A group of like-minded hotels, restaurants and artisans is pillared by the philosophy of Rough Luxe. We talk to Rabih Hage, the creative director of the project, and Kurt Englehorn, the brand’s founder who inspired the lifestyle.
When the Rough Luxe hotel opened in London in September 2008, its stripped walls, partially sanded surfaces and bare floorboards were hailed as the new face of luxury in a time of economic crisis. So celebrated was its mission that its name came to be used as an umbrella term to describe anything that shared it values of authenticity and experience coupled with rarity and outstanding quality. Now, as the financial markets recover, the expression has morphed once again to become the name of the Rough Luxe Experience, a new affiliation of hotels, restaurants, one-off retailers and small artisans.
“Authenticity is the real definition of Rough Luxe,” says Rabih Hage, the architect and designer of the original hotel who is also the Creative Director of the Rough Luxe Experience. “If you have something authentic it has real value and we will make it well known for you. We will take care of making your illustriousness famous.”
At its online platform, the little-known ventures that the Rough Luxe Experience showcases include everything from The Cowshed, a rustic stone house located high above St Moritz, Switzerland, that has no electricity or running water (the luxe is found in the element of escapism and in Hage’s carefully selected furnishings), to Shakespeare & Co, an independent bookshop on Paris’s Left Bank.
Of the 30 businesses within the Rough Luxe family, most are owned by its founder, Kurt Englehorn, and his family. As the heir to a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical fortune, Englehorn has a unique position from which to talk about the luxury market. “Luxury is an elusive bitch!” he surmises in a heavy German accent and a cheeky grin.
While Englehorn rejects what he calls “fake luxury”, he is an expert in the art of living well. Over lunch at the beach house on his estate in Palamos, just outside of Barcelona, he talks of producing his own wine, collecting vintage cars, various properties in St. Moritz, and a forthcoming sailing trip from Fiji to New Zealand on his yacht.
He is part Gianni Agnelli (the vintage car collection and Rolex), part Prince Charles (he’s a champion of organic farming and tries to only eat food produced on his estate) and part Boy Scout (he likes the outdoor life and is refurbishing an outbuilding on his estate without electricity or gas). There is a distinct lack of pretentiousness about him; instead, he exudes an infectious energy and an appetite for the simple but high quality things in life.
“The name Rough Luxe was a description of Kurt and Carmen’s life,” explains Hage. “The inspiration is Kurt and the collection of unusual properties he owns.”
And what properties they are! At the heart of Englehorn’s estate at Palamos is Mas el Vent, a traditional farmhouse that has been transformed by RCR Architects to reveal its architectural DNA which is undisturbed by the minimalist lines and natural materials used in its stylish interior. A spectacular shower is fashioned from a glass bridge that connects the main building with an old tower, which in turn houses a plunge-pool sized bath. Outside, a honeycomb-like structure that resembles the Serpentine Pavilion covers an alfresco dining area while the remains of a Roman ruin flank a black marble infinity pool.
Further properties on the estate include Bell-Loc, a traditional finca set in hectares of vines with a futuristic winery attached, as well as a number of other buildings that are currently being refurbished by RCR Architects. All of these will be available for rent through the Rough Luxe Experience.
As we showcase some of the properties available via the Rough Luxe Experience, we talk to Rabih Hage and Kurt Englehorn about the art of living and finding the rough in the luxurious.
Rabih Hage’s definition of luxury?
Luxury is an ephemeral experience of satisfaction when in the presence of a rare object or location of extreme beauty. This experience is difficult to duplicate or transmit and is different every time for each individual.
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
A rough diamond found by accident while crossing a river on your way to a village that hosts a charity of which you are a patron. You arrive at sunset and give away the diamond to the community you love. They have a better life because of your trip and you because of your find.
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
Each time a different location, a different sensation.
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
The next nice person you are going to meet.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
Now and every time you cross that river.
Kurt Englehorn’s definition of luxury?
The philosophy of Rough Luxe.
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
A hunting bow.
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
My wife Carmen.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
When you die.
Why did you decide to open the Rough Luxe hotel in London?
Kurt: We needed to buy the building that became the Rough Luxe hotel because it was at the entrance to our venture capitalist office in London and we were dependent on another landowner to get to our property. Rabih was already in charge of our gallery space on the site, which was there so the people working in my office were surrounded by culture. At the entrance was a little hotel owned by an Italian family. Rabih thought that the natural thing would be that it continues to be a hotel. We thought about the right design for the space and the result of that was Rough Luxe. Then we became aware that Rough Luxe is a movement, a philosophy. We thought it might attract other people and projects but first of all I thought we could employ Rough Luxe at our own properties in Spain and Switzerland. We streamlined our properties and it was good opportunity to bring my own house in order.
