Alex Milea, the Romanian creative artist who found success abroad: “Returning to Romania, I felt more like a tourist in my homeland than a resident”

Alex Milea is the founder of Milea.Studio, established in London since 2013 as the realisation of his long-held aspirations, emerging from a journey marked by perseverance.
He is a strong-willed and versatile designer, art and creative director, bringing an in-depth understanding of technology, analogue and digital, visual arts, artistic influences, design, customer and user behaviour. Leading with kindness, coherency, and an imaginative spirit with a touch of technical expertise, Alex is set to offer tailored teachings, sparking and fostering creativity in multicultural environments.
Travelling around the world, Alex Milea helps international businesses & start-ups strategise, direct and craft impactful and meaningful stories & experiences that captivate diverse audiences.

We talked to Alex about his life journey from Romania to UK and back, about differences in live style, education, cost of living between these two countries, about his passions: art and design, about architecture and business, about personal interactions and communication amid the rising age of AI and about his perspective on how should look Bucharest as a modern European capital.


Tate Gallery of Modern Art

After 12 years of studying and working in London, you returned to Bucharest, the city where you were born and raised, and you have mentioned that it feels like you do not belong to this place. Can you tell us how the expats status felt in the UK and why you are experiencing the same feelings upon returning to your homeland?

When I first arrived in the UK, I had high hopes and expectations, as anyone would when visiting or moving to a place they have dreamed about. Like any “tourist” who then becomes embedded in the system, I experienced culture shock. It might sound harsh, but it was indeed a time filled with surprises and disappointments, partly because my high expectations were not met. Once I learned the ropes, I got comfortable and started enjoying life there. But, as with any adventure, the excitement stops when things become comfortable and unchallenging. If you are an adventurer, you’ll definitely understand this.

At my core, I am very much human-centric and lack the selfish, self-centred pull. Thus, I decided to come back, for a while, you can call it a sabbatical year, to see if my experience could enlighten those back home, who are dreaming and having similar hopes as I had a decade ago.

So, returning home, my expectations were again skewed by my newly shaped heart, and yet again I experienced culture shock. This time, it wasn’t a superficial difference like traffic rules-cars circulating on the right side of the road-rather encountering a deeper difference, an unsettling type of aggression and a pervasive negativity, a specific type of hunger-not the helpful kind. I have perceived an unwillingness to accept things as they are and progress constructively from there with a positive mindset and hopeful light, rather than being filled with negativity and loath, in sharp contrast with the more constructive and supportive attitudes I encountered in the UK.

Possibly, I once again had my hopes and expectations set too high, but as I interact with people here, I noticed they are more inclined to waste valuable time and energy badgering each other rather than helping one another. The current state of the world and its impact on economic wellbeing seems to have aggravated and promoted this way of thinking and behaviour. Either way, despite this challenges, I hope I haven’t cast a negative light as I wholeheartedly believe there are many ways for us to grow together, to collaborate—words we frequently used, but to which we rarely commit ourselves.

Did you find what you were looking for in the educational system abroad? Can you now implement any of the knowledge or methodologies you acquired there in your current work?

Transitioning from a background in coding and science during my teenage years, as I had the sensibilities and inclination for art, I later discovered a way to integrate my artistic vision with a pragmatic outlook through my studies in architecture at the ”Ion Mincu” University of Architecture Faculty in Bucharest. Driven by a relentless curiosity and a commitment to continuous learning, I always strive to understand more and expand my horizons.
Schooling in UK was one aspect of forming and refining my understanding of the world of design, art, animation, film, communication, and advertising knowledge—fields I’ve been involved in for over three decades.
Through a mix of experiences, I discovered myself. I had inspiring teachers and mentors, whose lessons I still draw upon in my work and teachings today. But above all, all these relationships, the multicultural aspect of the place, shaped by unique experiences and challenges, have been invaluable and make up the fabric of my education. The foundation of my understanding of the world, values, and principles, which are now reflected in my work. I strongly believe no single school or curriculum can substitute for this.
Interestingly enough, I noticed that the UK educational system shares many similarities with ours, particularly a strong emphasis on hierarchy.
While I respect hierarchy, I do not believe in enforcing it rigidly. Nor do I believe in puling the “teacher’s rank” card to win an argument over your pupil. Moreover, the educational systems at large are designed to channel students into specific niches, a method still in use in the UK, which I believe is outdated and no longer suitable for preparing students for the future. Through my experiences in different teaching environments, I’ve seen the same outdated mechanism still at play—one that prioritises quantity over quality and perfecting in only one subject. Thus, my teaching philosophy has evolved to promote open, constructive, highly applicable, relatable, and inspiring conversations.

