The term ‘local is lekker’ is a popular one, and one that boutique accessories and design studio, Love Milo, embrace whole-heartedly. Not only does their sustainable manufacturing practice include the sourcing of local materials and building a community of local craftsman, but also embraces an ethos and larger vision of raising awareness of the eco-lifestyle. The duo behind the brand, Nicki Ellis and Matt Finch, believe that this journey of awareness begins with a true appreciation of the imperfect beauty of one’s environment. Taking daily inspiration from their surroundings, Ellis and Finch translate the gratitude they have for earthy elements into nature-inspired designs, with the hopes of arousing a collective consciousness of nature’s splendour and sacredness.

Design for Living

“Beautiful things inspire a person, but instead of putting these things onto walls to admire from a distance, why not make it a part of everything we do.  When we drink our morning coffee, why not incorporate beauty into this? Why not make this a process of interacting with art? What a good way to start the day,” says Ellis, who is the designer behind Love Milo products. It was these questions that motivated Ellis to resign from her job in the advertising world in 2010, where she felt she created for others as part of a mechanical process, and instead began to experiment with her own designs and fascination with the imperfection of nature. This curiosity and desire to make naturally beautiful things, started when Nicki was pregnant with her son, Milo, who is the inspiration behind the company name.

“You will never find a straight line in nature, so my designs are about finding the harmony between line and form; juxtaposing the imperfect elements with handmade elements to create something unique. In today’s world, many don’t have the time to stop and enjoy nature, so the aim with Love Milo is to find the beauty in the outdoors and bring it to you through our designs in everyday accessories.”

Nicki’s process begins with photographing elements of nature that have striking patterns. Sometimes this begins in her own backyard, when Milo brings her a variety of interesting creatures he has found in the garden, like dragon flies and butterflies. “I look for the smallest detail in the elements, like the wings of the dragonfly or the pattern of a branch that I find while on a walk; and then photograph these in a light box. Next, I play with the imagery in black and white, as this speaks to the minimalist approach to our designs.”

Further to the backyard, Ellis and Finch spend a lot time in the outdoors, where they come across elements that stir up the creativity for a design. For example, they have found the Cecilia Forest in Newlands to be a great place for finding the intricate patterns in nature. “It can be something so simple, like the minute details in a leaf or the imperfect shape of a stone,” says Ellis. Travelling is also a sure way for Ellis and Finch to pick up on the beauty of nature’s design. They have found the Namibian dessert to be a particularly wonderful place for this. In fact, Namibia is where Love Milo’s very first branch and bird designs were born.

Although the brands signature style is black and white, Ellis brings in certain spots of colour that are found in nature to enhance a design. Currently, shades of green and indigo, inspired by the Agate stone, can be found across different products, and Ellis is now beginning to play with a pink and gold in a new range of cups and saucers.

Her hope for those who interact with Love Milo products is to enjoy the benefits of being surrounded by the beauty of nature and to feel energised when interacting with them. “Our designs are quite visually surprising, which I like. When placed against a white wall or clean background for example, the designs definitely catch your eye.”

Styled by Nature

All fabrics used in the Love Milo range are printed with eco-friendly ink, are 100% cotton, and made in South Africa, which is rare in retail. The versatile range includes nature inspired shopper and tote bags, clutch purses, sling bags, laptop sleeves, picnic blankets, cushions and even a nappy bag. As a mother, herself, Ellis didn’t find the nappy bags that were on the market very aesthetically pleasing, which aroused the idea of a more fashionable nappy bag. “I didn’t understand the need to walk around with an expensive, unattractive nappy bag, that can only be used once. The bag we have designed is not only stylish, but can be used as a tote bag when the baby phase is over,” says Ellis. “There are so many wellness benefits of being in and around nature, so our aim is to always bring this to the consumer, by making fabrics and accessories that marry locally sourced materials together with style. “

It’s the philosophy of designing to feed one’s own creativity and practical needs that is behind the evolution of Ellis’s designs. According to Finch, who runs the business and operational side of things, staying focussed and true to who they are is the key behind their success. “We enjoy organic growth that stems from things around us and the need to provide solutions for problems that we encounter. If we started creating a new design each month just because we had to meet the demand of a mass market, we would lose our focus and the purity of our intentions would suffer.” Says Finch.

Sustainability and Design Solutions

Love Milo place huge emphasis on sustainability, taking care in the sourcing of materials. Everything from the base fabric to the printing, is done locally. For wooden products, only alien trees that are harmful to the natural environment are used, like Blue Gum trees, that rob the indigenous flora like fynbos of water and prevent them from creating their own indigenous habitat. The wood from Blue Gums is too hard to use for furniture, but the Love Milo team mould the wood into imperfect shapes to create unique hand carved wooden bowls and saucers, serving boards and kitchen utensils. “We do not believe in cutting down indigenous trees that take many years to grow for the sake of beauty, but to rather find a clever way to reuse what doesn’t serve us anyway,” says Finch. The team also use other greenery in an alternative way to preserve natural resources, such as the Love Milo mini-glass gardens in a jar. These glass gardens do not require any water and live for years.

Where possible, Love Milo manufacture 100% in-studio themselves together with two in-house seamstresses and two ceramicists. Products that can’t be done in-house are out-sourced to local businesses. “This way we feel we are contributing to the growth of the economy and uplifting our local community which is an important part of our ethos. Some of our products may be a slightly higher price than other items on the market, but the expense is ultimately paying for someone in this country to have work and to keep their job, which is a mindset we need to get into as South Africans,” says Ellis.

Work and Play

Partners in both business and life, Ellis and Finch find the key to an effective business partnership is to have clearly defined roles. From day one, when Finch joined Ellis in the business in 2015, they agreed that Ellis was the designer of the products and he, the operations and business manager. “It’s a really good fit for us that speaks to each of our strengths,” says Finch, who practiced as a trained chef for almost 12 years before joining Love Milo. The structure, discipline and precision that comes with being a chef is what Finch believes prepared him to run the business side of Love Milo. “Everything I learned over the years about the importance of having efficient systems, I use consistently in the daily running of our company, says Finch. The duo is certain that over and above Finch’s organisational skills and the design talent of Ellis, it’s their shared appreciation for the beauty of the environment and determination to lead a life that encourages community support and upliftment, that ultimately drives Love Milo forward each day.

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