By Selina Denman

The Wilson Foundation, established by Trisha Wilson to address the needs of disadvantaged and underserved children in South Africa, has raised a whopping $2.5 million since its launch in 1997 – no mean feat for a woman who started her career selling mattresses in a department store in Dallas, Texas.

She went on, of course, to design some of the most iconic hotels in the world. The president and CEO of Wilson Associates has worked on projects such as The Palace of the Lost City at Sun City in South Africa, the Atlantis Hotel & Casino on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, the MGM Grand in Connecticut, the Four Seasons Regent Sydney and the Conrad Bangkok.

In this part of the world, she is best known for projects such as the Park Hyatt, the One & Only Royal Mirage, The Palace, Old Town, and the Kempinski, all in Dubai, Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa in Muscat and the Four Seasons at the First Residence in Cairo. At present, the company has over 200 projects in progress.

Early on in her career, Wilson made a commitment to “do good work, treat people right and give back”. Hence the Wilson Foundation, which supports education and healthcare initiatives in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, an area devastated by extreme poverty, unemployment, sub-standard education and an AIDS pandemic. In November, Wilson Associates received CID’s inaugural Sustainable Design Initiative award, for its commitment to corporate social responsibility and its unfailing efforts to use design as a tool for social change.

The award was handed out in recognition of the foundation’s most recent initiative, the Hope Bracelet. All proceeds from sales of the 14mm black onyx bracelet go to helping support education and healthcare initiatives for disadvantaged children.

CID caught up with Wilson to learn more about the work of the foundation, and about how Wilson Associates has weathered the storm of recent years.

What are you working on right now?

We currently have over 200 projects in the works. It is quite incredible. It’s hard to believe our work can be seen in 46 countries spanning six continents. We have many high-profile projects currently underway in the Middle East, ranging from large-scale residential developments to official government buildings and high-end hotels.

We have completed several signature projects this year in China, including the InterContinental Nanjing and Grand Hyatt Shenzhen. Blueplate Studios’ recent work can be seen at the Doubletree Kuala Lumpur, at the Makan Kitchen, and a fresh new Italian concept at the Hilton Singapore. Other projects on the board include the Conrad Haipang Bay Resort in Sanya, China, Park Hyatt Saadiyat Island, Shangri-La Hotel Mumbai, India, Armani Hotel via Manzoni in Milan, Italy, St Regis Doha, Qatar, Four Season Cairo, Egypt, Shangri-La Bangkok, Thailand, St. Regis Zhuhai and the Four Seasons Tianjin.

You have created a number of hotels in Middle Eastern style. How difficult is it to create modern reinterpretations of Middle Eastern design?

At Wilson Associates, we create each project to interpret the vision of our clients. We incorporate a sense of place, use local materials and artisans, and draw inspiration from the site and its surroundings. It’s so important to learn about the various aspects of the specific culture and recognise their impact on design. Understanding the difference between Middle Eastern and western culture is crucial.

I have found our clients in the Middle East to be very open and interested in cutting-edge design, which is exciting for us in the creative process. They push us to obtain new and unique sources, materials and applications. Every project is a new design challenge.

How is working in the Middle East different to working in other parts of the world, would you say?

When designing in the Middle East, Arabic culture and religion must be respected. There are a number of issues to be considered, such as sense of place (e.g. separate men’s and women’s areas in the spa), alcohol licensing laws, choice of artwork, etc.

How did you become involved with the design industry?

I started off selling mattresses in a department store in Dallas, Texas. From there I began doing residential design, then moved on to restaurant design through a residential client. I started Wilson Associates in 1971 because of my love and desire to be creative through design.

My first big design project was The Anatole Hotel in Dallas, which I landed by making a gutsy phone call to the developer. There were certainly some challenges that we had to overcome then, though what I learned through that project has influenced me my entire career: that there is never any challenge too great! In fact, my personal and company motto has become: ‘It can be done’.

How does Wilson Associates differentiate itself in a highly competitive field?

