It's rare when a shop and it's owner are so entwined you can't separate the two. Kiitos - Living By Design owner Maria Malakellis chatted to The Geelong Freelancer about her passion for timeless design and creating a Barwon Heads shopping experience never to be forgotten.
As they say, out of hardship springs opportunity.
In 2008 Maria Malakellis was living in Melbourne and jobless, having been made redundant from her real estate sales job at Melbourne Property Developer. She soon realised her new-found freedom opened up the perfect opportunity to return to her childhood town of Barwon Heads and bring a personal dream to life.
"I've always had an eye for design and can remember mentally rearranging people's homes as a kid," Maria explains. "I instinctively know good form and function when I see it - I adore clean lines and shapes. It was the right time to turn that passion into a business."
Maria had travelled to Finland in 2004 to meet with lifestyle brand Marimekko with a view to opening a concept store for them in Melbourne. Her plans of operating a store focusing on timeless Scandinavian design didn't eventuate until the groundwork for Kiitos began in 2009.
"I wanted to call my shop Kiitos because I believe in gratitude and the word means thank you in Finnish. Kiitos reminds me to be grateful and thankful for everything, including the good and the so called bad. If I hadn't been made redundant then life could have been very different."
A dilapidated mechanics garage in the centre of Barwon Heads presented a unique industrial space to allow Maria's products to shine in a white minimalist environment. Entering Kiitos is like walking into a high-end homewares store in any Scandinavian country. The old garage has been painted classic monochrome and completely opened up to offer customers a slick relaxed shopping experience. You may feel like you're in Finland, but the gentle breeze ruffling Marimekko dresses sings of Summer days relaxing by the Barwon river.
"When we first opened, Kiitos quickly became known as the garage shop that sells Marimekko. Marimekko is a famous Finnish textiles company that started in the 1950s, manufacturing bright and bold textiles and fashion. When retro became popular in recent years Marimekko enjoyed a resurgence and I wanted to bring those designs to Australia. The fact that Marimekko is so loud and colorful helped to give Kiitos it's personality, but we have so many other brands that give Kiitos it's unique edge, too."
Kiittos largely pays homage to Scandinavian design, stocking several well-known brands including iittala, Archtitectmade and Muuto. In recent years Maria has expanded her wares generously, supporting worldwide brands she considers to be outstanding in design or ethics. America's Salt Water sandals and Australia's iconic skin, hair and body care brand Aesop now have their own special place in the Kiitos store.
"I only sell products I believe in or would use myself," Maria continues. "I have confidence in the products I sell and only choose them if I think they are a good fit for the Kiitos 'living by design' mantra."
Maria has carefully curated all products available at Kiitos, with the range encompassing homewares, textiles, glassware, apparel, personal care and the odd piece of kitsch. You can decorate an entire bathroom, living room or kitchen (sans appliances) with Kiitos items or walk out with new jewellery on your decolletage, fabulous Karen Walker sunglasses reflecting Summer rays or sweet toys to brighten a little ones day. There is lighting to highlight your Marimekko wall art and socks from Sweden to put on after you've removed your Toms shoes.
When asked about her favourite product Maria laughs and immediately opens her arms to envelope her entire store.
"Where to start?" she says. "My home and life are one big Kiitos! My home is full of Kiitos products. I wear Marimekko clothing, Salt Water sandals, Funkis clogs. I use Aesop products and dine off Marimekko ceramics. I love my gorgeous iittala wine glasses. The lights I have in my home are Muuto and I sleep under a Marimekko doona cover, just for a small example."
Patrons of Kiitos travel from far-and-wide to admire and purchase and also to enjoy Maria's knowledgeable warm-hearted service. Many of her clientele have a mutual appreciation for fine design and a love of interior decoration and will stay after purchasing to chat about the latest products to arrive at Kiitos.
"My greatest joy and satisfaction is the wonderful relationships I build with customers who then become friends. I like to think these relationships are built on trust as I never sell someone something if it doesn't suit them or truly wanted...ever."
The popularity of Kiitos continues to grow five years after opening. A new Torquay store was launched earlier this year and has proven just as popular as the Barwon Heads location. Not only does Maria welcome thousands of people through the Kiitos doors each year, but many worldwide brands have heard of the unique Barwon Heads store and are keen to have their products included in her select range.
Maria was overjoyed to announce this week that Australian bag manufacturer Crumpler will be joining Kiitos at Barwon Heads shortly.
"Crumpler will have a shop-in-shop at Kiitos and the space will reflect their own brand," she says. "It's a thrill and an honour for Kiitos to be hand-picked to be one of just a handful of specialist independent stores Australia-wide Crumpler feels reflects their own design ethics and standards."
As Spring brings on sunny days you will usually find Maria outside her store, carefully tending to her displays under the original petrol canopy or chatting amiably to both customer and friend alike.
"I love my work - in fact, I don't even call it work as I am constantly inspired and do it with love and joy. I'm the luckiest girl alive when I can stand outside in the sun and watch customers approach the store. In fact, if you drive through Barwon Heads after 5.30pm you may find me loitering on the Kiitos corner practicing mindfulness and simply being thankful long after the store should have closed."
Location: 5-7 Bridge Road, Barwon Heads and 30 Bell St, Torquay
Opening hours: Daily 10am-5pm
Telephone: 03 5254 1835 (Barwon Heads)