to complete his studies, they headed to Sydney.
“And the eastern suburbs was the place,” he says.
What did he think about the architecture when he arrived? “I thought there was a lot of work to do — I got the sense there was some pretty average architecture around!”
He was impressed by the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge (although that was more an engineer’s work) and some of the historical buildings, such as the Macquarie Lighthouse and Victoria Barracks.
In the decades since, 60 per cent of his work has been the eastern suburbs, and particularly Bellevue Hill.
Rosselli explains: “There are some beautiful old houses there that need some help.”
And he offers an interesting insight into the attraction of that suburb among prestige home buyers: “If you are wealthy and flashy you go to Vaucluse on the waterfront and you complain you’ve got no privacy,” Rosselli said.
“But if you’re really wealthy and private you go to Bellevue Hill, like the Murdochs and the Packers, and find a battleaxe block and keep on buying up the adjoining properties till you own a little village.”
Even amid the current health crisis, he’s busy — he’s got six commissions on the go in Bellevue Hill.
“I’ve been very lucky, we’re very busy and I’ve got to the point of thinking we’re not living in the real world — there are plenty of people with no work and in quite desperate situations.
“I have no intention of retiring any time soon …. but it’s the younger generation that have suffered quite a lot more than my generation, in terms of their study and their work and their developing life … in the sense that nothing’s happening.”
Buyer’s agent Simon Cohen says a lot of his clients get excited about Luigi Rosselli-designed houses.
And they’re often prepared to pay a premium price.
“A lot of big names use him to design their houses and when they sell they go for huge money,” Cohen says.
Some of those big resales have included the Rosselli-designed Coolong Rd, Vaucluse waterfront mansion — the Sydney base of Chinese e-commerce billionaire Richard Qiangdong Liu — that sold for almost $40 million in 2018.
Famous tenants included Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio in 2011, who rented it for $30,000 while filming The Great Gatsby.
When fashion designer Camilla Freeman-Topper and husband David Topper sold their Rupertswood Ave, Bellevue Hill home designed by Rosselli, with Freeman-Topper contributing, for $16.5 million, they issued a press release saying they’d accepted “an offer they could not refuse”.
And Rosselli’s reno paid off big time for one of Sydney’s most stylish couples, food blogger Stephanie Conley-Buhre and entrepreneur husband Oskar Buhre, when they sold their Eastbourne Rd, Darling Point residence for a whopping $15.2 million a few years ago.
Then there’s the Victoria Rd, Bellevue Hill home the famous architect designed for Anthony Halas of swimwear brand Seafolly fame, and his wife Andie. Ray White Double Bay’s managing director Elliott Placks described it as “the best house in Bellevue Hill” ahead of selling it for $18.6 million in late 2018.
“With immaculate finishes, this property is a dream,” said Placks at the time.
So what’s Rosselli’s secret?
Placks said this week: “He is a great modern architect who blends curved lines with different materials and he creates these very bespoke and emotive spaces.”
And Cohen agrees: “His design is very different, but very liveable.
“It’s very ‘in vogue’.
“I love his work, he’s one of my favourite architects.
“It really does have that wow factor, and his signature circular staircase is gorgeous.”
Yes, that staircase. Like the beautiful example on our cover — that’s a staircase at a house in Woollahra.
The Topper house; the Conley-Buhre house; a couple in Bronte and so many of his houses have one.
Adds Cohen: “Every time I walk on a circular staircase, I wonder if it’s a Rosselli, and often it is.”
Mark Nelson, the chairman and co-founder of Caledonia Investments, and his wife, Louise, called on Rosselli for the renovation of their Point Piper waterfront between 2012 and 2014.
“I knew Luigi because he’d done a renovation previously on another house,” Nelson said.
“I like his style and aesthetic — I’m an art collector and involved in the visual arts — and both his wife and son are artists.”
It was while he was living in the waterfront mansion Elaine that he leased between 2008 and 2014 — later bought by Atlassian co-founder Scott Farquahar for $71m in 2019 — that he spotted a “pretty unattractive” block of flats come up for sale in 2010. It was a little further along on the waterfront.
