The first thing you’ll notice when you enter Vienna-based concept store Calienna is the plants. But you’ll soon see that the store, whose motto is ‘Grow every day’, is more than just a plant shop – it’s a cafe, a gallery, a mantra.
Launched by Christian and Miri Cervantes, Calienna was a concept years in the making. The pair met 15 years ago at a language school in Barcelona and later moved to New York and London to pursue fast-paced creative jobs. Christian, from Southern California, and Miri, from Innsbruck in the Austrian Alps, were living hectic lives, barely spending any time together.
The seeds for Calienna began to grow along with their dissatisfaction. ‘The more stress I had at work, the more I would turn to these simple things,’ says Miri. Going to London’s Columbia Road flower market every weekend, Miri says she would ‘sit and repot plants and spend time trying to understand how they worked’. She found comfort in it: ‘Repotting is meditation without meditating; it gives you this grounding, simple thing to do that is so focused and calming.’
The pair knew they wanted to build something together and leave their careers; Christian went freelance and, shortly after, Miri’s company shut down its UK office: ‘a sign from the universe’.
The two moved to Austria in January 2019, and signed a lease on a space in March last year. A coalescence of circumstances made it feel like the perfect time to launch Calienna, but globally it was a scary time. ‘We just decided to go for it,’ says Christian. They spent the summer renovating, sourcing products and crafting an identity.
Calienna opened in September 2020 and immediately connected with locals; Miri and Christian have already partnered with brands like Louis Vuitton, and Calienna has become a symbol of a turning point for Vienna retail post Covid.
Before launching their business, Miri and Christian would start their mornings with meditation and exercise, taking the first hour to ‘ground themselves’. Now, with Calienna, Miri says there’s no such thing as a normal morning. ‘There’s always something going on or we’re still at home when a courier is calling, like, “We’ve got four pallets of pots waiting outside!” We’re rushing,’ she says, adding that readjusting to new restrictions has been draining: ‘We have an amazing team that help us, but it’s always very spontaneous.’ Christian adds that they start working the second they wake up: ‘We don’t have a routine other than to get up, shower and get to the store.’
For six days of the week, Miri and Christian spend the majority of their time working in the store. ‘Miri is usually downstairs with customers. It’s a lot of maintenance,’ says Christian. While it’s a lot of work, the pair love what they do. ‘We wouldn’t want it any other way. We’re stoked to be here and energized to get up in the morning, get all this stuff done and think about new ideas to execute,’ says Miri. ‘When we started, we said we wanted to build our own world and live in it, and that’s what we did. It’s a really fun world with an awesome team,’ adds Christian.
While the business currently takes up most of their time, Miri and Christian are working to implement a healthy evening routine. ‘We get done, take the bus home, make dinner, watch a show and pass out,’ says Christian, and Miri never goes to bed without reading a book. That ritual is necessary to wind down from the chaos of the day: ‘At the beginning, I started speaking about plants in my sleep while sleepwalking – it was bad!’ Christian goes as far as to say that she was ‘selling plants in her sleep’. For her health, Miri stopped working at night and picked up a book: ‘I read novels all the time and I fall asleep after 10 minutes, but it gives me that calm and distance and that’s really important.’
In the shop
Miri and Christian come from different backgrounds but with a similar vision, and Calienna’s name is an homage to that. An amalgamation of ‘California’ and ‘Vienna’, Calienna embodies the optimistic energy of the former and the slowed-down pace of the latter. ‘I really identified with that balanced way of life,’ says Christian. In particular, the two wanted to bring California hospitality to Vienna: ‘We were trying to create this energy beacon where people are chatting to you.’
The space is 300 square meters, with the lower floor a store, gallery and cafe. Upstairs, Miri and Christian deal with admin and storage. The overall impression is of an immersive, curated jungle. As they expand, the two are keen to make products and use the space for music events and art shows.
Maintaining the space and plants is hard work: ‘It’s like having a child. It’s a special place. People walk in and I know we’re making a positive impact here,’ says Christian. ‘It’s about nurturing it, taking care of it, making sure it grows. It will grow into something that’s beyond the two of us.’