Rabih, what inspired your ideas for Rough Luxe?
Rabih: About a year before we opened the London hotel I came here to Palamos for the first time and I saw the way that Kurt lives. It was a really interesting vision and I noticed something special here. There wasn’t a specific purpose to my visit; it was really about coming to have a look. When I returned, I sent a small report to make it a professional visit. There is a lot you can see today within the Rough Luxe Experience that emerged then and crystallized at the hotel in London. The name Rough Luxe was a description of Kurt and Carmen’s life. The inspiration is Kurt, the collection of unusual properties he owns, and the local way of life. While the name Rough Luxe came to define a specific project, in a way it was a description of everything I’d seen around Kurt, and his collection of properties.
Kurt, how did you come to own this estate?
Kurt: My great uncle, Hans Englehorn, owned this place. He lived in Spain before World War I and then he bought this and a parcel of land towards the beach in the sixties. He was a great art lover and a friend of artists, so was very much involved in the cultural scene of Catalonia. A lot of the paintings and drawings you see in this house were his.
Please tell us about the food and wine produced at the estate.
Kurt: Virtually everything we eat is produced at the estate. We have goats, pigs, chickens and rabbits; we produce our own wine, olive oil, milk, cheese. And we grow vegetable with permaculture gardening. That is the next step after organic gardening. After that, you end up eventually at biodynamic gardening where the moon process is involved.
Rough Luxe is made up not just of the London hotel, but your private estate in Spain, properties in Switzerland, good food, wine, and other like-minded businesses. What is it that connects it all?
Kurt: The atmosphere of the place is the connection. It’s difficult to explain but you feel it. It’s sincerity and the basics of everything, which are very complicated of course. Don’t be deceived: to construct the Bodega was an enormous exercise.
Rabih: We are effortless in a way; it has to be natural. Or, if there is a lot of effort, like in all these projects in Spain, it is not forced. It is something very natural and comes from passion.
Tell us about the Rough Luxe website, a platform that other businesses can join?
Rabih: It’s a way of finding people who are fantastic at their craft and have something which is great for living a better life, but no one knows about them. How do you make them a little bit better known without distorting their message? This is really our mission on the Rough Luxe Experience. To take these great people, places and businesses that have an exclusive or special way of life, produce accessories to life, and make them well known in a common effort. Let’s communicate and make the whole world know about our activities in a genuine and simple way.
Kurt: Basically, the producers of luxury are elusive personalities. When you try to produce something exceptional – whether it is a shooting bow or a bodega – it is the exercise of getting it right without looking to a market. The market is irrelevant. It’s an issue of ethos and you behave like a samurai – you throw your sword and you cut. We have now around 30 clients on the Rough Luxe platform, dominated by properties of our ownership. My oldest daughter owns a hotel in Cape Town.
Do you change the properties that become members of Rough Luxe?
Kurt: For instance, with a small 9-bedroom hotel and restaurant, Lej da Staz, we did only some facelift work because we had to do something. The authorities would like us to do something more. We might knock it down and construct something new, or restore it outside and do something new inside. It was easier at Paradiso, the mountain restaurant. It was a local farmstead rebuilt, so it kept its character. We modernized it quite heavily so that we have the ideal ecologically self-sufficient space up in the mountains.
Everything about your estate here in Spain is luxurious. Where is the rough in Rough Luxe?
Kurt: The conception of luxe means that we are questioning the state of luxury. What is luxury? Luxury has deteriorated to a status of accessibility, a mass product. But luxury is something that needs an effort to get towards it, whether it is price-wise or value-wise. Luxury is a very elusive bitch! We are questioning the concept of luxury. That is the meaning of rough as we are roughing up the concept of luxury. We’re not really inventing anything new because at the end of the story it is something very elusive, very difficult, and very costly. It’s an issue of doing something regardless of cost to get the maximum amount of value and beauty. For example, we are working with the university in Zurich to develop the perfect carbon fiber structure for bow shooting. And all the silly exercises we do here to have a “boy scout” life, they’re all about having a luxury life.
Your philosophy sounds similar to the views of Alain de Botton.
Rabih: We are in contact with him! He came to the hotel and he was interested in us getting involved in The School of Life, which he is backing.
Was the idea of Rough Luxe a response to the economic crisis?
Rabih: The name Rough Luxe was not at all born out of the economical crisis of the last year. It was born three years ago specifically when we started looking at the hotel in London and the brand was created. A lot of people were already thinking the same thing and were already rejecting the idea of ostentatious luxury. We integrated the word luxury in it because in a way you cannot describe it any other way. Not to be polemic, but more to describe it the way we feel it is.
