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An Interview with Wilbert Das

We sit down with Wilbert Das and speak of warmer weather and the tropical paradise that is Trancoso. Wilbert Das, former Creative Director of Diesel, and now the founder of UXUA Casa, has just returned from a quick visit to the Tate Modern - just another stop on his whirlwind trip across Europe presenting his new furniture line.  A refreshing presence to say the least, Wilbert exudes the essence of a world traveller, and talks to us about leaving the frantic world of fashion behind for all the simpler pleasures of village living. 

In the tranquil Bahian fishing village of Trancoso, Wilbert Das finds his new home and family with the indigenous Pataxo tribe. Rebuilding the local crafts industry with his new creative endeavour, UXUA . A range of furniture where each piece is incredibly unique, made with centuries of history and culture of the wonderful people who live there. 
How did you come to discover the beautiful Bahian fishing village of Trancoso? What made you fall in love with this place?
I first came to Trancoso in 2004 through the recommendation of a friend from Italy. He said that it was a place what would immediately feel like home and so I decided to travel there two weeks after he told me about it. The first time I visited Trancoso I was alone and didn’t know how to spend my two weeks there. I was the only tourist in town! It was absolutely empty and there was absolutely nothing to do. However,  every day that I spent there, I fell more and more in love with the place, the people, and the food. The abundance of nature, and the wholesomeness of the life there felt real and deeply precious. It was like there was a barrier that made me forget about all my emails and the rest of the  world. There is not a lot there that reminds you of your life. It is all very simple and very Brazilian; there were no roads, no cars, and it was just beauty and nature as far as you can see. It was like no life existed outside of this place. The village was closed off from the rest of the world and hadn’t been discovered until the early seventies, when the first outsider came. The people are very open-minded and peaceful, and I had no idea what the world outside was like, especially at a particularly difficult time in Brazil’s history when people were escaping the regime and the tough political system. There was no internet, no hot water, no electricity at the time, but then they mingled with the visiting hippies and from that a strange society was created. Today, the citizens of the town still remember a time when they had to wash themselves in the river and the only fridge in town was powered by gas! Now, they have celebrities and fantasies of development and the influx of information is mind-boggling, but I think they handle it quite well. 

How did you go from being the Creative Director of Diesel, to opening an ecologically sustainable luxury resort in Brazil? What was this transition like for you? 
The transition was slightly crazy, but very good for me and my mentality. Of course, coming from a demanding job like that and going to an adventure was a completely new experience and gave me a lot of power and excitement. I had to re-learn everything. I knew hotels very well, as a guest, but I had no clue how to run one as a business. I threw myself into the deep end whilst also celebrating my “forever holiday”. The freedom was amazing, but it didn’t last very long as I started working on the property. I am very proud to say that I did it in the way that I wanted to do it, and that’s why I love it. 

Let’s talk about UXUA, which has been described as an anti-thesis to mass produced decor. What pushed you to launch this furniture line? In what ways do you think it contradicts mass produced furniture? 
I don’t think of UXUA CASA as a company, it is more of a passion. I make furniture that I like and if I don’t want to make anything, I don’t. The idea is to make things that are unique and I don’t feel the urge to mass produce anything. I like the fact that, by creating, I am also helping the community and now the process has become a part of me. The story behind UXUA CASA is one of deep friendship and trust, but it actually started as kind of a joke. He usually does body paint during their native ceremonies, and I asked for him to try that body paint on a fabric — one day we just started and now we have produced about one hundred of them. Every single one is different as he creates these wonderful graphical patterns based on their tribe’s symbolisms, and he doesn’t stop creating, I guess the process has become a part of him as well. He has never made a double of anything! Brazil is a beautiful place and the people are very happy, but it is also a country of contrasts and poverty. These people need help,and if I can help alleviate that poverty by creating things, then that is amazing in itself.  

The UXUA collection is the epitome of sustainable luxury. Tell us a little bit about the ethos of your brand, and your passion for sustainable design? 
I wouldn’t call myself an Eco-warrior or anything like that. I’m passionate about this because I want to show people that you can do things in a different way. That you can have international success by keeping things small, working with good people, and using locally sourced materials. It is the very antithesis of big companies. 

