Not long ago, a search for the address of a Greek company led me to Corfu. Shortly afterwards, I noticed another production unit based on the island, in a location that I recognized as the home of a successful Greek designer with international reach. My suspicion that something was happening on the island was confirmed when a Corfu-based creative team announced the launch of the Corfu Design Route.
A virtual map that’s also a route of recommended stops, the Corfu Design Route links together ten creatives living and working on the island; their vision and their careers to date suggest that something is, indeed, afoot in this place rich in history. This diverse group brings together style, culture, handicrafts, art and gastronomy, with a shared sense of urgency regarding the “here and now.”
“The idea came about organically,” says Myrto Zirini, who first gave breath to this movement. “Some of us had been part of discussions with local groups. After one of these conversations I thought, ‘Why not start a newsletter and give creative voice to our small town?’ We’re a small community. Along the way, I thought about the Athens Design Walk, a cultural route promoting contemporary design products.”
The creative landscape enabling the Corfu Design Route has developed over the last five to six years, but mapping the route out took only about a month and a half. The project works as an open invitation to get to know the local design scene.
The group of ten shows “an aesthetic congruence at the philosophical level,” Zirini says. At present, the map is only virtual, and rather limited in terms of information. This is a conscious decision by the project participants, who believe their target audience lies mainly among smart device users.
“We were, in fact, largely friends already; most of us had been living elsewhere and we reunited here. This route shows another side of the island. Most of us include some aspects of tradition in our work. Many of us share an interest in sustainability, using local materials and producing locally,” says Corfu local Dionysis Dimoulitsas, creative director of the Capsule Collection for Maison Petretin, a clothes and accessories boutique in Corfu Town.
Dimoulitsas is also creative director of a new program scheduled to kick off in spring 2022, in which selected artists will have the opportunity to live and work on the nearby island of Othonoi. “Corfu attracts an audience with a desire for the contemporary, but it also loves and respects the past. We have seen this over the years, just as we’ve seen that we all share an audience. On the other hand, our 700-year-old town isn’t a theme park, it’s a city which remains relevant,” he adds.
On the Corfu Design Route, you’ll also meet creatives who aren’t native-born. Stratis Andreadis, whose own move here was motivated by a combination of love and work, has been living on Corfu semi-permanently since 2015. An international yachtsman, he co-founded Salty Bag, a company which repurposes used sail fabric to create bags and backpacks that have a strong, sustainable character. “There is a cultural context, another side of Greece, in the sense of what you see here every day – a palimpsest of Venetian, English and French,” Andreadis says. “Corfu has been mainly under Western influences, and it has its own way of life. Beyond the colors and the light, it also has a particularly rich natural environment.”
Next to Andreadis’s home is the office of Christina Martini, co-founder and designer of Ancient Greek Sandals, the über-global Greek footwear brand, whose clients include Michelle Obama and Angelina Jolie. Originally from Athens, Martini was building a career in Paris when she and her husband decided to relocate to Corfu in 2010. “It’s a large island, and we settled in very quickly,” Martini says. “It’s an ideal place, especially for families.”
Leaving behind a robust professional support system, where teamwork and the opportunity to exchange views were part of everyday life, brought Martini an initial period of creative loneliness. This new support network has made a big difference. What’s more, every time friends ask her what to do on the island, she’s been able to give them a link to the Corfu Design Route along with her usual must-visit recommendations.
Myrto Zirini is also among those who’ve settled in Corfu by choice. “I moved to the island somewhat by chance, during the last crisis,” says the founder of Myrto Zirini Ceramics. “Corfu is a great influence. Here, I get around exclusively by bike. The rhythm of life is different. There is contact with the sea, and the island has an extremely interesting tonality of its own, a music. I feel like I am carrying all the experience of the big cities, London and Athens, places where I have lived, together with the aesthetic culture I have developed, and I let myself be moved by the light and the colors. Here, the sea is swayed by the direction of the wind.”
Near Palaiokastritsa, in the village of Kanakades, sister and brother Eleni and Spyros Moumouris create handmade candles under the brand name Chloe. Born on the island, the siblings spent time living and working away from Corfu, but returned to start a business in which Greek elements dominate. “We are ten creatives, each of which has followed their path, and we do not view one another as competition,” says Spiros. “What we’re really saying is that we’re all here in this place together, but we each shout that out in our own voice. We address both locals and visitors. This is our own viewpoint, which we believe is the new Corfu. This is where our strength lies, and together we feel more secure.”
What does his homeland offer him today? “I’ve been able to maintain a true innocence, from childhood through to the present. The rhythms here are such that you are able to first find yourself and then search for inspiration from history. The way I move from morning to night has not changed, the rhythms are the same, and that creates a balance,” Spiros says.
“And inspiration comes from everywhere, from the scents in the alleys, and it’s all purely emotional.”
Back in Corfu Town, the Corfu Design Route also includes Corfoot, a brand specializing in slippers for all ages and handmade leather baby shoes; the slow living clothing and accessory brand Loner; the Garage 21 Performance Arts Center; and the traditional pure olive oil soap makers Patounis. Out of town, in the village of Tzavros, is the Dr Kavvadias Organic Farm, producers of Dr Kavvadias Organic Olive Oil and a variety of other products.
The island maintains its rich traditions: processions for the saints, church festivals, almond nougat and kumquats, orchestras and music associations, and the traditional smashing of the clay pots are just some of the elements making up the cultural mosaic of the island.
The Corfu Design Route adds to an evolving interaction with an audience which is growing and developing. Creating on the island is not without its challenges, including occasional shortages of skilled staff and transport issues. The participants in this program, however, believe that the model could be reproduced in other parts of the country. They are working through different projects to gain new experiences, and they’re working with local authorities on further collaboration and development.
“On the plus side, you’re living in a beautiful location; everything is nearby and the quality of life is amazing. On the minus side, you have the usual challenges of a small place,” says Andreadis. “Here they accept you with your strengths and your flaws. The amazing thing is that people here are open to new things. Corfu is a place where many different people come.”
It is also a place where it’s possible to give back. For example, Salty Bag recently created the first e-shop whose website lists items and gives information in the local Corfu dialect, alongside Greek and English.
Greece’s domestic creativity is in full bloom. Despite the challenging times, or perhaps in part thanks to them, a fresh wave of enterprises marked with Greek spirit and international character are helping to build the country’s new creative profile. At the same time, while regionalism isn’t something new, the contemporary creative launchpad that is Corfu brings with it a special liveliness.
The community is staking out its own position on personal and social life. “This little community is something that exists, and we are now launching it to the outside world,” says Myrto Zirini. “Right now, this is a symbolic gesture. What we are saying is, ‘We are also here. There is also this Corfu’.”