As a teacher now, I cover subjects such as coding, drawing, animation, design, and more. I use methods that engage my students in critical thinking first and foremost, aligning their work with a set of values and highlighting the broader implications of how their thinking and efforts affect others.

Sketches by Alex Milea/Collage Journal Pages


London underground

When you left Bucharest in 2010, Romania was in an economic crisis. How do you perceive the current situation? Is there a reasonable balance between income and the cost of living in Bucharest? How does this contrast with your experience in London?

An ardent topic indeed. The economic crisis affected my well-being at that time, as it did many others. I was not impervious. Leaving home during that time was even more difficult, and a step many of my friends considered complete madness. But my stubbornness won, and I still did it.
Upon returning home, the cost of living was the first shocking aspect I noticed. The cost of living in the UK is based on a simple rule of thumb, which is your earnings should permit you to cover your rent three times over. Therefore, if your rent or mortgage is £1000, your earnings should cover three times one thousand, thus your salary/income should be a minimum of £3000. This rule seems to apply everywhere in Europe.
Sadly, it appears not to apply here in Romania. Here, the basic economic principles have been misconstrued. Even as we’re facing lower rents here, between £300 to £500, or maybe more in some absurd cases, many of us, highly qualified individuals, seem to be unable to cover their rent, not to mention three times over. To make matters more absurd, I discovered that the minimum salary, instead of being £2000 or euros, is 2000 lei which is £345, barely covering one month’s rent, which is perfect if you are a robot and don’t need any nourishments.
Joking aside, one starts to think how absurd things can get. And it can get even more absurd. The cost of food is the same as it is in the UK.

You might decide to be poor in the UK and starve there, near Big Ben, than here near Obor. Understandably, this is the main reason why our qualified workforce is leaving Romania, and why some never return.

From effervescent metropolises like London, Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, or Rome, to serene and remote towns like Taghazout or Nazare, you’re always on the move. What motivates you to keep moving, to travel, live, and work in diverse corners of the world?

Given the context and our previous discussion, I’m quite self-conscious about how my next response might be perceived. I hope my answer does not give the impression that I am free from worries and am lavishing in financial comfort. However, the truth is quite the opposite. My journey is fuelled not by financial abundance but by a profound curiosity and a relentless desire to engage with different cultures and environments.

Each city and town, from the bustling streets of Paris to the tranquil shores of Nazaré, offers unique lessons and experiences that enrich my understanding of the world.
This perpetual motion is partly a constant quest for personal growth. Immersing myself in diverse cultural landscapes challenges my preconceptions and pushes me to grow in ways that staying in one place never could. The variety of professional environments also sharpens my skills, making me more adaptable and resilient in my career.
Moreover, this lifestyle of continuous movement and exploration is deeply intertwined with my passion for storytelling. Each place I live in or visit provides fresh narratives and perspectives that I can share through my work, whether it’s through writing, photography, drawing, film, animation or designs.
Being on the move is about making connections—connecting ideas, people, and places in a way that might not be possible if I remained stationary. While this lifestyle comes with its own set of challenges and uncertainties, the rewards—personal, professional, and creative—are what continually propel me forward.

Whether in Bucharest or London, you have an impressive track record of projects and successful business stories. Do you usually select your next location based on the professional opportunities available in a particular country or region?

Indeed, my career path has primarily been shaped by my deep-seated willingness to embrace change and the unexpected discoveries that come with finding myself in diverse places and roles across the world. The search for new professional opportunities has been a side effect,  significant yet secondary, to my fundamental drive for curiosity and exploration.
I originally left home as an Art Director/Designer, but upon arriving in London, I found myself starting anew in the realm of customer service. This was a drastic shift, but it provided invaluable ground for learning and personal development. From there, I evolved into a technical specialist and then a teacher, each role gradually steering me back to my roots in art and design.
Through these diverse experiences, I reconnected with my initial passion, leading me to intersect once again with art directing and design. Here is something interesting to consider: whether taking a different path might lead back to where you started. I encourage everyone to explore this idea to see if their initial path was indeed their true calling. Food for thought.

