Seated by a glowing fireplace of a garden restaurant on a chilly evening, Anna Trzebinski talks about her relentless power of design.
Over the years, the self-taught interior and fashion designer has transformed spaces, some of her homes, into artistic exquisite hotels.
The first one was 18 years ago when she designed the high-end Lemarti’s Camp in a remote part of northern Laikipia and ran it with her second husband, Loyaban Lemarti.
All interiors and structures were her creations, even though she had never made a tent before.
“I’m one of those people not afraid to try. And if you fail, so what?” she says.
The outside-the-box hotelier loves immersive, meaningful hospitality.
Besides running a global clothing brand for 20 years, in the middle of Covid-19, she launched Eden hotel in Nairobi’s Karen, an exclusive property for discerning travellers and creative intellectuals.
Now she has established a new paradise on Lamu island, her third project, a place where visitors can retreat and immerse in the seafaring culture.
Ms Trzebinksi started her career on a conventional route. Her undergraduate and Master’s degrees are in politics, international relations and law from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, followed by postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics.
However, she did enjoy a History of Art course at Sotheby’s education department.
Returning to Kenya, she worked at the Kenya Wildlife Service between 1989 to 1992, under the late Dr Richard Leakey.
Then she met Tonio Trzebinski, a Kenyan-born artist of British and Polish heritage. They fell in love and married in 1991.
Her life was taken up with her children, supporting Tonio’s art career, and building a home on a Nairobi land given by her father, with some seed money from her grandmother.
“Like all building projects, the funds ran out early, so it was up to us to make everything we needed,” says Ms Trzebinski.
That was the genesis of her D-I-Y [do it yourself] skills in interior design and furniture-making using local materials, salvaged boat wood, and collections of Africana decor items.
At Eden which is now under Hemingways Hotels management, Tonio’s huge oil paintings and charcoal sketches adorn the walls.
In various rooms are stunning bronze sculptures by her son Stanislaw and ceramic vessels by her daughter Lana. Built under duress in an impressive eight months, Ms Trzebinski called the new urban haven ‘Eden’.
Birthed by passion
Her high-end clothing and jewellery business was also birthed by passion. While pregnant with her daughter in 1993, she started decorating pashminas, handbags and leather coats with beads, brass bits, feathers and more.
“I’m not a designer by profession or education and didn’t know how to make patterns,” she says.
“But I always know how I like things to look; I find my way to it, and that’s how I learned.”
The cottage business grew into an international brand of handmade attire and eclectic accessories. For 20 years, she travelled overseas to fulfil orders for private sales.
Ms Trzebinski's couture clothes were sold at Donna Karan in the US, Paul Smith in Britain, and the luxury Hemingways Nairobi hotel.
It was during that upward trajectory that her personal life was upended by the loss of her husband in October 2001.
The wilderness of Laikipia, a favourite destination since childhood, is where she retreated to navigate the “treacherous journey” of grief and find herself and her raison d’etre.
“My whole life, the place where healing came from was the earth and the people of this country.”
In 2015, Ms Trzebinski relocated to the US, her most profitable market, to continue the artisanal luxury line in Aspen, Colorado.
Nervous about renting out her beloved Nairobi home to strangers, she converted it into a small bed and breakfast lodge.
She packed away her belongings and rented the house to a local tour operator as their Nairobi stopover for arriving safari guests.
The US shop was successful until she was forced to vacate the premises. The new location was less lucrative, so Ms Trzebinski packed up and, returned to Kenya in 2018.
The 2020 global pandemic halted the fashion and hotel industries overnight, and the bed and breakfast business was returned to her.
To avoid laying off staff and tailors, Ms Trzebinski sold her clothing inventory online at cost prices to pay their wages.
She also boldly decided to ramp up the hospitality, taking out “a huge loan” to retain the team, redecorate, and build new facilities, including a restaurant deck and natural pond.
Despite social restrictions and interrupted travel, Eden opened in mid-2021 to small gatherings of local creatives, friends and like-minded people, hosting residencies, and writing retreats.
Covid cemented many things for Ms Trzebinski about life moving forward, which was more than putting heads on beds.
“Who are we as Africans, and what is my relevance here? I’m 57 years old, and my country is 59,” she told BDLife.
Her former home is now under new management, by Hemingways Collections [which already owns three hotels in Nairobi, Watamu and Maasai Mara], but it remains the tranquil haven that Ms Trzebinski created, imbued with the essence of her family.
“At this hotel, you will understand who we were and what was important to us. It was a pretty vulnerable show-and-tell of one family,” she says.
Ms Trzebinski, a mother of three, has shown an amazing capacity to be vulnerable and reinvent herself out of tough situations.
Giving up her cherished home in 2022 and recently becoming a follower of “Christ and his teachings” coincided with her healing from the loss of Tonio 21 years later.
She still loves wearing beautiful things and feeling adorned. Currently, she is reinventing and relaunching her fashion line “with a newly found post-Covid sensibility deeply rooted in my African-ness.”
Today, her new Eden is Jannah (‘paradise’ in Arabic), a constellation hotel she has established in Lamu’s Shela village and featuring an artist-in-residence programme.
Naturally, she has curated every aspect of the design, weaving together Swahili culture and contemporary chic styles, emboldened in this new project by the success of Eden.
“I prefer creating experiences and spaces for visitors to feel empowered, places linked to nature and community where you can feel the peace and connect with yourself,” she says.