Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, interviews the Swiss vegan interior designer and vegan hotel consultant Simone Aïda Baur to learn how you can do activism even by designing rooms and by helping hotels attract vegans.
I like to feel comfortable at home.
Not only in terms of having nice chairs and beds to sit and lay down but also in terms of functionality and aesthetics. Over the years, I have been adding and removing stuff all over the flats I have been living in, so I feel that, now, I have the right colours and decoration in each room, as well as everything is in the place I wanted it to be. We all do that, I suppose, but it may take us a long time to get there because, frankly, not all of us are proficient enough at it. However, some people can help you to get there sooner. Professionals who know how to read what you need after chatting with you, and who will be able to choose the right furniture, the right materials, the right textures, and the right layout so you can feel comfortable in your home or workplace, both physically and mentally. They are called interior designers, and not until yesterday that I met one.
No, I am not redecorating my flat or anything like that. I am not exploring new occupations or hobbies either. It wasn’t just a casual encounter in a social setting. It was an interview I conducted with a vegan activist whose activism is unique. So unique, that I had never even considered it before. Vegan activism through interior design. How on earth can you do that? Well, I often said that you can make a form of vegan activism from any activity or profession, and meeting Simone Aïda Baur via Zoom yesterday confirmed this theory. From her home in Zürich, she explained to me how she does it, both in people’s homes and soon in hotels, and it was fascinating.
Simone’s Vegan Journey
Veganism is a process, not a state, which begins with people deciding to follow this transformative philosophy after having thought about it thoroughly. But to get to that point, you need to be in the right state of mind and acquire the right information. Pre-vegans accumulate such information over time, especially with the help of vegan outreachers and activists whose job is to “plant the seeds” of veganism in people’s minds so they can germinate when the conditions are right. Simone’s veganism journey is a perfect example of that seed-planting process:
“I always had a very special connection to animals from when I was a child. I grew up in the Basel area close to nature and when I was born, our dog Toby was already there, and since my brother came much later, she was like a sibling to me. I also used to be that kind of kid who would save the little bird that I found, and I had snails and salamanders as pets. I always wanted to save and protect animals, but I didn’t make the connection at the time with eating animals and caring for them. But then, when I was a teenager, I heard about vegetarianism for the first time, because my father became a vegetarian. Although the rest of the family didn’t go vegetarian, it still changed our eating habits. I think when it comes to veganism it’s a journey. Usually, several seeds are planted, so I think that was the first seed. It made me more conscious about animals in food.
I then lived in the US as an exchange student for a year, so that thought kinda went out of my mind again, and I wasn’t really thinking about it that much, to be honest. A few years later when I was working in hotels in the Caribbean, I again started to get this sensation to follow a vegetarian diet (veganism wasn’t even on the radar yet for me, I don’t think I had ever even heard the term at that time). I can’t remember if I became fully vegetarian or what people now refer to as flexitarian, or maybe I was just a pescatarian, (I don’t really remember, to be honest), but I became more conscious again. But then, like some people still believe today ‘you have to eat meat to be healthy’, when I had some health issues they told me, ‘You have to eat red meat, otherwise it’s not good for you.’ So, I tried eating red meat again, which made me very sick the first time I had it, but I still kind of got stuck with it — just in small quantities.
Fast forward to the late 2000s, when I was with my partner at the time, who was a big meat eater, I kind of almost felt forced to eat more meat again. I was doing most of the cooking, but it always stressed me out. For instance, I could not cook a whole chicken. I would literally cry in the kitchen when I tried to. I never liked touching or cutting meat.
Over the years I gradually cut out pork and beef but was still eating chicken and fish until I decided to become pescatarian. In 2018, I finally went full vegetarian. At the time, I was thinking, ‘I’m doing the right thing, I’m doing it for the animals, for the environment, and so forth.’
I felt pretty good about that, to be honest, until I went to a vegan trade show in Zürich. I was standing in the queue, and I got talking to this guy, I have no idea who he was, but that turned out to be another big seed that was planted in me. When I proudly told him that I was vegetarian, he looked at me and he started to have a go at me like no stranger ever had. Out of the blue, he started telling me off and saying how horrible I was. He talked about the vigil he had been to, how the calves were taken away from their mothers, and everything that was going on in the dairy industry. He became very emotional about it. So, obviously, I was quite put off and thought, ‘Who the hell does he think he is talking to me like that?’
But it planted a seed, and I started to do some research. I started to realise, ‘I don’t agree with that, I’m not happy with that, but I really love cheese.’ I’m Swiss, after all, so I loved my cheese, but I slowly started to reduce dairy by drinking plant-based milk, for example.