Prepared with a broader skill set and a deeper understanding of various business facets, I finally took the leap to realise a long-held dream: founding my own creative/design studio, which happened to be in London. Running my studio whilst managing parallel work for one of the largest and most renowned companies in the world was challenging but incredibly fulfilling.
Little did I know that these experiences were testing my ability to reinvent myself, teaching me how to adapt, be flexible, open-minded, and gain the global and diverse cultural perspectives that helped me find ways to cohesively merge my varied skills and successfully apply them in my work and roles.

What are the essential qualities a person needs to feel they can succeed, integrate, or achieve professional success while constantly moving, exploring new environments, and immersing themselves in different cultures?

I gather it is a plural emphasis on essential qualities. Although I strongly believe that all skills equate to how to be flexible and demonstrate flexibility. My journey of constant movement and exploration across various cultural landscapes, I would attempt to identify several essential qualities that to me have been indispensable.
Adaptability has been the cornerstone of my ability to thrive in new environments. Each city—from the vibrant streets of London to the serene shores of Nazaré—has taught me the importance of adjusting quickly to different work cultures and social norms.

Nazaré (Portugal)

Resilience has been crucial, as relocating and adapting to new cultures is as challenging as it is enriching. This quality has helped me maintain focus on my long-term goals despite the inevitable setbacks and challenges. Curiosity is another trait that fuels my professional journey. A deepseated desire to learn and explore has not only expanded my understanding but has also driven innovation in my work, allowing me to blend local insights with global perspectives.
Effective communication skills have enabled me to bridge cultural gaps, ensuring that my ideas are conveyed clearly and that I can understand the nuances of local business practices. Similarly, empathy has allowed me to connect with diverse teams and lead them effectively, respecting their unique backgrounds and viewpoints.
Networking skills have been essential, especially as I move between cities. Building and sustaining professional relationships across geographies has opened up new opportunities and provided support systems in unfamiliar territories.
Cultural sensitivity is vital, as it helps navigate the complexities of international environments with respect and awareness, ensuring my interactions are both appropriate and effective. Self-sufficiency has empowered me to navigate these transitions smoothly, relying on my abilities to solve problems independently and leverage local resources.

Finally, maintaining a clear healthy set of values and vision has been essential. Despite the diverse and sometimes distracting new environments, having a firm grasp of my professional and personal objectives has kept my trajectory focused and forward-moving. These qualities have not only facilitated my professional growth but have also enriched my personal experiences, making each transition a chapter of learning and discovery in my ongoing career narrative.

As a millennial born at the dawn of the communist era in Romania, growing up with aspirations for a better world, do you feel your generation was sufficiently equipped to adapt to changes? How do you personally view this aspect, and how hard was it for you to embrace the apparent ‘trial and error’ social dynamic?

Quite right, my early years as a millennial born at the dawn of the communist era in Romania, I can see that my generation faced a unique set of challenges. Growing up amidst aspirations for a better world and witnessing the profound shifts brought about by the fall of Communism in 1989 was both daunting and formative. Experiencing firsthand the Romanian revolution, observing tanks in the streets and buildings defaced by marks from explosive-head bullets, instilled in me a deep understanding of change and resilience.
My personal journey through various economic downturns, from the restructuring of our society post-Communism to the financial crisis of 2008, and then moving abroad, has been a continuous ‘trial and error’ process. These experiences have shaped my ability to adapt and innovate, qualities I fervently pass on to my students.
In my teaching, I emphasise the importance of flexibility and the development of a broad skill set, mirroring the qualities that have been indispensable to my own career. I prepare my students by instilling resilience, adaptability, curiosity, and empathy—attributes that empower them to navigate and thrive in dynamic environments. I focus on helping them understand that like history, personal growth is often non-linear and fraught with challenges.
Returning to Romania, the world seemed transformed, and I felt more like a tourist in my homeland than a resident. This dissonance further underscored the necessity of adaptability and cultural sensitivity—skills.

By sharing my experiences, from witnessing drastic political upheavals to integrating into new cultures abroad, I aim to prepare my students not just academically but for the unpredictable flux of life itself.

Ultimately, my goal is to equip my students with not only the knowledge but also the resilience and flexibility to turn challenges into opportunities, much like I had to during my formative years and professional journey.

You have left Bucharest – your home, the city where you were ”at home”, surrounded by friends and family, to begin anew in a capital city at the opposite edge of Europe. Since then, you’ve continually redesigned your social circle. In the age of AI’s increasing dominance, do you still regard personal connections with new people as essential? Do you find it rewarding, or has it become more challenging?