How do you feel about the more traditional luxury travel industry? What do you think they are doing that’s wrong?
Rabih: I don’t know if they are doing anything wrong, it’s just how life develops. If you produce a nice suitcase that has been made by a dozen artisans, you might become very popular. Then you might think you have to expand and suddenly everyone wants one of your suitcases. So the luxury suitcase maker is in trouble automatically! And it’s not that something is wrong with the suitcase. We thought we would go back to the roots and make a unique suitcase again. There is nothing wrong with the traditional luxury product as we know it but when they are being mass produced, it is a different business.
How do you differ from the big luxury travel brands?
Rabih: The language of luxury hospitality is to bring a great designer and tell him to put the maximum number of rooms in the minimum possible space and sell them for twice the price of its standard. We reject this. The experience you have here in Palamos is genuine. It’s a place that is a family home and somewhere that you cannot duplicate - the location but also the architecture and the people around you, as well as the owner, and its soul. This is the authenticity.
How will you make money from the Rough Luxe website and platform?
Rabih: This is when you see the generosity of Kurt and his way of living and of conducting business. Do we have a direct investment in the Rough Luxe businesses? Not necessarily. No, we are open to people who feel they can be part of our family and philosophy and we will start a journey together. How that will change, we don’t know.
Who are the people that come to rough luxe hotels and the website?
Rabih: It’s a mix of the investment banker from Switzerland, the artist from Holland, the American who is a member of a very wealthy family. They are people from different layers of society who have this attraction to the different, the special, the unique and the authentic. It’s all about authenticity. This is the real definition of Rough Luxe. You don’t try hard, you don’t fake things, and you just do it your way.
Kurt: Rough Luxe is everyone’s dream. All types of people and all economic levels dream of being in a very authentic place and to appreciate unique surroundings. Of course, they are guided by publications, and might be misguided, but they still have the dream. People without much means can allow themselves a certain product or to eat a fantastic marmalade, that they know the provenance of.
There seems to be an element of education to Rough Luxe. Is it the case that to truly appreciate it, one has already experienced traditional luxury before?
Rabih: Over the last 15 years there has been a lot of artificial luxury created. Luxury appeals to the masses, and some people have taken advantage of that. We are doing the opposite, we are not catering for the masses but for people who want something different and understand what we are doing without us having to sell it to them. They will get it or not.
If Rough Luxe is a philosophy, how are the aesthetics of the project defined?
Kurt: This is my personal style. What I love is shadows, and things that are a bit strange and exotic.
Rabih: There is no recipe for the aesthetic of Rough Luxe. There are Kurt’s properties, which are in his style. It’s not only a business driven platform; it is also a way of life and style.
How much of the Rough Luxe experience is about the unique properties owned and built by Kurt?
Rabih: There is an interesting value in real estate that you cannot quantify in a monetary way. There is one element in architecture and real estate, which has a social level that you cannot find in the design or location. We have tried to address this with Leo, the manger of the Rough Luxe hotel in London. He is fifty per cent of the project. With the other properties there are already gurus and people in place. We’re not creating a business for the sake of creating a business. We’re creating it for this social dimension.
How do you see the luxury market changing?
Rabih: It’s going back to what we identified three years ago with the idea for the hotel, which was authenticity. If you have a true story to tell, you can sell it; if you continue in your conviction to have something special or unique, you will get there. Knowing the story behind what you are consuming and knowing the provenance is the way forward for the luxury industry.
Kurt, you live very well. What are the pillars of your life?
Kurt: Personal engagement and the two areas where I have property, Switzerland and here in Palamos, Spain. Another pillar is the venture capitalist business of my family. As a financially liquid family we have had the opportunity to find our entrepreneurial spirit.
Other people who live as well as you do might write a book, or sell wine and olive oil. Why have you decided to open your private homes?
Kurt: Maybe it’s my relationship with property; I’m not very possessive. The start of this project was all private property. I always thought of myself as more of a public person and that we should be very naturally open to the public.
You are knowledgeable about wine, food, travel, cars and boats. Is there anything that would like to add to your life to enrich it?
Kurt: One of my dreams was to get a local hunting license, which is a crazy thing to do because it is a very special hunt, a solitary mountain hunt that is anti-social. The legal maximum amount of people to be seen together is four people. The gun is very special; it is a big caliber one-shot gun. It’s a hunt for local people not for gentlemen. In September, you can’t get plumbers or handymen because they’re all out hunting for three weeks! It’s a one and a half year training process, of which I’ve done half now.