Travel might be off the menu for most but some corners of southeast Asia are still open for business. In Bali, Indonesian firm PTT Family has created a village escape.
On a blustery Balinese afternoon, a cooling sea breeze swings the hammocks that hang on the balconies of Potato Head Studios, a new 168-room hotel in Seminyak designed by Dutch architecture firm OMA (founded by Rem Koolhaas). A few gentle taps of the hammocks against a window prompt Ronald Akili, the founder of Indonesian hospitality group PTT Family, to investigate the noise. Opening the sliding doors lets in the sound of crashing waves and music coming from his phenomenally successful beach club next door.
The view outside takes in an infinity pool and the Indian Ocean. Friendly staff wearing pointy straw hats and Potato Head’s custom Balinese shirts serve colourful cocktails called kookaburras, koko lokos or pisang coolers to guests lounging on green daybeds. But this is no ordinary beach resort. The first clue is an open-air amphitheatre, a sunken stone performance area in the garden, shaded by palm trees and bamboo poles.
“When I first met with OMA I told them I wanted to create a new type of resort,” says Akili after he returns to his seat, a yellow-cushioned bamboo lounge chair created by Max Lamb; the same model appears poolside. UK designer Lamb is one of many international collaborators to work on the hotel; others include designer Faye Toogood and musician DJ Harvey. “Instead of a resort it’s a public space,” Akili says. “It’s a cultural institution, where we interact with tourists, locals and our team.”
Potato Head Studios has oodles of communal areas, pocket parks and decks that encourage co-working during the day and viewing the sunset. Music is everywhere: there is a vinyl library, a subterranean nightclub and a recording studio on the fourth-floor rooftop (watch out for the hydraulic DJ booth popping out of the wooden steps).
Potato Head has also acquired artist Steve Terry’s Wild Life Archive, an extensive collection of dance-music memorabilia going back to the 1970s, which will form the first few exhibitions at the in-house art gallery. Even the kids’ club – a staple of beach resorts – is distinctive; children at Potato Head learn how to make sustainable sculptures from salt that can be returned to the sea. “One of the first inspirations we had was to imagine a moma PS1 with rooms,” says Akili referring to the experiential gallery in New York. Indeed, he started out as a gallery owner in Jakarta before setting up a restaurant in the Indonesian capital (today he has six venues across Asia).
Akili’s latest opening marks the completion of the Potato Head desa (village). It’s been a decade-long project for the 38-year-old that’s seen him move the headquarters of his ptt Family hospitality group from Jakarta to Bali, open his beach club in 2010 and then follow that up with a tropical 57-room modernist retreat next door, the Katamama hotel (see issue 91). Whereas his latest venture is all about shared spaces, Katamama is a private sanctuary. Guests tend to be older, rooms loftier and prices higher. Katamama’s entry-level room rate will buy the biggest suite at the Studios, which is a natural home for the younger beach-club crowd.
“[Potato Head Studios] is a big creative playground that just so happens to have rooms and a restaurant,” says Akili. He sees his burgeoning hospitality empire as an accident and carries the moniker of hotelier as lightly as the floral shirts that he usually wears. Potato Head’s service is impeccable and typically Indonesian (“everyone is family”) but the head potato takes pride in the fact that most of his management team come from fashion, music or art backgrounds.
Creative director Dan Mitchell co-founded London boutique ln-cc before working with Akili. The 34-year-old Brit has been influential in setting up cultural events and building the programming team. What was a one-man band when he joined in 2014 now has 15 people. “This whole site is essentially an event space,” says Mitchell, who is planning Potato Head music festivals on top of the weekly schedules. “The Studios opens up possibilities and levels of programming that we couldn’t do before,” he adds. Mitchell has fond teenage memories of visiting the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in his native Newcastle and wants to provide similar stimulation to Balinese youngsters. “Hopefully it will become a pillar of the community and a public space for everyone to enjoy and learn from,” he says.
“Our floating-village concept comes from the original way that Indonesians live,” says OMA managing partner David Gianotten who led the design. “They always lifted up their private spaces from the ground and the living room is an open-air space.” The Studios is the first Potato Head project to involve non-Indonesian architects. Akili approached OMA because of its track record of multiuse developments that incorporate cultural institutions and commercial spaces.
Gianotten fondly remembers when Akili and his longtime Indonesian collaborator Andra Matin first walked, uninvited, into OMA’s Hong Kong office in 2012 to pitch the idea and kick off what he describes as an eight-year “adventure”.
This is the Dutch firm’s first beach resort – another element that excited Akili, a longtime Koolhaas fan. “If I’m going to hire someone who has already created 10 beach hotels then they are going to give me the same thing,” he says, before recounting the extended design process that inevitably came with trying to break new ground.
OMA’s first floating-village design had to be scrapped in 2016 – just before construction was due to begin. The design required steel to be shipped in from other parts of Indonesia and abroad, which went against the brand’s commitment to sustainability. What emerged in its place is a blend of oma and Andra Matin that shares plenty of dna with the sister hotel next door. Broken red bricks from the Katamama build have been recycled for the Studios’ brise-soleil façade that uses shapes from the Balinese calendar. OMA and Matin also designed the interiors; every room has at least one exposed brick wall. “It is branded as an oma design but you can see the influence of Andra Matin,” says Gianotten.
Working with OMA has clearly whetted the Potato Head team’s appetite for more international collaborations. Akili, Matin and Mitchell are currently working with Japanese architect Kengo Kuma on a new 10-cabin retreat that is set to open at the end of this year. It will occupy a remote two-hectare beachfront property west of Potato Head where guests can retire for a few days of sun healing, meditation and silence among the rice fields. A new fashion and homeware product line will also be launched, based in Los Angeles. “Our vision is to evolve Potato Head from a restaurant in a mall when we first started into a lifestyle brand with a higher purpose,” says Akili. Potato Head Studios is certainly taking the beach resort to a higher level. — (m)
As published on the Monocle magazine, Issue 133 in May 2020 by James Chambers.