The ancient Greeks had a concept of the “kalos and agathos” of the good and the beautiful. Liza Fiorentios does them both. As a living arts designer, she fashions plants and the masterpieces of nature into living artworks by way of living frames, terrariums, and living walls in her shop named “Luludi” ( a wonderfully lyrical word in Greek that means “flower.”) Her creations have been featured at Fortune 500 client events, chi-chi Christmas office parties, even other corporate gift giving. However, I had the pleasure of attending one of her terrarium classes with my 5-year-old in the intimate circle of her backroom inspired by visual story boards. There we arranged spindly air plants, hens and chicks, and reindeer moss in assorted colors such as chartreuse, cinnabar, and lilac in all sorts of ways in a big round magic globe filled with charcoal, soil, red sand and desert rocks. We accented the whole thing with red and pink crystals and a little plastic mongoose figure, tied a red ribbon to tie it across our kitchen window pane and—Voila! We had a little green creation we made with our own little hands to bring home in the dead of winter, and so easy, literally, a five-year-old could not mess it up!
Working with color, light, and even aroma, Liza magically creates the ambiance that living things provide for hectically crazed urbanites. Her shop is an oasis of mauve and subtle light. Her living arts include minimalist hand-made wooden geometrical frames set off by a background of LED-light showcasing a plant in the center that you display on your wall just like a painting or photograph. These are works of living art, green and sustainable, that provide all the benefits of living green indoors—aesthetics, health, and good energy. “People need to sink their hands in soil,” Liza explains. “The point is to bring something living in your home. Plants are amazing—they can help you sleep, they can help relax you, they are a mood booster.” She does not buy cut flowers anymore because they are not sustainable. Likewise, even though living walls are extraordinary, realistically they are hard to maintain, hence the beauty in living frames, three-dimensional art frames that feature plant portraits, so to speak. “It’s art work but it’s living artwork,” she maintains.
Liza employs a mix of design principles to her creations combining the best of both East and West. She is a keen selector of color (so important to mood) and a student of Feng shui. “Feng shui makes sense,” she says, “it eliminates the clutter, makes things more sustainable.” She even features aromatherapy terrariums, with organic lavender and organic rosebud flown in from Seattle. And then there’s the crystal line, that incorporate citrine crystal, rose-quartz crystal or even the Zodiac terrariums. They make great gifts for any holiday of the year.
The terrariums and living frames in her shop are not the only wonders of living design. She is a wonder woman herself. She was born in Kenya and raised across more than one continent, to a Greek father and a Greek-American mother. Her father, a UN delegate, had wanderlust and so packed the family up every several years to live in the Congo, Nairobi, and other exotic spots. After the family’s resources had been depleted to send her older brother to college, Liza and her mother came to New York City with “$400 in my pair of shoes.” Her mother could not get a job because companies feared she would move away again, Liza started temping by typing (literally with her two front fingers). One temp job led to another until eventually she received an amazing job offer in Chicago in the sales department of a big media corporation. In fact, she was too young to be hired under 21, but because the laws that forbade age discrimination during an interview were in vogue during that time, she jokingly skirted the issue of her age by saying, “Oh, you can’t ask me that question.” She was so young on the job that she could not even take clients out for drinks. “I absolutely fell in love with advertising,” she recalls. Her stint in advertising led her to Chicago then back to NY to the big media firm. She became the youngest Vice President in her firm at 27. After 11 years at that firm, she decided to take a break and move to Greece for a couple of years.
With no connections to the place, she had trouble getting a job. “Every time I tried to get a job there,” she said, “they’d ask who is your father? What does he do?” Because she could not get a company job in Greece, she decided she would create one for herself by launching a market research firm. Her ideas were ahead of their time as Greece was not at that stage in the advertising age. Taking the advice of an ad exec for a major Greek TV network, she moved back to New York with the goal of finding a company that would transfer her to Greece. She joined Turner Broadcasting, CNN, TNT , TBS and worked for them for four years, until the job transfer for Europe came along. She eventually accepted a post in Paris (even though she did not speak a stitch of French when she first got there). She ran the Switzerland and part of the French offices of CNN until CNBC came calling. “I knew this was going to be brutal,” she relates “because no one in Europe knew about CNBC. I actually threw a goodbye party for myself and told my friends I would be going away for 8 months to establish CNBC, an American company in a foreign country.” She took on the monumental task of literally putting CNBC on the map in Europe. She basically forged the ad department from the ground up, hiring a network of people across 16 countries, and the Paris office. She was an ad star.
