30. Milena Cvijanovich: Bringing sustainability into the world of luxury


Milena Cvijanovich talks to Sue Stockdale about her work as a designer and architect focusing on sustainable luxury, and how inspiration plays a role in her work. Serbo-Swiss, US-educated architect, Milena has always been passionate about craftsmanship, sustainable design, alternative natural resources, social entrepreneurship and collaborative business opportunities.

With a Masters in Architecture from Carnegie Mellon University and inspired by her physicist father, Dr. George B. Cvijanovich, one of the first inventors of the solar panel, Milena is the recipient of numerous scholarships and awards in architecture and entrepreneurship. Founder of Milena C Designs, an international architecture and interior design firm and specialized since 1994 in eco-luxury design. She counts Blancpain, Beaufort Hotels, MCM, Intrawest, Logitech and the World Economic Forum among her prestigious clientèle.

Milena has guest lectured on Sustainable Innovation, Sustainable Luxury and Cross-cultural Design Management in Luxury MBA programs and at conferences in Europe and the Middle East and has been an official contributor to Forbes Magazine and other international magazines.

Based in Monaco, Milena is the co-founder of a new sustainable luxury platform, bringing together those who enjoy the finest life has to offer, yet have a keen desire to protect the planet and its inhabitants. This latest venture, NOMADESSENCE, specialises in designing, curating and gifting spaces, materials, bespoke objects and art while contributing to heritage preservation and social empowerment. Her vision is to showcase the amazing stories of stunning mindful design, innovative upcycling, and inspiring pioneers in Sustainable Luxury.

Find out more about Milena Cvijanovich via LinkedIn or Instagram and at her websites Milena C Designs and Nomadessence 

Milena Cvijanovich transcription

Sue: [00:00:00] hi, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to the Access to Inspiration podcast. The show where you can get inspiration from people who may be on unlike you, we hope their stories and insights enable you to transcend your day-to-day challenges and reflect on what you are capable of achieving. We’d love your support to help us inspire more people as well.

Please go on over to Apple podcasts and leave us a review. Or a comment on our website accesstoinspiration.org. Well, if you have ever wondered if the concepts of sustainability and luxury can go hand in hand, or if it’s not possible for them to be achieved together, then this week’s guest can give us an answer.

Serbo-Swiss US educated architect, Milena Cvijanovich has always been passionate about craftsmanship, sustainable design, alternative natural resources and collaborative business opportunities. She was inspired as a young girl by her physicist father, one of the first inventors of the solar panel and she’s founder of Milena C Designs, an international architecture and interior design firm. which has specialized since 1994 in eco-luxury design. Welcome to the podcast Milena.

Milena: [00:01:27] Thank you very much. It’s such a pleasure to be here.

[00:01:30] Sue: [00:01:30] Now, I think the title of our podcast is something that you’re going to have a lot of understanding of access to inspiration because as a designer, I don’t imagine that you can get very far without being inspired. So my first question to you, Milena is where do you normally get inspiration from?

Milena: [00:01:48] Well, as I love to travel, it obviously is during my travels. But I would say that the majority of the actually beautiful moments of inspiration come from crafts, craftsmanship, and materials. So any materials that I see around me, it can be nature of course, but I do love to watch how craftsmen work any kind of material materials, watch how designers, artists, even scientists and innovators use materials. And then immediately something comes up in my mind of how it could be used in some sort of surroundings

Sue: [00:02:24] So I imagine that was a bit of a challenge during our pandemic globally when travel has been fairly limited, to find as much opportunity for inspiration.

Milena: [00:02:34] Very, very true. Thankfully zoom does allow a lot of video inspiration, but we did have some quite serious challenges when we had to choose materials for our projects. So, we had to wait quite a long time in some cases, several months to get materials, to be able to validate them.

Sue: [00:02:54] Yeah, it’s quite a tactile thing. Isn’t it? You’ve got to have a touch and feel of it. I’m sure. Where [00:03:00] did your love of architecture and design come from? Milena. Tell us a bit about your growing up and where that interest came from?

