AT THE TOP OF THEIR GAME

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

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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 eco­camps­forthePlat­tnerandBuf­fet­tfoun­da­tion­sintheDRC. “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.

PHOTO: EL­IZ­A­BETH SE­JAKE

TOP OF THE WORLD

Maira Kout­soudakis

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