But her love of advertising did not interfere with finding the love of her life, a Greek in New York born and raised in Volos, whom she had connected with again while she was in Paris. They commuted four years across continents to keep their relationship. But when boyfriend-turned-hubby turned against the idea of living in France, she moved back to New York, three years ago trying to reinvent herself. “I did not want to transfer with CNBC. I did not want to go back to corporate. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I did have an entrepreneurial streak and I said right, I’ll find it, it will happen.” After a month, the idea came to her—living walls inspired by the ones in Paris.
She thought to herself, “People need green in their life, people spend way too much time indoors, I can do something really design, not basic, and there was a resurgence of interest in terrariums.” So, Liza, the clear-minded business woman that she is, conducted a focus group using her friend’s apartment just by Central Park South. Depending on the results, she would know if she would return to corporate or launch her own business. After tallying the results of the 3-page anonymous questionnaire, the answer came in—Luludi. She started out in her apartment, then rented a “dusty smelly storage room” in the same building and from there, as she says, the rest is history. She opened the store in Astoria in August .
“There is not a customer that I don’t enjoy and I think it is due to the product that we sell,” she beams. “You are surrounded by beautiful color, by plants, by nature. ‘There’s such a Zen feel to your place,’ people say. People love to come in and even if they don’t buy anything we have great conversations.”
The Stories Behind the Story: A Real Greek American Woman
Liza is not just another successful Hellenic businesswoman; she is a real honest down-to-earth person who fits the archetype of the dynamic, powerful, go-get’em Greek woman greekamericangirl.com features. The story behind her story is the most compelling part.
After 30 years in corporate, making the move to become your own boss takes a lot of courage. “I made so many mistakes,” Liza confesses, “but I dusted myself off, and said, ‘Great! Learn from them.’ The beauty about making mistakes is that if you are open-minded enough, you can learn from them. It is the cost of doing business as your own boss.”
Liza credits her mother, a running motif, through many of the bios of many dynamic Hellenic women I have interviewed, for her inspiration.
“My mother is one of the strongest women, but not obviously,” Liza recounts. “She would sit on the edge of my bed and say, ‘You need to do what makes you happy.’ Even if it sounds trite, this was something she was not allowed to do. She instilled in me whether I had an education or did not have an education, whether I had a man in my life or not, I could still be whatever I wanted.” I remember one day not dating a Greek and my mother in her quiet refined way sitting me down and letting me know perhaps I did not understand how wonderful our culture was.
Another time when the family was vacationing on Kineta Beach in Greece, her mother asked her when she was 8 years old, what she wanted to do. The 8-year-old Liza wanted an ice-cream parlor. So her mother found pen, colored markers, and paper and let her design her dream into reality. She encouraged her daughter to live out her dreams and communicated in a subtle yet forceful way that if you want something badly enough, you could attain it.
However, coming from a patriarchal culture, she acknowledges the “cultural baggage” that she carries as a Greek woman and the urge to downplay her success. “ I remember for many years excusing the amount of money I made because Greek women did not make that kind of money. I remember downplaying the decisions I made, to buy a house, to support my mother, because Greek women were not supposed to make these kinds of decisions. I downplayed my success.”
In another argument with her father, she remembers being brought to tears when he asked her, “Why are you so opinionated? You will never find someone who will marry you like that.” Her response, after thinking a bit, “Well, Baba, I’m going to find someone to marry me with my opinions.” “That’s such a typical Greek way of thinking, such a traditional Greek way of thinking,” she relates. “ My father, even with all my successes, my being the youngest VP without a college degree, my making several hundred thousand dollars a year, all that did not matter if you weren’t the traditional Greek woman, despite the fact that he was not traditional. He wanted me to be traditional. Even today at 52, I am still struggling with these issues.”
Her advice for the new generation of go-get-‘em women: get a mentor. “Find not one, but several different women, women who you can go to their house with and sit down for a cup of coffee and bounce ideas around, so that you can create a support system that perhaps your family cannot provide you. It would be nice if they were Greek or Greek American, but even if they’re not, have a support network of women.” She remembers how badly she would have benefitted from a mentor in her life who could have given her the courage to divorce her first husband sooner and not fall into the guilt trip of having to support him for another nine years.
Besides getting mentors, she encourages women to become mentors for other women. While women have powerful role models, they tend to be distant role models, say like Olympia Dukakis. We need networks that can embrace us in the here and local.
To smell the Luludi, log onto her website at www.luludi.net or drop by her store front located on 24th Avenue between 23rd and 24th streets in Astoria.