What begins as a leisurely stroll on the beach near Leela Petrakis’ weekend home on the North Fork of Long Island often ends with the beauty executive hauling home huge pieces of driftwood in her wheelbarrow.
Five years ago, Petrakis—managing director of L’Occitane USA—found a large tree trunk washed up on the beach. The native of Greece was so struck by its beauty, she took it home.
This story first appeared in the June 17, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Since her initial find, she’s made a habit of combing the beach for striking pieces of driftwood—the bigger, the better—which she crafts into everything from stools to decorative objets, using one of two Black & Decker power sanders and a collection of 25 hand tools. “There is an incredible, tactile feel to whatever I’m working on,” Petrakis says. “[The wood] goes from being very rough to smooth to the touch.”
Petrakis is not interested in carving the wood into elaborate sculptures, but rather on interpreting its shape. She made a tea tray for entertaining, and a stool for her 11-year-old daughter, which she painted silver and finished off with sheepskin. (This summer her daughter has requested a mirror frame.)
Before setting to work, Petrakis leaves the wood out in the elements for several weeks to let rain wash away much of the salt water. She then allows it to dry out completely in a backyard shed—which can sometimes take months. When the temperatures turn warm, she takes the wood outside, slips on goggles and begins the dusty and messy endeavor of sanding and whittling.
“It’s as simple and humble as can be,” says Petrakis of her hobby. “I’m not doing this for the sake of art. I am doing this in appreciation of what nature gives me.”
The work also provides an outlet to reflect on the goings on at L’Occitane, where she oversees 170 boutiques in the U.S. “I’m not one of those people who do yoga or meditate,” says Petrakis. “This gives me the ability to think openly without looking at my computer and lots of data.”
Given that her off-hours pursuit centers on natural materials, she sees parallels with her day job. “L’Occitane is close to the earth and traditions,” says Petrakis, who recently started a new collection—black rocks. “Everything requires a lot of schlepping,” she laughs.