Winning Women – Maira Koutsoudakis: A Life of design

2014-10-14 08:00

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Maira Koutsoudakis, CEO of the Life group of companies and Life Interiors, Architecture and Strategic Design, has spun a web of simple but striking beauty over everything she has touched, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

Internationally acclaimed interior architect Maira Koutsoudakis works in an aesthetic heaven, her Hyde Park boutique office loft reflecting the unique style that graces island resorts, African safari lodges and her Life restaurants.

We meet at Life Grand Café at Hyde Park Corner in Joburg. She’s clad in a svelte, black, leather skirt and black stiletto heels. Soon I’m trotting to keep up as we flash through the shopping ­centre and up to her eyrie.

She orders coffee and it arrives with two cakes, and her mother’s mouthwatering cinnamon and clove biscuits.

Koutsoudakis does nothing by half measures.

She zips me around her studio, where her designers are working on projects ranging from private islands, resorts, ­luxury lodges and restaurants, to commercial and ­residential.

The projects are in the Seychelles, London, Botswana, Namibia, Madagascar, Mozambique, the Democratic ­Republic of Congo (DRC), Spain, Greece and, of course, South Africa.

I tell her it makes me giddy just listening to the list of her design footprints, and her chuckle is unaffected and genuine.

I download a list of her company’s awards, which include Condé Nast Traveller UK’s Best of the Best in the world, the BBC’s Best Eco-Resort in the World, and numerous awards for hospitality and product design.

Maybe her signature print is best exemplified by North Island in the Seychelles, where George Clooney and his new bride, Amal, are honeymooning. Brad Pitt suggested it after the Brangelina clan spent a holiday there.

It is rumoured Prince William and Kate spent part of their honeymoon there too.

Certainly, the world’s glitterati jet off there to luxuriate in the stark simplicity of elegant designs that fuse with nature.

Organic aesthetic is how Koutsoudakis describes it.

“When we were approached to build the lodge, we created wooden stools from road-clearance projects. We were ‘doing green’ in 1999 at a time when South Africa hadn’t even heard of energy-saving bulbs,” says Koutsoudakis.

When she could not afford a splendid Italian chair for a project, “we made our own, inspired by the nature of the area”. By the time North Island was complete, Koutsoudakis was only 27 years old. Since then she and her team, which includes her business partner and engineer husband John Koutsoudakis, have created extraordinary lodges.

One is made from sandbags in Namibia’s Damaraland, there’s a camp on stilts in the Okavango Delta, and two luxury ecocamps for the Plattner and Buffett foundations in the DRC. “It aims to save the gorillas and the rainforest,” she says. She climbed a palm tree to gaze at the forest canopy “for ­inspiration and to imagine how the gorillas see it”.

No wonder her work has been exhibited internationally in the two Design Made in Africa exhibitions, and at the North meets South exhibitions in Paris, New York and Stockholm.

Furthermore, her studio’s projects debut this month at the acclaimed Triennale Design Museum in Milan before moving on to Brussels, Helsinki and Paris.

She’s also had a solo show – Essence: The work of Maira Koutsoudakis – at the University of Johannesburg’s gallery and her designs are featured in the permanent collection of the Saint-Etienne design museum in France.

“I knew, even as a girl, that I’d be an interior architect. When my friends made doll’s clothes, I made houses.”

But life was tough back then. Her father died when she was 13 months old, leaving her mother, who had arrived from Greece aged 17 with few skills, to bring up two daughters.

“She was a sales representative who used her culinary ­talents to create menus for the mines. She was in her 40s when she started her own business, ultimately feeding more than 115?000 people a day,” says Koutsoudakis.

Her voice is rich with pride about a mother who never remarried and told her girls “always rely on yourself”.

It’s an ethos Koutsoudakis clearly imbibed because, while she was studying three-dimensional design in interior ­architecture at what is today UJ, she simultaneously did a BA Honours in ­history of art and English literature at Unisa.

Her thirst to learn more took her to the Domus Academy in Milan to complete postgraduate studies in design direction in 1996. There she joined practising professionals from all over the world and they were lectured by the likes of Renzo Rosso?–?the genius behind Diesel jeans.

“I also learnt the business side of design and how to use creative tools to make something even greater,” she says.

“Here at Life we change people’s mind-sets about how to travel while simultaneously saving the environment.”

By 1999 Koutsoudakis had opened “South Africa’s first ­lifestyle emporium at Mandela Square”.

A decade on, she focused her energy on opening four Life Collection stores and Life Grand Café restaurants in Hyde Park, Waterfall in Midrand, in Pretoria and in the Seychelles.

She and her husband are also involved in property ­development here, in Europe and in the Indian Ocean ­Islands. “It sounds hectic, but I insist on balance in our lives. For my last milestone birthday we took our two children, aged five and seven, and our extended families off to North Island,” says Koutsoudakis. Her Life design studio is already working on two new ­businesses in Joburg’s burgeoning Newtown precinct, “which is spearheading the inner city’s revival”, says this lively, new-world spirit. Little?pink book

Business tip

Find a mentor, someone you admire and trust.

Mentor

My mother, even though at the time I didn’t realise she was my mentor. There was always a gaping hole where my dad should have been.

Business book

Paul Arden’s It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be. It’s so inspirational I buy it and give it away. The Meaning of the 21st Century by James

Martin is also a must-read.

Inspiration

Nature. It’s my partner in all my designs.

Wow! moment

Taking my family to North Island for one night after I had worked on it for 15 years.

Life lesson

Do one thing that scares you every day. Some things scare me a lot and that’s good.

See Women on Wealth on CNBC Africa, DStv channel 410, at 9.15pm on Wednesday for more interviews with winning women. Follow the Twitter conversation #WOW410

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