Walk into the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Seattle these days and the first thing that grabs your attention is the aroma. No, not of coffee roasting...
Approximately 20 years ago, Paola Bonacina Benzoni, and her husband left Italy when he came to work at the University of California at San Diego on a special project; lucky for her clients, she brought her flair and expertise for Italianate style and design with her.
“My husband and I miss Italy very much, but we’ve found a home here,” stated Benzoni, adding “But all our family is in Italy so we go back as often as we can, almost every year.” The Italian furniture designer and architect had a business in Italy where she produced and sold high end, modern furniture north of Milan where all the “well-known furniture companies are based.” She recalled that her father was in the business and that it was a family tradition going back to the 1800s. It was in his shadow and through his influence that she decided to master the production of Italianate styled furniture, and start her own company.
“When I was only five-years-old I became very interested in building houses instead of playing with dolls,” recalled the architect. “I began playing, building and styling my very own play houses, as well as working with different layouts.
Benzoni was born in Meda, a town 25 miles north of Milan, Italy. After earning her doctorate in architecture from Milan Polytechnic University in 1982, she began practicing architecture and design by working in the design department of her father’s business, BBB Bonacina, a well-known industrial design furniture brand. This period gave her the unique opportunity to work closely with notable Italian designers, Castiglioni, DePas, Lomazzi, and Sottsass Jr. Before coming to the U.S., she taught interior design and technical drawing at the Accademia Arti Applicate in Milan while also working as an associate architect at Mercandino and Associates in the same city. Later she became art director of Arka Furniture, overseeing the design and production of new furniture. She has been operating her own design firm in San Diego since 1995. Her practice emphasizes contemporary architecture, with additional expertise in interior design and furniture design.
“I began my own furniture business after being here a few years, when we found out that we would not be returning to Italy. After raising our children, I decided that I couldn’t be a stay-at-home-mom. I began my business by designing a friend’s restaurant and another’s garage. This got me acquainted with various building codes and wood framing of homes. In 1998 I really got busy through word-of-mouth and began building residential properties from start to finish. I also got busy doing interiors.
The Italian architect stayed true to her heritage and is credited with designing and building several (eighteen projects at last count) houses, not to mention her kitchens, furniture, living and bathroom projects. She works with two assistants, stating that they “care more about the people than the projects they undertake”.
In a recent testimony, the architect is described as “a unique talent, who is able to truly listen and understand the needs and vision of the client.” The testimony describes Benzoni as “using her extraordinary creativity and knowledge of spacing to implement the team vision. Other clients describe her as “patient and communicative throughout the entire process - from pre-development through construction to furnishing.”
“The way I approach my work is very personal,” she said, adding “I listen to my clients, their dreams and what they want to accomplish. Then, working as a team with them, we really create the living space and culmination of their dream; their homes reflect who the clients are and they feel at home in their new surroundings, because what we’ve built has much harmony. It’s a very fulfilling job.”
Although not a stay-at-home-mom, Benzoni said she has worked very hard raising her children. Elisa, 28 is a costume designer and works on layouts for the La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe Theater in Balboa Park. Her son, Edoardo, 20, is a student at UC Berkeley. “I have insisted on raising them to speak Italian so that they are reminded of their heritage,” said Benzoni. In fact, we once sent my son to Italy on his own so that he would be immersed in Italian and it worked. He came back speaking fluent Italian.”