Then, in 2021, I was dealing with some severe health issues, and the doctors couldn’t really find out what was wrong with me. I had a gut feeling that it had something to do with hormones. So, I once again did some research and that’s when the next and final seed was planted because I came across a video from a vegan doctor in the United States, Dr Neal Barnard, and he said that ‘milk causes lots of hormonal issues’, which makes perfect sense, because milk has all these hormones that are meant for a baby cow and not for human beings.
It was like somebody lifted the veil from my eyes. It just clicked, and I went to my kitchen, looked at what was in there, and said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to finish eating what I have in here, and then I’m going vegan.’ It was in the summer of 2021, just before my 50th birthday. I then started to do more research about veganism. First of all, because of my health, but also just generally. So, I would say that, probably, my initial motivation was for the animals as well as for the environment, the catalyst was my own health, but the reason I’m staying vegan, and I’ve committed to this lifestyle on all levels, is definitely for the animals.”
Simone’s Professional Journey
As is the case with many people, it seems that Simone took some time to reach veganism because every time a seed was planted some environmental circumstances seemed to push her in the opposite direction. The Cheese-loving Swiss culture, university life, partners’ demands, and the wrong health advice, were all obstacles that delayed the process, but it did not stop it. When I learned that she had moved 25 times, lived in seven countries, and speaks six languages (five of which we share), I suspected her professional journey was equally as long. She confirmed it:
“I started my career in hotels. After my A levels in Switzerland, I decided to take a gap year, which turned into a couple of years, and I spent those in Jamaica, of all places. I watched a movie called Cocktail with Tom Cruise, which takes place in Jamaica. I’d never been to an exotic place like that before and when I saw those beaches and waterfalls, I was completely fascinated. I literally just went ahead and sent my CV to some hotels via fax, and got a job in a hotel in Montego Bay. That’s how my journey started.
After gaining some experience in hotels, I decided to come back to Switzerland and study tourism management. I did that and then went back to the Caribbean, working in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic for a few years. I was very career driven and this led me to Dubai. Dubai was absolutely booming in the early 2000s. It was considered one of the best career steps in the hotel industry at the time. So, I went to Dubai and ended up staying for five years, working my way up into management. I had originally started at the front desk back in Jamaica, have worked as an entertainment coordinator, in public relations, guest relations, and then eventually ended up in sales and marketing.
Because of my journey and because I travelled so much, I always had a need to feel at home wherever I was, which made me realise just how important our surroundings are. I have always loved decorating and designing. My dad is a civil engineer and also worked as an architect. He designed our family home, and he taught me from a young age how to draw to scale. My mom on the other hand, always loved styling and decorating. So, they both influenced me. Architecture, interior design and art always played an important role when I was growing up, but I also always felt a desire to travel and explore the world.
When I was living in the Dominican Republic I designed my own furniture and had it locally made by carpenters and blacksmiths. In Dubai again I had furniture custom-built and this urge to pursue interior design as a career grew even stronger. Dubai has some of the most amazing hotels, I was just blown away and felt really inspired. Working in Sales, I also got to travel a lot for my job. I would travel to Europe, the US, and even Russia to promote our hotels, and I would always stay at these stunning hotels. I started to photograph every detail, like the corner of a chair or a table, the curtains, and everything that caught my attention. I just felt that it’s so important that we feel comfortable in our home, so I decided to sign up for a distance learning diploma course at KLC School of Design in Chelsea Harbor in London. I did it on the side and eventually I moved to London to start a new job as Director of Sales in the Regional Sales office of a luxury hotel brand. In London, I met my now ex-partner. When he was offered a job in the Caribbean, in the British Virgin Islands, I decided to follow him. That was the first time I quit my job, because I was always this career-driven woman, but I decided to give love a chance.
Since I wasn’t working, I put a lot more effort into my studies. As luck had it, a guy working with my boyfriend at the time was building a house. He was a local guy from Tortola, and he needed some help. It was my very first project. I created a design concept for the entire home, and we would go shopping together in Miami and in Puerto Rico to select the materials, kitchen cabinetry and sanitary ware. We soon moved to Switzerland, so I did most of the project remotely from here.
After working for a Swiss luxury furniture manufacturer, I launched my interior design business Global Inspirations Design in 2014.”
