“Covid has created this huge period of reflection, and out of that people have come to realise what is important to them. Things need to be genuine, and people need to feel connected to the space. We have learnt the importance of that connection to nature. Life is too short not to live through our experiences.”
Graeme Labe certainly knows a thing or two about creating experiences. Having spent years designing luxury safari lodges across Africa — from Botswana’s iconic Abu Camp to Puku Ridge in Zambia — he has developed a keen eye for curating immersive destinations built on experiential hospitality.
In 2011 he established Luxury Frontiers in partnership with Luca Franco, with the aim of exporting the expertise developed in creating African safari experiences to a global audience.
“We had experience in these eco-lodges and camps that had been in Africa for a long time, and saw the potential for integrating them with mainstream products in Asia, the US, and Central America,” says Labe, whose Johannesburg studio is now working on projects in Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, as well Oregon, Virginia, and Utah in the US. That includes providing design and curation for acclaimed international brands such as Aman Resorts, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, and Nayara Resorts.
“Luxury Frontiers provides a full suite of design services to our clients in the development of the camp, lodge or resort,” says Labe. “And we pride ourselves on designing alternative structures and lodging concepts.”
These include tented camps, mobile camps, tree houses, and bamboo structures. But everything is informed by the destination, and how guests discover the environment they are in.
“The experience comes first,” says Labe. “We don’t have a style, because it’s about the experience, and what determines the experience is the context. That may be about where you are, and why the development is there. It may be the physical context of the topography. It may be the fauna and flora. It may be the social elements of history, people, and culture. It may be how that product is going to impact those people. Those become the drivers of the experience.”
Take Luxury Frontiers’ new project in Puerto Rico, which incorporates the strong role music plays in regional culture. The resort is inspired by the traditional skirt worn by dancers, and “the building is also designed to look like a local musical instrument called a güiro,” says Labe. “But we’ve done it in a natural way that blends into the jungle. It’s not literal, but [rather] working cultural forms into the project.”
Just as important as the what of the experience, is the how. Is it a drive through a natural area? Is it a walk through the rainforest? Is it a treetop bird-hide? A sleep-out experience?
“We take those levels of the experience and weave them into the design,” says Labe, who embraces the notion of biophilic design — the concept of creating a closer human connection to natural surroundings through design and architecture.
“It’s about using that visual connection with nature, as well as those nonvisual cues. It’s about your materials. Does it feel natural? Are you using veneers instead of natural woods? It’s about texture. It’s about the presence of water and how it is integrated into your design.”
An excellent example is Naviva, a Four Seasons resort, opening in Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit later this year. Here guests arrive via a cocoon-inspired bamboo bridge overlooking a deep ravine, to a tented camp where butterfly-inspired suites are perched on the hillside amid outdoor gardens. Or Camp Sarika by Amangiri, a luxury tented resort in Utah, where indoor and outdoor living areas are connected via a vast stretched membrane.
Sustainability is another element now integrated into every aspect of high-end hospitality, and African safari lodges have long led the way in touching the Earth lightly. In designing an eco-escape, those considerations run beyond single-use plastics or solar plants and down to the selection of materials that ensure longevity.
“It’s about the balance of materials, and what you can use to offset your impact,” says Labe. “It’s also a balance between function and form. Trying to incorporate things such as passive design, reducing the need for electronic modes of heating and cooling. There are all these layers that come into the design.”