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On a Smartpath

Zoë Melo has dedicated herself to design work that transcends trendy or facile definitions of sustainable or socially responsible practices.

melo zoe vases brown
Kraft paper-and-banana-fiber-woven vases by designer Domingos Totora, for the Objects + Stools collection.

The title “model-turned-” on anyone’s resume can be a bit dubious; it tends to overshadow whatever’s on the other side of the hyphen. Especially when it’s someone like Brazilian-born Zoë Melo, who has dedicated herself to design work that transcends trendy or facile definitions of sustainable or socially responsible practices. Certainly, bling and glitz are not topping her list of priorities. But without her modeling experience, she would never have become the head of her own eponymous socially sustainable product development firm.

“I saw a world of money and glamour,” she says, speaking from her studio in Los Angeles. “I certainly can’t complain about my time in Paris.” Working in fashion helped develop her love of design. “But at some point, I had this awakening to the things around me—to spend less. We don’t need so many things. Living in America, I learned how we become big spenders,” she explains.

Despite having no formal training, Melo has worked on a variety of projects with clients all over the world: In 2003, she started cz-works with architect Charles Swanson; she also worked with Estudio Manus. In addition, she has helped design everything from the São Paulo nightclub Lov.e Club to a T-shirt for Purp7e to an art installation for David Byrne in Lisbon. After introducing an Artecnica product to Brazil in 2004, she joined the company in 2005, as the director of design development. It was at Artecnica that she developed her passion for bringing together artisan communities and professional designers, helping to guide some of their Design with Conscience projects through development.

It wasn’t enough, Melo knew, to work with people in a poor community for a few months and then abandon them. “You really need to have an understanding of how the [production] process works,” she says. “It’s one thing to do one product, another to do a thousand of them. To do social work is different; it’s a huge commitment, and I believe in social work.” She believes that the numerous areas in South America that are littered with empty factories, husks of industries, could be put back into use with creative and thoughtful organization.

Currently, she’s working with a philosophy called “smartpath”—sizing up a company’s projects and seeing how they can be made creatively and sustainably. “I don’t want to work with any materials that are harmful to the environment.” Among her current projects are a jewelry line, which uses recycled materials, with Mana Bernardes in Brazil, and woven plastic lamps and furniture from La Feliz, by Federico Chuba and Patricio Lix Klett of Argentina.

Although her firm is trying to work with a zero-footprint policy, she insists that there are no formulas or catchphrases to sum up her philosophy. “I don’t want to be a superhero. I just try to pay attention and do better at what I’m doing,” she says. “I’m not there yet. I’m nobody by myself. It requires a lot of people with a positive attitude to share these ideas.”

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