A couple of years later, I went back to visit the BVI and got to see the completed project for the first time. While there, I also organized a photoshoot and posted the pictures on my Facebook page. Someone in the BVI saw them and suggested I’d enter my project into a contest run by a Caribbean luxury lifestyle magazine. So, I did, and I ended up winning a design award for the most stylish kitchen in the Virgin Islands. This was obviously very exciting, especially since the award was for my very first project.
Personalised Vegan Activism
The Global Inspirations Design website states that it is the first certified Vegan Founded interior design consultancy, so I asked Simone what exactly this means. She explained it very well:
“Vegan Founded is an organization in the UK and they basically certify businesses that are vegan in terms of what they offer, but also the person who owns the business has to be vegan. Their belief is that it’s better for vegans to buy from vegans, and that it helps promote veganism. At the end of the day, if I buy a vegan product from a non-vegan company, I’m still helping them with the rest of their business which is non-vegan, versus if I go to a little shop down the road that only sells vegan products, and the owners are vegan themselves, it’s a different experience altogether. Plus, I know my money will not go towards animal cruelty. I applied to become certified, and I was the first interior designer that got the vegan founded certification.”
Simone is more than a vegan founder of a vegan business. She is a vegan activist because she is building the vegan world one curtain, one cushion, or one lamp at a time. She is not living in a vegan bubble servicing only vegan clients. On the contrary, she operates in the carnist world veganising non-vegans houses and projects, whether or not those who commission them knew that would be the result. She is a vegan activist who does her own style of activism, using what she knows better. She explains:
“I’m not the type of activist that takes to the streets with a sign board, that’s just not really my personality. I don’t really like crowds to start with, so I don’t feel comfortable doing that, but I believe that my kind of activism is equally important because we need vegan activism from different angles.
I came to realise that, as one person, there’s only so much I can do, but with my work, I can have a much bigger impact, because I can influence other people. I can’t really tell them what to eat and what not to eat, but as an interior designer, when I’m designing their home, I can influence what kind of materials they use in their homes. And that’s when I started to research about vegan interior design.
Since becoming vegan 2 and a half years ago, I have been focusing more on vegan materials for my projects, but I also started to drive change in the interior design industry and just make people more aware of the materials they’re using. For instance, I didn’t think much about wool before, or even leather. It was just something you use, and everybody thought it was just a by-product of the meat industry anyway and the animal had already died, which unfortunately isn’t always the case. But the more I looked into it, the more I became passionate about it. I said, ‘I need to change this, this is not right,’ and that’s how I got into vegan interior design.
I raise awareness in my industry, talk to people about it, and I’m basically ‘the annoying vegan’ who keeps asking questions, especially when speaking to suppliers. When I work on projects, I simply don’t suggest anything that is not vegan to my clients and only source and specify vegan materials to my best knowledge. I don’t suggest the obvious — fur (which I’ve actually never used), leather, wool, down, and silk, but I would also source paint that is vegan. Most conventional paints have casein in them, and sometimes some kind of animal fats. Shellac can also be an issue. Dyes can also be non-vegan, so you have to be careful what kind of fabrics you use. Also, towels are non-vegan, because conventional towel-making uses animal fats during the manufacturing process to soften the yarn. And also, the old furniture glue may come from animals. There are lots of animal by-products hidden in materials we use that may surprise you.
I’ve not worked with any vegan clients yet. The people I work with are non-vegans, but I just present them with a design concept and materials as I always had, just that now these materials are vegan. If I show them the wall paint for example, I simply say, ‘These are the colours I suggest and they’re from a company in the UK I work with. And when I explain to them that these products are vegan, but they’re also very low in toxins, they’re better for your health, they’re better for the environment, very few people would say, ‘No, I don’t want that.’ So, I give them choices, but I give them choices based on the overall design concept and by using vegan materials, so it’s not really an issue.
At the moment, more natural and healthy oftentimes means more expensive, in part because it’s not mass-produced yet. Therefore, vegan materials — and I think that will change in the coming years — can be more expensive, especially materials such as natural fruit leathers because the production is not at that volume yet, but if there’s a budget — which in most cases there is — I can balance things out. I can always buy something that’s really expensive and then make up for it with something a little bit less expensive to stay within the budget.”