Milena: [00:03:07] Well, I was born in Switzerland, but I was raised in the United States. My father and mother were both very hands-on. My father was a nuclear physicist, but in his free time, he was a carpenter. And I grew up, of course, with him designing and building furniture. We even built a little cabin for myself and my two sisters from the ground up with him. And three of my uncles were architects from both sides of the family. So, it was really immersed in architecture and design from a very, very young age. And I knew right away that that’s what I wanted to do.

Sue: [00:03:42] In terms of pursuing your interests. And I know that today, your focus is primarily on sustainable luxury. How did that particular area of interest develop during your career?

Milena: [00:03:56] Well, that’s also, I think it came in part from my childhood on two levels. My father was one of the first inventors of the solar panels. So, we got very much into alternative energy immediately. And then, because we had that sort of handyman pleasure in our hobby time when we were on our farm, we used to build things out of whatever we found around. And so that was of course, a way of recycling and upcycling without realizing you just did time. And then after I finished [00:04:30] college, I went to Carnegie Mellon university, which was a university that was one of the very first ones to do what’s this called green design at the time. And that was in the eighties. And then I moved to Switzerland and did my architecture there in a country in which means design was already part of the government’s requirements. So, I was constantly surrounded to draw on that side. What I didn’t see was where was the sustainability being used in the luxury arena? Interior, people were talking about green energy and green materials for buildings in architecture, but not so much for interior. So, I felt that there was a lack. Started talking about things like organic paints and nontoxic materials for flooring and so on. But when you spoke about furniture, nobody really considered the whole sustainability aspect of furniture. And so, I thought that that would really be interesting to start to explore.

Sue: [00:05:28] So with your curiosity piqued, how did you go about? Furthering your interest in and exploring what was possible?

Milena: [00:05:36] At the same time, I was traveling quite a lot for my work, but also I was part of the Global Women’s Summit, which was wonderful organization, which meant every year in another part of the world and brought together close to 900 women from all walks of life. Many of them were very high-end politicians, but then we also had artisans. [00:06:00] And women who were working in the villages in remote locations, Africa, India, Russia, and so on. And I met these people and got really inspired by their stories already, just coming to the summit and finding ways of empowering women.

But also, I realized that many of them had absolutely amazing craft skills, really exquisite craft skills but were marketing them in a way that’s not compatible with the global markets taste and aesthetic standards and so on. And so I started these little experimentations, for example, with women in South Africa who are doing bead work and their bead work was absolutely exquisite but they had their own style, which was not part of the style of the market to which they wanted to enter. And so, I designed with them together and we came up with a series of tableware and holiday objects and so on which we informally sold in Geneva and we realized that there was something there and then really did bring back empowerment to the village. And at the same time taught us how we can collaborate. And so, this idea of co-creation slowly germed that we could work with artisans also, innovators who were working in their corner. And we were in ours and coming together and trying to find a way of reinterpreting those [00:07:30] skills for objects in the Western luxury markets, that would be of interest.

And I noticed where things were lacking, let’s say table where salt and pepper, shakers or napkin rings. And then of course, Tables and chairs and lighting and so on. And I realized this was some of their skills we could create design appeal to this market, and we’d have a beautiful story behind them. And that story would be a mix of social empowerment of crafts preservation, of natural resource conservation, and realized that there was enough there for a lifetime of enjoyable work.

Sue: [00:08:10] So it seems you’re acting as a conduit between the market that you serve into the luxury space and the suppliers effectively, who are those artisans and innovators that are taking your information about what the market’s looking for and be able to then design. It seems almost to order.

Milena: [00:08:29] Yes, exactly. And this is one of the reasons that we took this into the luxury market. This wasn’t a question of privilege or anything like this, but. If you want to make a difference, if you want to make an impact sufficiently important that you can make the changes and bring awareness both to the suppliers and to the markets, the luxury market was enforced because of this. What is paradoxically similar principles was sustainability and [00:09:00] luxury, even though often they’re considered to be at odds with each other. They actually do have elements of harmony, which is tradition. They both respect quality timelessness there again, the throw away mentality. It’s about authenticity as well. That’s the difference between luxury and prestige in a sense.