The UXUA Casa collection is a collaborative effort between yourself fad the local craftsmen of the Pataxo Indian tribe. Tell us about your relationship with them? 
One day, I was hiking on the mountain which Brazil was discovered. It was the first piece of land that the Portuguese saw when they arrived in the 1500s; a small mountain quite close to the sea, and there I became friends with the tribe’s foreman who was our guide. He was quite a young man at the time and he was very passionate about bringing back their culture, which was getting overwhelmed by all the new technologies coming in. I brought him over to the hotel and he actually came up with the name. We still have a photo of him hanging in the hotel entrance. Every month, we do luaus on capoeira on the beach with the tribe so I have a very good relationships with the tribe. In Brazil, as with the aboriginals in Australia or the Native Americans in America, the tribe’s people often get marginalised. So it is great to see that there is an effort to preserve their culture here, but despite this they are still underrepresented. They deserve a good platform to share their rich culture with the world. Evandro, for example, comes from a weaving family, of which there are only a few textile lineages in Brazil. I met Evandro by pure coincidence; he was trying to find a job to support his two young children and was a waiter. I discovered that he knew how to weave fabrics so I put these looms in the hotel the day after. Now he is there, day in and day out, weaving things and creating fabrics and he absolutely loves it. 

UXUA Casa has five families of inspiration - Rural Modern, Second Life, Native Geometry, Shaped by Nature, and Weft & Warp. Could you tell us a little bit about each one? 
Native geometry is an obsession of mine and it has everything to do with graphics of all the different ethnicities in Brazil, not just the Pataxo tribe. Each and every ethnicity has a very interesting way of representing graphics; it is like a language or a form of writing as all the symbols have different meanings. I have always been fascinated by how we can represent simple graphics in a three dimensional way. The idea for the Shaped by Nature line came from the Brazilian weaver bird. These birds often weave thier nests and hang them on tree branches and we use these shapes for our own designs. We built a house for Anderson Cooper and decorated his garden with our UXUA CASA lamps. Soon after the weaver birds actually started making their nests there! 
Rural Modern stems from my love for functional antiques. In a place like Trancoso, all the rural references are the first thing that you find and this is all about finding ingenious ways to reinvent them. Second life uses existing pieces of furniture and gives them second functions: like an old trunk turned into a media centre, or a sofa made out of an old military tent. Finally, Weft and Warp is mostly what Evandro does; every piece is unique and crafted right here in the hotel. 

Culture and heritage go hand-in-hand with both UXUA Casa and UXUA Casa Hotel & Spa. Was it your intention to give local artisans such a great platform to express their culture and show their skills?
I definitely think we are giving them a platform, and I think, in a way, we are helping people value what is around them. It is amazing how young people in the Pataxo tribe are so connected to their roots. These young people are not interested in glass houses. They don’t want jet skis. You would think it would be the opposite, but the majority value what is special about their culture. This is something I want to emphasise more and more.  Since we started UXUA CASA, the local craft business has definitely grown. Now there are small local craft shops selling beautiful handmade products. It’s quite funny that, nowadays, it is actually quite difficult to find a souvenir that is made by the locals. 

Many UXUA Casa craftsmen now run their own local craft businesses, creating a micro-industry within the community. In your opinion, what is the future looking like for you and the community of Bahia? 
I have a dream to create an arts and crafts school/atelier in the community. I really want it to grow and become a business for the locals. They have the knowledge and the creativity, but creating a school helps perpetuate these skills to the next generation. I’ve got designers coming in from Rio de Janeiro searching for local weavers, which is great for the economy and the local community. I have the arts background and the marketing experience so I think it is our logical next step. 

Tell us what is next for UXUA CASA? What can we expect from you and UXUA CASA in 2017? 
I don’t really give myself deadlines, so whenever I feel the urge to make something, it gets made. I just hope that we can continue to create things with the people of Trancoso. I am in the business of makings houses and homes, and now I have a completely different client for this line, of which I have to rethink and relearn - so you can definitely expect more ideas from that. 

UXUA CASA Hotel & Spa

Interview by Hannah Tan

Images courtesy of UXUA CASA & Erin Fee 

View our gallery of our stay