Luxury isn’t just about designing interiors; it’s about creating unique places. Success is found when we capture the spirit of a place and bring the client’s vision to life. We have been in the Middle East for over 20 years now. Wilson Associates had the opportunity to design a personal residence in Abu Dhabi for someone who had seen our work at the Palace of the Lost City in Africa. That was a large job and enabled us to establish ourselves in the Middle East.

To some degree, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. From that initial project we became known in the Middle East market at the same time that the hospitality market started booming. We have been fortunate enough to work on some of the most exciting hotel projects in the region.

How have you responded to the challenging operating conditions of the last few years?

My goal over the past few years has been to determine how we can create opportunities out of the challenges we face. As a small business owner, I am in a unique position to not only survive the tough times, but actually turn them to my advantage. I have always believed that flexibility is the key to weathering the storm, and those who survive are usually the most adaptable to changing circumstances.

Current steps that I am taking include watching my cash flow as never before, and focusing on conserving the cash. You cannot unspend money. Also, I have never been one to follow forecasts or models, but have found myself seeking new priorities – there has never been a better time to re-examine your goals! These priorities include realising that where new development has slowed, opportunities for renovation have grown. Small changes through renovation can go a long way and have a big impact.

In addition, our focus is now on different aspects of the market – healthcare, commercial, senior living, and specialty food and beverage design. We recently launched several studios: BluePlate, a food and beverage studio that focuses on creating unique restaurant concepts worldwide; Inn-Box Global Turnkey Solutions that provides a comprehensive approach to the design, specification, sourcing, manufacturing and delivery of FF&E for hospitality and commercial residential projects; as well as Medica Design, which offers the client forward-thinking healthcare design solutions. It’s important to keep in mind that in Chinese, the words for crisis and opportunity share a character.

Tell us about The Wilson Foundation. How did this come about?

When I established The Wilson Foundation in 1997 my motivation was to create a way to give back, and to help provide an education for disadvantaged children. As the foundation has grown, we have expanded our support into healthcare and youth development programmes, and such basic services as food, clothing and shelter.

For the present, we are focusing most of our support in a vastly underserved area of South Africa. We believe that focusing our efforts in a specific area over a sustained period of time, with the support of local representatives working in the community, we can manage and measure the effectiveness of our grants. We can truly see the difference we are making!

As we have grown, we have added new ways to help raise money for The Wilson Foundation, such as our Hope Bracelet, a black 14mm onyx bracelet with a pave-set logo charm. The Hope Bracelet is a great way for people to support the work of the foundation. In fact, giving back never looked so good!

Do you think that businesses have a responsibility to give back in this way?

I have always believed that it is important to give back. In fact, I have a favourite saying: Do good work, treat people right, give back, and success will follow. In the case of Wilson Associates, it is part of our corporate culture. We all share a commitment to helping others, either in our own communities or – in the case of The Wilson Foundation – in rural South Africa. We also have many employees around the world who have taken on their own volunteer initiatives, and I am proud of each and every one of them.

What kind of initiatives is the Wilson Foundation currently involved with?

The Wilson Foundation currently focuses most of its efforts in Limpopo Province, South Africa, in a rural community where we are the only US non-profit organisation providing financial support year round. We fund a range of healthcare initiatives, including a mobile clinic and an HIV/AIDS prevention and support group, antiretroviral (ARV) medications for HIV/AIDS patients, a feeding programme for orphans and other vulnerable children, scholarships so that disadvantaged children may receive a quality education, a Boys2Men mentoring programme for local teenage boys, and food, clothing and shelter for vulnerable teen boys.

Our mission is to ‘Change Lives, One Child at a Time’. We know we can only do this by taking a holistic approach – we must address the needs of the whole child, as well as the adults in their life.

Is there anything that you haven’t designed yet but would like to?

Over the years I have designed a presidential yacht, palaces for royalty (I think my youngest client was nine!), private aviation transportation (a 747-SP, 737-BBJ and G-550), and a swimming pool for racing camels… Just when I think I have seen it all, a project presents itself and surprises me!