Moving from Bucharest to a distant European capital meant leaving behind everything familiar—family, friends, and a well-established social circle, you are quite right. It was a profound shift, yet it allowed me to continually reshape my social networks, adapting to new cultures and environments. Despite the rise of AI and digital communication, I find that personal connections are still irreplaceable. They provide depth and insight that enrich both personal growth and professional success. Each new interaction offers a fresh perspective, enhancing my understanding of diverse human experiences.
Certainly, building genuine relationships has become more challenging in the digital age, where quick, surface-level interactions are more common. However, the rewards of these personal connections are immense. They infuse our daily lives with empathy and emotion—qualities that AI cannot replicate or reciprocate. This human element is crucial, reminding us of the importance of understanding and compassion amidst rapid technological advancements.
As I navigate these changes, the effort to maintain and forge new connections continues to be invaluable. It’s these human interactions that truly enrich our lives, proving that personal connections are not just essential—they are fundamental.

With your creative studio anchored in London, do you envision a future where you remain rooted in Bucharest, journeying back to the UK for work? How do you foresee shaping your path ahead?

My creative studio in London represents a significant chapter in my professional life, and while it remains a hub of activity, I am equally committed to maintaining my connection to Bucharest. The idea of being rooted in Bucharest while frequently journeying back to the UK for work is not only appealing but also aligns with my ongoing strategy to bridge multiple cultures and markets through my work.

Looking ahead, I envision a flexible yet structured path. The advancements in technology and communication make it increasingly feasible to manage and expand a creative business across borders. This flexibility allows me to leverage the unique strengths of both cities—drawing on London’s dynamic creative industries and Bucharest’s emerging market opportunities and talent pool.
I plan to continue nurturing my studio’s presence in London while also deepening my engagements and contributions to the creative community in Bucharest. This cultural mix approach not only enriches my studio’s work but also allows me to stay connected to my roots, ensuring that my work remains diverse and globally oriented.
My path will be shaped by where I can make the most impact—using my skills to contribute to both communities, sharing knowledge, and creating opportunities for collaboration across cultures. This approach ensures that my career remains vibrant and continuously evolving, aligned with the broader trends in the global creative industry.

As a visual artist with a background in architecture studies and an extensive expertise abroad, you likely have an ‘eye’ for urban architecture and what a capital in 2024 should look like. Bucharest definitely fails on its looks, it has potential, but its eclectic style turns to something negative in the end. If you were to be a decision-maker on urban architecture/landscape design within Bucharest administration, what facelift plan would you enforce so that Bucharest should look like a true EU capital? (buildings, parking, parks, transport means, etc)?

Universitatii Square, Bucharest

This is a complex topic, but I’ll give it a go and wear the decision-making hat for a moment. My vision for Bucharest combines aesthetic appeal with practical urban planning. Given the eclectic nature of Bucharest’s architecture, which currently presents a somewhat disjointed appearance, a cohesive plan is essential for transforming the city into a representative European capital.
Firstly, architectural integration would be paramount. Bucharest’s charm lies in its varied architectural styles, but the challenge is to blend these without the current visual discordance. I would advocate for development regulations that require new constructions to respect historical aesthetics while incorporating modern efficiency. This would not only preserve the city’s character but also ensure sustainability.
Secondly, green spaces and parks are crucial for enhancing the liveability of any city. I would prioritise expanding and maintaining these areas, using native plant species to promote biodiversity and creating more community spaces that encourage social interaction and recreational activities.
For transportation, I envision a Bucharest where public transport and non-motorised transit options are the backbone of urban mobility. This would involve expanding the metro and bus networks, improving their efficiency, and ensuring they are well-integrated. Additionally, developing more pedestrian zones and cycling paths would reduce congestion and pollution, making the city more accessible and environmentally friendly.
Regarding parking, managing car usage through better urban planning would be key. Implementing efficient and affordable public transportation options should be accompanied by regulated parking zones and pricing to discourage excessive car use in congested areas. These initiatives would require not just administrative action but also a cultural shift towards valuing and investing in public spaces and services. By cultivating a sense of belonging, love, and collective respect for our city’s appearance and functionality, we can transform Bucharest into a capital that truly reflects its heritage and its aspirations within the European Union.

Alex Mileaarchitectureart directorBucharestCreative DirectordesigndesignerlondonMilea-StudioUKvisual arts
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