“It was red-brick but in a great location,” Nelson said. “The owner had lived in the bottom level and rented out the other two.”
Many had considered the block a knockdown, but when Nelson showed Rosselli he’d loved it because of all the curves.
“He’s a very curvy guy … so Luigi thought he’d love to do a great design and turn it back into a house and secondly have all those Rosselli curves that he’s famous for.”
Nelson said Rosselli was a dream to work with.
“A lot of architects seem to forget it’s someone else’s house and say ‘nah, I’m not having that’ and you have to say ‘sorry mate, it’s actually my house’,” Nelson said.
“But Luigi was very receptive to my needs as an art collector and that I needed wall space to hang my paintings, along with wanting the curves and the beautiful views.”
The Nelsons both love the end result and Rosselli says the house is a personal favourite.
Says Mark Nelson: “He’s managed to carve out a unique architectural visual style or language which is undeniably his and I think that’s a good thing.
“People around the east can look at it and say ‘it looks like a Luigi Rosselli house’ and there are
not a lot of architects you say that about, so that’s a credit to him.”
But of course it’s not just houses that Rosselli creates.
Raine and Horne Elizabeth Bay/Potts Point principal Jane Schumann, who is selling a Rosselli-designed three-bedroom, two-bathroom whole-floor duplex residence at 1/12 St Neot Ave, Potts Point, says people viewing the property love the look.
Owned by a creative director at a design and production studio, it features an internal lift and also Rosselli’s signature curves — particularly in the kitchen.
“We’re getting great numbers through and people certainly appreciate how beautiful it is,” says Jane Schumann. “There’s nothing ostentatious about Rosselli, just streamlined exquisite elegance.”
Schumann, who is selling the property with son Samuel, has a $4.5 million guide.
The apartment, which comes with a double garage, has attracted the attention of everyone from local downsizers and professional couples, keen on the designer space that’s all on the one level.
“We’re also getting people from the north shore looking to move back to the east and a couple of country people wanting a beautiful Sydney bolthole,” Schumann said.
Tech billionaire Mike Cannon Brookes owns a Rosselli-influenced Mediterranean-style villa called Sea Dragon in Double Bay, after paying $7.05 million in 2017.
Originally designed in 1936 by renowned architect Professor Leslie Wilkinson, it was more recently updated by Rosselli and is packed full of charm, with a curved balcony and arched entry gate.
Apartments being sold off-the-plan designed by Rosselli are also popular.
Caldwell-Eyles and co-principal Julian Hasemer have had interest from all over in the 11-storey Rosselli-designed Pointe, with the penthouse going to an offshore buyer who paid $6.2 million.
Just the $5,695,000 sub-penthouse and two two-bedders ($1,745,000 and $1,845,000) remain.
The 1st City agents have sold three apartments there during the pandemic to empty-nesters after a new designer home.
“What they like about Pointe is it has a considered design about it,” Caldwell-Eyles says. “It’s not a generic bread and butter box and people see that this will be an iconic building in the future.”
Another Rosselli-designed project being sold by the 1st City team is Ladera on Benelong Crescent in Bellevue Hill. The north-facing development boasts eight luxury apartments in a mix of two-, three- and four-bedroom offerings.
Award-winning builders Impero Constructions have started work and two apartments have already sold. Prices range from $2.3 million (two bedrooms) to $7.5 million (stunning dual-level penthouse with incredible harbour views).
Rosselli says he’s proud of the pool at Ladera, because it allows people to come out and “mingle”.
But despite designing some of the east’s grandest homes and contemporary apartments, he chooses to live in a 1920s “hotchpotch” house in Clovelly.
“I ride my bike to work and live a humble life,” he said.
One of his sons, Raffaello, 34, followed him into architecture and works with him alongside a dozen others in their Surry Hills practice. The other; Adriano, 32, is an art curator and his daughter, Giselle, 30, is a mathematician and musician.