‘We want to make it cool to be conscious.’
Feeling at home
Christian and Miri have lived all over the world, but part of the reason they moved to Vienna was to escape their expensive, busy lives. As the cost of living is so low, they managed to find a traditional Viennese apartment – and it’s rent-controlled. ‘It has parquet flooring and we were very lucky to find it. We filled it with plants. It’s pretty full!’ laughs Christian. ‘It’s homey but airy because of the high ceilings, and it’s also quite quirky,’ Miri adds. Part of that quirk comes from an outdated kitchen: ‘We were saving all our money for the business, so we have a seventies kitchen with a stove that only works if it’s in a very good mood. It’s charming.’
They say that they feel truly home for the first time in their lives in Vienna: ‘We were quite restless because I knew I wanted to go back to Europe and Christian wanted to go somewhere else, so [we never had] a feeling of being settled,’ says Miri. ‘When we buy a piece of furniture now, we’re willing to invest more because we know it will be here for a really long time, rather than thinking: how much can I sell it for if I move?’ Christian agrees: ‘I spent most of my life feeling temporary. For the first time we’re like: this is it, let’s just make this as fucking awesome as we can and go for it!’
Living in Vienna
‘Vienna is a big city but it’s also very tiny, so it’s a more chill lifestyle,’ says Christian. Since they moved two years ago, they’ve made the most of exploring the local area. Stadtpark, the biggest park in the center of the city, is a decent stand-in for the couple’s favorite part of London: Victoria Park. In the summer, Christian and Miri make the most of the good weather: ‘People here are obsessed with being outside in the summer. Every bar and restaurant will put seats outside and nobody will sit inside on a nice day. Sitting outside with a white-wine spritzer and watching people walk by is so fun,’ says Miri. On hot days, they take a dip in the Alte Donau, the landlocked arm of the Danube river that runs through Vienna. ‘It’s the best place to escape, particularly further out from the city,’ says Christian. ‘Everybody goes there and it’s like a summer resort.’
Every week, Christian and Miri enjoy a ritual in honor of the 1995 Richard Linklater film Before Sunrise, which is set in the city. On Sundays, when the shop’s closed, they visit one of the film’s locations in front of the Viennese Opera House: ‘We go and get a coffee and sit on this elevated platform and it’s stunning, old-world Vienna. We overlook the first district, reflect on the week and have a gratitude session,’ says Christian. ‘There are a lot of romantic places in Vienna. You can walk around and everywhere you look is stunning.’
A green world
‘What we’re trying to do is to present people with plants and a conversation and help them to feel less alone. That, to me, is really important,’ says Christian, adding, ‘We want to make it cool to be conscious. That’s the end goal. The plants are a business model.’ For Miri, it’s all about making other people appreciate the plants as much as she does: ‘A lot of people don’t even think about the role [plants] play in our lives. We’re really trying to sell them and showcase them as the pieces of art that they are.’ That, in turn, will add something to their customers’ lives: ‘We want to elevate that awareness... When you have a plant at home and you see how a new leaf grows after you care for it, the feeling of pride and excitement when that thing unrolls is so important,’ says Miri.
Crème de la Crème
‘Vienna has amazing restaurants and a really good food culture. Miri’s cousin owns a sophisticated patisserie here called Crème de la Crème and it’s mind-blowingly good.’
‘Song is a high-end store on a charming street where the owner, Myung-il Song, curates avant-garde fashion, objects and furniture. It’s almost part-gallery. It’s beautiful and Myung-il has the most impeccable taste. We can’t afford any of it, but it’s so beautifully curated and you can tell it has a unique point of view and voice.’
‘Propeller is our favorite. It’s like something you would find in east London. It’s a little more charming and modern, but definitely has an old-world Viennese vibe. Very relaxed, great vibe in a cool neighborhood.’
‘Vienna is full of old-school movie theaters and we love going to the movies whenever possible. This theater is super well kept and absolutely charming in every way.’
‘If you want to have a traditional family-style Austrian meal in a warm setting, go here. Owner Steffi Herkner is the queen of dumplings and makes the best in town, among other things!’
This article was first published in Courier issue 43, October/November 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.