AHL Insider:

Wilbert Das

  • What Do you do?

    Today I work mostly designing and building homes and producing custom furniture for private clients from my base in Trancoso, Brazil, a colonial fishing village on the southern coast of Bahia.I have a boutique hotel in Trancoso called UXUA Casa Hotel & Spa, where I create ranges of custom products for the hotel such as cosmetics made of fresh ingredients from the nearby Atlantic rainforest, jewelry, candles, lighting and furniture, bathroom fixtures…really whatever strikes my fancy. I often invite designers and artists from around the world to stay with me in at UXUA, and we collaborate in an informal residence program called UXUA Artist in Casa (UXUA by the way is a local Pataxó Indian word meaning ‘wonderful’), using the local environment as inspiration and combining creative energies just to see what comes out.I also spend a bit of my time on philanthropic work and projects in the community here, such as a sports academy teaching local children capoeira, a martial-arts inspired dance form historically practiced in Bahia by slaves on plantations.I’m very fortunate now as I design simply out of love for creating beautiful things, and the pleasure I get out of the creative process and collaborations with talented designers and craftsmen. I originally studied fashion design in my home country of the Netherlands, and for many years worked in the fashion industry with an Italian label, Diesel, as its Creative Director. I was responsible for all the brand’s creative output, from shops and fashion shows to advertising and communications to design of all its collections, including apparel, accessories, as well as furniture ranges made in collaboration with Italian partners such as Zucchi, Foscarini, and Moroso.I settled in Brazil somewhat by chance actually. Designing in Italy so many years was wonderful but as the dimensions of the work grew more global and the process more industrial I sought out some projects in my spare time which were purely local and artisanal. I began executing a few architectural restorations around the world, and this work I found refreshing as it offered me a chance to pour creative energy into something permanent, and not just a disposable part of the frenetic fashion cycle. I completed a variety of projects from craftsman bungalows on the canals and streets of Venice Beach California, to turn-of-the-century apartment buildings in Monte Carlo, to a 500-year-old Italian Villa in the Venetian countryside. I loved working in environments with rich history and a very strong sense of place. Then traveling in 2004 I discovered Trancoso, Brazil and it was sort of my dream location, totally authentic, a unique mix of preserved colonial town center free of automobiles and combined with amazing beaches and spectacular nature, plus a very strong local culture full of passion and expression. I felt a strong pull to work on something there.

  • WAS HOSPITALITY SOMETHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO DO? WHAT DID YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP?

    I always wanted to be a designer and work outside my homeland of the Netherlands, which I eventually did. Hospitality was not really in my plans, however I eventually began spending so much time traveling around the world that I became a bit of an expert on hotels, and I was always intrigued by the opportunity hotels could offer a designer to immerse people fully in a certain atmosphere, every detail thought out. In fact, I did execute one hotel for Diesel and got a lot of satisfaction out of it. It was back in 2003 and I think the project pre-dated some of the later hotels in the US, which mix vintage and modern elements while incorporating irony and playfulness in the design.

  • WHAT’S YOUR GREATEST INSPIRATION?

    Without a doubt, in recent years its been the village of Trancoso and the Bahian people. The town has a fascinating history, founded in the 1500’s by Jesuit missionaries but sort of left on its own, existing in tropical isolation for centuries. Being so remote, the people to became extremely skilled artisans; every object they needed had to be made locally and from organic or reclaimed materials. Even while they became amazing craftsmen, by tradition they maintained their simple, one-story casas in the same style, no family ever enlarging their homes, but instead keeping them all in proportion relative to each other and just beautifying by changing their colors. Hippies rediscovered Trancoso and sort of put it back on the map in the 1970’s, but it was only gradually that currency started being used instead of the barter system, electricity arrived and eventually a road cut through the forest and connected Trancoso to the rest of Brazil. When I arrived in 2004 the town still had the feeling of being cut off from the world, and it was still easy to create amazing things by hand with any number of local artisans. So while I was busy with fashion work in Europe I began visiting Trancoso every chance I could, collaborating with local craftsmen to restore a few homes. Their work and their passion and humor and zest for life inspired me so much that I really never stopped coming back. Soon the home I was restoring grew into 11 casas, a spa and a beach lounge, and led to me open a sort of new concept: a very particular ‘casa hotel’ in which guests stay in actual homes, some 500-years-old, and each totally authentic with its own history, named after former owners. The hotel remains a harmonious part of the village, even without signage to indicate it. The whole project was inspired by a love of the location and the people here.

  • WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE HOTEL IN THE WORLD AND WHY?