I recently saw the news about Beck Hall, a small hotel in Yorkshire claiming to be the first plant-based hotel in England. There have been other hotels around the world that now claim to be vegan (although several of these may be only vegan as far as food is concerned). For instance, in Europe we have the Saorsa 1875 in Scotland (11 rooms); the Greenstone Lodge in Scotland; the Vegan Agrivilla | Pini in Tuscany, Italy (11 rooms & suites); the La Vimea in South Tyrol, Italy; the Koukoumi Hotel in Mykonos, Greece; the Ethos in Santorini, Greece; the Le Cheval Blanc in Southwest France; the Villa Vegana in Mallorca (8 rooms & suites); the Ahead Burghotel in Germany (39 rooms); the Marriott in Antwerp, Belgium (139 rooms); and in the rest of the world we have the Mother Earth Luxury Boutique Hotel in Costa Rica (14 rooms); the Palmaïa The House of Aïa in Riviera Maya, Mexico; the Stanford Inn in California, USA; and the Farm at San Benito in Philippines (60 villas & suites).
With this recent emergence of vegan hotels, Simone started a new career move, returning to her professional roots, but now with a vegan twist. She started a new business called Vegan Hotel Concepts. She explains what it’s all about:
“Having a background in the hospitality industry, I always stayed close to the hotel industry. As they say, once a hotelier, always a hotelier, because it becomes like a part of your DNA. Even with Global Inspirations Design, I managed to find a way, by writing hotel reviews on my blog. I would visit design-driven and fancy luxury hotels and then write about them, but nowadays I always have mixed feelings because my experience as a vegan is very different from the experience I had as a pre-vegan. First of all, because of the food, but also when I go to the room and yes, it’s a beautifully designed room, but there is leather, there’s wool, all this stuff, and the toiletries are not vegan. It’s just not the same experience anymore.
So, about a year ago, I was looking for vegan hotels to write about in my Global Inspirations Design blog. When I was researching vegan hotels I thought, ‘Okay, maybe I find some nice vegan hotels I can visit and write about.’ But then suddenly, I had like an epiphany: ‘Why don’t I put my experiences, my expertise, my passions, and my values, and just put them all in one pot, mix it, stir it, and come up with something new?’ And that’s how it just clicked. I think it was around midnight and I was in front of my laptop, and I just started crying. I said to myself, ‘This is what I want to do, this is my purpose, something to do with vegan, hospitality, and design, and just mix it all together.’ And that’s how I came up with Vegan Hotel Concepts. While I’m still in the process of defining my offering, it’s not just about hotel design, but I basically want to help hotels create a seamless customer journey for discerning vegan guests by crafting an entire vegan hotel concept – from booking to check-out.
I stayed at a hotel in London, the Hilton London Bankside, that has a fully vegan suite. It has had quite a ripple effect and there are more and more vegan hotels, vegan rooms, and vegan suites popping up all over.
The idea is that from the moment the guest arrives, they know they’re taken care of, you don’t need to repeat yourself a million times, you don’t need to explain to everyone that you’re vegan, why you’re vegan, what that means, what you eat, what you don’t eat. You can just be a normal guest and be treated as a normal guest, not worse, not better.
I want to help hotels create that holistic journey including the rooms, the staff, the materials, the food that’s available in the mini bar, the spa and bath amenities, and of course, the design of the rooms. Just the entire guest experience, so a vegan guest can experience the same as a traditional guest. Whether it’s the entire hotel — because my dream is to design an entire small boutique hotel which is 100% vegan — or a hotel that just wants to attract and accommodate some vegan guests and maybe have one room or two, or just one vegan suite. Create that concept, that journey, from beginning to end. That’s basically the idea. I also plan to offer vegan hotel consulting services for hotels who only want help with specific areas, such as their menus, the bathroom amenities or marketing to vegan guests.
The Vegan Hotels Concept will become my main focus in future, and I plan to offer my services globally. My goal is to move back to the Caribbean and work remotely from there. Having said this, I’m not ditching Global Inspirations Design and will continue to offer vegan interior design services and work with private clients, who want to veganise their homes.”
Like George G. Hayek, who created the first fully vegan hospital in Lebanon, Simone is another Vegan-Maker I had the privilege to interview. Someone who is building the vegan world of the future with whatever tools she has at her disposal. In this case, her interior designer skills, her experience travelling and living in different cultures, her language abilities, her profound knowledge of the hotel business, and, of course, her veganism. She has become an expert in veganising homes and hotels, and this is the kind of expertise we need. For every profession, every service, and every product, we need experts at veganising them. This is what vegan-makers are.
However, what I like the most about what she does is that she does not work in the comfort of the vegan bubble —something that many vegans end up doing, like myself. She is doing all this vegan-making in the core of the carnist world, and this is why she is also a vegan activist and outreacher. Someone who can make people choose vegan options even before they become vegan, gradually opening them to the philosophy before being introduced to it.
There is a lot of merit in that.