Indonesia is made up of 17,508 islands. Bonkers. It’s the largest archipelago in the world. Lying within it, on the island of Bali, is Desa Potato Head. It has nothing to do with our brown starchy friend, though. It’s actually a subterranean kingdom, a sustainable oasis, a cultural centre-meets-hotel in the heart of Seminyak. It’s the mega holiday resort you’ve probably never heard of.
It’s been a little over a decade since ambitious hotelier Ronald Akili had the idea for Potato Head with his biz partner Jason Gunawan. Given the sheer scale of the resort (it’s on a three-hectare beachside plot) and its international cool-factor (parties, parties, parties!), it’s wild to think that Potato Head started off as a casual restaurant in Jakarta, where Akili had moved after spending 13 years in Hawaii. But right from the beginning the duo had big plans to build something meaningful.
“We wanted to introduce something new in the hospitality industry, something like a community-based MoMA PS1 or Barbican meets hospitality,” Akili says over Zoom, dialling in from Singapore. “That’s the approach we wanted to take when building Potato Head. We didn’t want to create another resort where people go there, get totally loose, go back and everything is back to normal.”
Right there. That’s the selling point for Potato Head. This isn’t a getaway to get pissed, laid and arrive back in Heathrow with a dodgy tribal tattoo two weeks later. Rather, it’s an immersive resort where you can unwind and lose yourself in the art, music, design and food initiatives on offer, in the interest of becoming a better version of you. The resort prides itself on sustainability, too. Furniture is made out of recycled plastic bottles, used cooking oil is turned into candles, wine bottles are recycled and turned into wine glasses.
Over the years, Potato Head has also played host to a number of cultural touchpoints. In 2017, they partnered with the Stüssy Tribe for a mix of live performances from Benji B, Martelo, Patta’s Soundsystem and Acyde, and Tremaine Emory’s all-encompassing nightlife hybrid, No Vacancy Inn.
A year later, they celebrated the one-year anniversary of Singapore’s Dover Street Market, partnering with DSM on a line of tropical-printed shirts alongside designs by Fergus “Fergadelic” Purcell of Palace and Aries. Most recently, just before the pandemic, Potato Head launched Design Week, with established names like super cool British furniture designer Max Lamb heading up workshops on how to make DIY recycled plastic furniture for local communities.
“We had local talents and designers showing off their products,” Akili says. “We had the Dutch Design Foundation partnership showing you sustainable materials, too.” In between, local musicians and DJs played sets, and Virgil Abloh closed the week off with a special gig. “Being able to go on holiday, get all of that and return back is all part of being in the Potato Head community.”
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has left a sizable dent in Potato Head. Like most hoteliers, Akili had to make the difficult decision to shut up shop for over a year as Covid-19 ravaged through Indonesia, with 4.2m cases reported since early last year. The community – the core of Potato Head – was brought to a halt. But Akili has taken it in his stride and devised a plan of action, the Sweet Potato Project, designed to give back to the Balinese people and work towards a sustainable future.
“We believe the impact of the pandemic is going to linger for a while, so we want to do our part,” he says. “We’ve been teaching locals about regenerative farming, which helps to absorb carbon and also feeds the communities that need it.”
As well, over the past year, Potato Head has been gathering produce every week, working with Green School, an international school in Bali, using a zero-waste bio bus to revolutionise transport in the city. Using that, Potato Head has been serving “over 14,000 meals and we want to continue that”.
For them, it’s not just about feeding people, but about gathering the community together with a “positive vibe,” as Akili says. “We want to take the idea of extending what we do with sustainability and making it beautiful, relevant and accessible.”