    A hotel that had a strong impact on my partner and I years ago was the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California, which we visited not long after it opened. It had such a distinct atmosphere, combining great modern design with a stunning natural setting and impeccable service. Hiking the hills at sunrise with its original owner, the rancher Bill Post, was unforgettable. The Post Ranch won the 2013 Hotel of the Year award from Mr and Mrs Smith, a specialist UK company who identify the world’s best boutique hotels, and just a few weeks ago the 2014 award went to UXUA. Strange coincidence, but one which I was very proud of.

  • WHAT’S THE BIGGEST CHANGE YOU’VE SEEN IN THE INDUSTRY IN THE PAST 5 TO 10 YEARS?

    One negative trend is that the globalization of pop culture is really having a big impact on hotels. They’re starting to feel very similar all over the world, with too many commonalities amongst design and even details like music and restaurant menus, staff uniforms, etc. For me, and I’m sure many others, this takes the joy or the element of surprise out of traveling. A positive trend is that the growth of social media gives travelers so much more information from different sources, and I think armed with that they’re more confident to travel further, to more unusual destinations, and for some it can also be the deciding factor in getting them to try hotels or restaurants which aren’t part of familiar chains…this is a great thing. And on the hotel side, these social media channels offer the chance to express who you really are. UXUA is a very authentic place, almost more like a collective than a typical hotel, and totally integrated in the local community. We produce new things every day in collaboration with local Indian tribes, artisans and artists from around the world, and now with the social media channels it’s so easy for us to share this with our most loyal clients or just those curious about us. Maintaining these intimate relationships, sharing the actual work we’re doing every day, just wasn’t possible before.

  • WHO ARE YOU CURRENTLY ADMIRING IN THE INDUSTRY AND WHY?

    A few of my heroes today are on the culinary side, chefs and restaurateurs who’re publishing and sharing a lot of the passion for their work and doing a great job of infecting consumers with their love of food. The increase in attention to cuisine in all its regional varieties - its origins, traditions, nutrition - is amazing. I see so many people now traveling with culinary exploration as a part of their itinerary, and I have a lot of respect for the protagonists of this movement.

  • WHERE WILL YOU BE ON YOUR NEXT DAY OFF?

    Walking on empty beaches around Trancoso or at a gallery event for an artist friend in Sao Paulo, I haven’t decided… but it’s quite likely the beach will win as it usually does.

  • WHAT, TO YOU, MAKES A HOTEL TRULY UNIQUE?

    I really appreciate hotels that are made out of passion, and not a business formula or just another addition to a chain. The best hotel experiences I’ve had are staying in places that were clearly built as someone’s dream, where they were so proud of the place they wanted to have guests to share it with.

  • WHAT’S THE MOST OUTLANDISH OR MEMORABLE THING YOU’VE EXPERIENCED WHILE TRAVELING?

    I traveled to Cuba when the country had not yet opened for tourism and was suffering the impact of declining economic support from the Soviet Union and an embargo by the United States. All the shops were empty of merchandise and the atmosphere was quite surreal, but I had the most amazing time, full of intense emotions. The first day I was back in Europe a friend grabbed my digital camera excited to review the thousand or so photos I’d taken, but accidentally deleted them all. Somehow that was a fitting end to a trip in a land that, at the time, completely lacked consumer goods or mass-media entertainment. The lives of the people there was intensely social, their experiences and pleasures to be enjoyed immediately and in the first-person, and kept after only in memories. Just as my trip was.

  • IF YOU COULD HOST A PARTY FOR ANYONE, DEAD OR ALIVE, WHO WOULD YOU INVITE

    I’ll stick with the living and choose Mike Tyson. I’ve always found him so raw, unpredictable and entertaining. When he became a champion he seemed a powerful yet somehow vulnerable individual, like a man-child. And subsequently, in a US society where public figures are held under a microscope, he’s lived with abandon…so close to the edge. He’s really the opposite of the modern carefully molded celebrity image. And while some feel he’s doomed to self-destruction, there seems to be some hard-earned wisdom in him after all he’s gone through. Whether it would go smoothly or not, a party with him would be unforgettable.

  • CAREER ANECDOTE YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE? 


    My career anecdote would simply be that being an outsider is an advantage. In fashion we started with jeans and sportswear and successfully moved upward to do accessories, fragrances and furniture lines - much more upscale categories than denim companies can generally move into. But, actually having noone expect the move was sort of an advantage. I found the same dynamic in hotels; when you are outside the sector and no-one has any expectations from you it’s much easier to be bold, daring, and break some of the predictable patterns of the industry.