After spending a morning with the lovely Nicky Ellis at Love Milo‘s studio in Cape Town, I was compelled to get to know her better and share this authentic creative’s beautiful brand. It was a festive event that marked the launch of the brand’s latest range: ceramics, accessories and wallpaper with beautiful magnolias that add vivid pops of colour to their traditional black-and-white palette. With pink drinks, Turkish Delight, and the most amazing macaroons EVER, we were even more smitten with Love Milo. During our chat, Nicky tells me about her passions, inspiration, and love for nature.
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Q: When did you start Love Milo, and why?
Nicky: I studied cinematography and worked as a photographer and a film colourist for about six years. I thought it was going to be a very creative job, but I just ended up making things look how everyone else wanted me to make them look. And often it didn’t look nice to me, but then I’d have to put the work out anyway. That started getting to me! It didn’t feel authentic, and it didn’t feel like the kind of a path I wanted to follow.
Then when I fell pregnant with my first child, Milo, I got this sense that I wanted to make my own things. That motivated me to leave my job to make things I love and then hope for the best! Which of course, thinking back now, is a ridiculous thing to do when you’re pregnant! I’ve always done ceramics, and so I rented a studio, and I started making plates. I used my photographs and turned them into more graphic elements to add to my ceramics. That was seven years ago, and Love Milo grew from there!
Q: You’re obviously creative and artistic but what else are you truly passionate about and how does that translate into your work?
Nicky: I’m very passionate about photography. My mom’s also a photographer and an artist, so art and photography are the things I’m most passionate about. That and nature. I spend a lot of time on our farm in Namibia, and that’s actually where the first design, the branch design, came from. We’ve got a big old dead tree outside our house set against this beautiful desert backdrop.
Q: You’ve featured a lot of insects in your previous designs. Were those also originally your photographs?
Nicky: Yes, because what makes me really excited is imperfect lines that I find in nature. Lines in wings, in leaves, in branches; there are these beautiful patterns which are not something that you could get on a computer. They’re imperfect, but there’s something so magical about these shapes and lines. I find that whenever I walk outdoors, I look for things that have pretty patterns and shapes. Sometimes even my son will bring me dead things that he thinks should be my next design! The dragonfly design came from one of the insects he brought for me.
Q: Do you have a favourite project or a favourite design up to date?
Nicky: I think my first design, the branch, will always be my favourite because it was the birth of the company. It’s like the symbol of where I came from and how it began. Everything else is special and stays special for a while before I move to the next thing, but the branch will always be the anchor of the company. It holds a deeper place in my heart.
The branch is also the one design that no matter how much time goes by, everyone still wants. It’s become quite symbolic of Love Milo.
Q: Tell me about your new magnolia range.
Nicky: Our look for Love Milo has always been black and white. I wanted to maintain that look, but I also wanted to start incorporating colour a bit. So, I played around with different flowers. I love flowers, and I’ve been dying to use flowers in my designs. I thought about doing pressed flowers because a lot of my designs come from things that stir up nostalgic memories for me and I used to press flowers as a child. But it still wasn’t quite right. And then I found the magnolia. The branch of the magnolia fits so nicely with the Love Milo graphic branch, and the colour is just so special. It works well because it’s not too different from what we’ve been doing, but it brings in some colour through the blossoms.
Q: And challenges with this new range?
Nicky: The challenges mostly were the colour. When red is fired in the kiln, it changes a lot. Getting the ink ratio right took me months! Every time I would fire it, the purple would come out blue, or it would come out grey.
Q: Any big plans for your business over the next 12 months?
Nicky: We are busy moving more into the online space, and so we’re launching our new website towards the end of the year. Our main focus for the moment is just developing our online store.
Q: Are you also working on a new range already or you’re taking a break from that for a while to see how this one goes?
Nicky: I’ll probably start working on a new range in about a month. Once the new online side of things is stable, I’ll work on the next thing. Because I play so many roles in the company, I don’t have the luxury of doing just design. I have more time now to do design because I’ve got people doing some of the other things, but I still do 4 or 5 people’s jobs! I photograph the products, I run the website, upload all the products, and do the marketing. So, in between, I have to find time to be creative as well. I have to structure it in a way where I can fit everything in without one aspect of the business losing momentum.
When I started, I was doing everything. I was invoicing on Photoshop because that’s how much I knew about accounting! Luckily, I don’t do that anymore. But like any business owner, I’m still picking up lots of other jobs in between.
Q: What advice do you have for people also wanting to start their own small online business or design business?
Nicky: I would say be prepared not to make money for a while. Have a salary set aside for yourself because it takes a while to start turning a profit. And then, as your business grows, you have to put more cash in, so it takes a while.
The other thing I would say is don’t go too big too soon. Grow it organically, starting with just a few products. See what works, and then you grow from there. Don’t buy loads of equipment; get the bare minimum, and when that has paid for itself, you invest in the next thing. We tend to think we need a lot more than we actually do. Keep your costs to the bare minimum in the beginning. Take your own photographs, do your own website, try and take on as much as you can until you’re in a place where you can spend more. Otherwise, you shoot yourself in the foot.
Q: Your husband is also in the business with you, how do you manage that work-life relationship?
Nicky: I’m very lucky that Matt is the opposite of me. He’s more left-brain thinking and systematic than me. So, the side of the business which I’m terrible at like the accounts, the managing of stock and the crossing of the “t’s”, he’s taken over. That’s a huge burden off my shoulders because it’s something I don’t like doing. So, it’s a nice symbiotic relationship because he enjoys that aspect and I enjoy mine, and we don’t step on each other’s toes.
Also working together in the company means that we’re both sharing the profit and we’re building something together, which is very nice.
Q: You have two other kids as well?
Nicky: Yeah, I’ve got three children. Milo is the eldest, Phoenix is my daughter, and then Mason is my baby.
Milo loves the brand, and he loves reminding everyone that he has a company named after himself. Phoenix often asks why she doesn’t have one, so I’ll have to do a range for her at some point, and I’ll have to call it Love Phoenix or something! And Mason is still too young, but I am sure he will catch on at some point as well.
Q: And then lastly, anything that you’re proud of in your business?
Nicky: We have been asked to exhibit at New York Now for the third time, and we’ve also exhibited in Paris three times. And we are stocked in some really nice shops worldwide. I think it’s quite an achievement that shops love our products and that people from around the world have our cups in their homes. I am very proud of that.