Sue: [00:09:20] That’s an important distinction to make.

Milena: [00:09:22] Yeah, so it really is. And I think at the beginning, I have to say I had a lot of criticism for going into the luxury market, by even people in that field, thinking that I was being prejudicial in a way. And then I was explaining, for example, even with the solar panel, the solar panel originally was extremely expensive because it was new technology, lots of experimentation. You couldn’t do mass production of it. And then it was being forced into homes and buildings that had the budget to do so. And thankfully, as a result of that, the whole production system was able to start to work to scale and bring the price down so that now, today everyone can put a solar panel on their home.

Sue: [00:10:07] I’m wondering sometimes in the luxury market. Is there a reluctance amongst those clients to see some of the items that they have, and they’re able to tell a story about becoming a bit more widely available to a bigger marketplace?

Milena: [00:10:20] Well, sustainable luxury is a mindset. I think it’s the concept that becomes a lifestyle in which the hasty pursuit of change that’s prevalent in [00:10:30] our society is reinterpreted through an exercise of reusing reintegrating and revising materials and even craft methods. So, I don’t think that there is that fear there. What we did realize at the beginning. And it’s really changing quite quickly is that the luxury market originally has often the sensation that sustainability is a compromise, it’s a compromise in comfort during function or anesthetics when status.

And this is why, what we are doing is we are bringing these wow elements, just absolutely stunning pieces and saying, look at this, this is sustainable. So, it’s of course they attraction there at first is the aesthetic attraction and maybe the comfort and the function. And then all of a sudden behind that is this story of preservation and empowerment. And today we really do see a big change in society in general for going towards a more purposeful way of consuming. And this is not only in the luxury level, obviously it’s really everywhere, but when influencers and celebrities are also going in that direction, it’s very helpful.

Sue: [00:11:46] You’re making me think Milena that you and I are actually in the same industry in a way with our podcast using storytelling to inspire a change in mindset. It almost seems by what you’re saying, that you’re actually doing the same thing [00:12:00] within your role

Milena: [00:12:01] oh, absolutely. And in today’s world, we’re looking for authentic stories and connects us to this planet. And I think even with this COVID, everyone is feeling that the connection to human beings it’s really quite precious. And now we are also more aware of their environment. Since we’re all in lockdown, we do start to see things differently and stories help us to integrate this new little shift.

Sue: [00:12:28] If you’re enjoying this episode, make sure you listen to the other guests who have explored sustainability in this podcast series, we had dairy farmer, Jonathan Cook, who uses regenerative farming techniques to increase biodiversity and Navi Radjou who explained how the concept of frugal innovation can help society to minimize the resources used for innovation and the development of new products. So, tell us more about how you take that inspiration that you see around you from the materials and the designs that you are observing through your travels. How do you translate that into designing a concept for a client?

Milena: [00:13:10] Well, we start off in different ways. Sometimes it’s a question of a theme that’s related to, let’s say our client is doing a waterfront residence. Then we will consider, for example, working with ocean waste, plastic, working with responsibly sourced shells. Working with coconut [00:13:30] debark, working with algae resins and so on. And then we go on our sustainability research, discuss with the suppliers that we have in those fields. And look what we can do in terms of feature pieces and materials. So the same thing goes for if the client has a particular desire for an aesthetic look or to even work with philanthropic organizations, for example, one of our opportunities, let’s say you would like to do a nursery that you give as a gift for your grandchild, about to be born. Instead of just having a beautiful nursery, you can turn it into a legacy as well. So, you might have a photograph from David Yarrow of baby lion cubs with their mother. And you know, that, that print, half of the proceeds are going to lion conservation. And then on the floor, you might have a rug that’s very colorful made from recycled wedding saris by women in India. And you know, that. By acquiring this rug, you are helping those women have an extra income. And yet the rug is absolutely exquisite. It could be a museum piece and so on. So, we take each surface, each object in the room and we say, how can we make this special so that when we give this gift to that grandchild, we’re also giving back to the climates. And that makes a beautiful story for everyone.

[00:15:00] Sue: [00:15:00] I can Imagine that, and thinking about this idea of imagination and thinking without constraint, which is what I’m hearing you being able to do when you’re coming up with ideas for your clients, how can those of our listeners that are thinking that perhaps they would like to be more creative and imaginative and utilize that? What would you say to them to be able to further develop their own approach to using their imagination?

Milena: [00:15:25] That’s a good question. I think for myself, it’s all about co-creation. I can’t imagine creating without an interaction with other people. So, it’s thinking without the borders, cultural borders and other judgment that we may have.

I think an exercise could also be, just imagine an object, not being that object. So, for example, if you have a coconut shell, imagine that you have that coconut shell as wallpaper, or as a little box with your jewelry in it and just see what could be done with that. And in that sense, intercultural exploration is absolutely amazing.

What other people see as a functional element you might see as a decorative element. Or what they might see as a throw away is for you vintage. For you a piece of, and no, as we know, the fishing nets are being thrown away now, and yet they’re becoming absolutely amazing new textiles that are used by people like Dolce Gabbana and [00:16:30] Yves San Laurent. So, there’s always this exploration of materials. I always begin with materials. And say, all right, this material, what if it were used for something else?

Sue: [00:16:41] So maybe the question for people to be considering is What else? How else could my throwaway item be used? How else could it be used? What it could be used for? So, they are exploration of some further questions can further that imagination too.

Milena: [00:16:57] Yeah. It’s one of the most exciting elements of sustainable luxury is what we call upcycling. Upcycling means taking a product at the end of its life and turning it into something that is worth more than what it was originally. So, for example, plastic bottles that do become suddenly design or tables or lighting. And that therefore requires a degree of imagination to be able to do that. And we are lucky today to have internet where we can go and see what is being done. So, I would suggest in the highly recommend to people to take a look, even just Googling upcycling of materials, because there are artists you can even find them now in galleries artisans who have done absolutely amazing things.

There’s an English artist. His name is Brodie Neill. And he made a beautiful, beautiful dining table, or I think also a bench from ocean waste plastic. It took him months and months and months of experimentation to get it just [00:18:00] right. And in the end, he won the design award with it. And it’s the piece which we also want to put into a project.

Sue: [00:18:07] Sounds amazing. I’d like you to think about the future. Where do you think the future of design and sustainable luxury is heading?

Milena: [00:18:15] Architecture right now are in an amazing position because they’re following the trend of artificial intelligence, deep learning, climate control, biomimicry, which are all actually learning from nature and learning from each other and from our experiences. And this is being integrated into architecture and design in such a way that we feel that we are evolving towards something, which will be more respectful to the planet, which is absolutely necessary obviously, and which will help us live better lives. And I’m a strong believer in this study of nature, which biomimicry is about, and also the explorations and algaes, bamboo, vegetal resins, 3d printing, and this upcycling in which we can find building materials and we can get a lot of design inspiration, and all of us together can evolve through this architecture.

Sue: [00:19:14] So finally Milena how can people find out more about you and what you do

Milena: [00:19:19] They can take a look at Milena C designs on the internet. And we are launching our new venture, which is called Nomadessence, which will be this [00:19:30] beautiful platform of design and gift-giving through the sustainable luxury lifestyle. And we hope to be telling many stories of suppliers, craftsmen. Innovators artists who are making a positive difference through glamorous design.

Sue: [00:19:46] That sounds amazing. It’s been lovely to talk to you today. Milena you’ve inspired me to be a bit more creative myself just from talking to you. So, thank you for your time today.

Milena: [00:19:55] It was such a pleasure and thank you very much for having me too.

Sue: [00:20:00] It was great to speak to Milena to learn about how we can change our mindset, to look at different uses for materials and that sustainability and luxury can be done at the same time. We do appreciate your support in helping us to spread the word about the podcast.

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If you’d like to find more about how you can be involved, you can go on over to our website, accesstoinspiration.org and leave us a message on the contact page. Next week. It’s our final guest in the series.  It will be Anne Pleun van Eijsden who is founder of Paper on the Rocks, a scale-up organization that wants to [00:21:00] create a forest friendly paper industry by making sustainable stationary like notebooks. I do hope you’ll join me then.

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