Advance Copy

Growing With Integrity, Sphaera Soap

08.08.19, Wellington

A palm-sized pale-yellow cube sits proudly in a row with 3 others, each on top of its pristine white box; small, solid and somehow serene. If a block of soap holds your gaze for a while, you begin to wonder what makes it different from the rest to command undivided attention. What is this customary product silently communicating? This is how I came across Sphaera soap, presented at Worn Store in the tropical town of Bangalow, Australia. Soap, an item so mundane, felt proud and precious here, flawless in its simplicity and silently emulating the effort of its maker. Certain that the soap was a product of a pure, artisan mind I reached out to Sphaera’s Founder, Ali Johnson, to find out how time, reflection and experimentation can be distilled to make a practical and conceptual product.  

Advance Copy: Hello Ali, thank you so much for taking the time for our phone call today.

Ali Johnson: Hi Natalia, it’s lovely to meet you!

AC: We are speaking from different corners of the world right now; would you mind setting the scene and telling us about where you are right now?

Ali: I live in Wellington, which is the capital of New Zealand. It’s very beautiful, green and windy; the city sits in the Roaring Forties with Trade Winds that run around 40° latitude. I like to think that, for its size, Wellington is a lovely and sophisticated city, there is a thriving music scene and a lot of boutique food producers doing original things, it has an amazing cultural heart. On a human level, people are very connected here, it’s such a small country that the creative community really is a community and it’s very supportive in terms of starting a business.

AC: Thank you, Ali. I think Sphaera soap represents something unique; a refined minimalist product that honours local ingredients and artisan skills. I would love to find how your story began and how you created Sphaera. Could you tell us about your upbringing, were you raised in New Zealand?

Ali: I grew up in a farming family in Australia, out by Lewiston, New South Wales, on the edge of what people consider as the the Outback. I come from a family of makers and was lucky to have a lot of support to explore different mediums. I’ve done some small-scale metalwork, textile work, papermaking and my grandmother was a ceramic artist so I did a lot of ceramic work too. I was always motivated to teach myself new skills and I wanted to try something challenging so I studied metal smithing at an art school in Canberra, I liked how you could go different ways with it. After attending art school, I worked as an Exhibition Preparator, helping to design and install museum exhibitions. I saved up some money and decided to go travelling overseas with my best friend, we planned a big trip going from Istanbul, through the Middle East down to Cairo.

AC: That’s a very interesting route, what attracted you to this group of countries?

Ali: It’s a part of the world that fascinated me, I loved Egyptology as a kid and felt like it was such an ancient and amazing part of the world. I also really wanted to go to a hammam, so you can already see some of the influences behind Sphaera! We were having an amazing trip but we didn’t end up getting to the end. This was in 2001, we were staying in Turkey and before we were able to continue the trip September 11th happened with all borders to Lebanon, Israel and Syria getting closed down. We ended up staying in Turkey for 8 months, where I met my husband and after returning home we decided to settle in Wellington.

AC: What lead you to start making soap?

Ali: My first child was a baby that didn’t sleep, so it was a challenging time and I didn’t have much available creatively for myself. At the same time, with a young child around, I wanted to have a chemical-free home so I was looking at ways of getting as many cleaning products out of the house as possible. I thought making soap would be something simple and creative. I made a batch, used only one bar and gave away the rest, then people started asking me for more.

AC: Did you find it difficult to turn this creative exploration into a business endeavour?

Ali: There is huge pressure to run before you can walk, but I delve into everything I do, so I explored the idea of how to create a successful small business and maintain integrity in that process. When you are making a product and there’s a market for it, there is external pressure to try to make as much money out of it as you possibly can, that it’s all going to disappear in a puff of smoke if you don’t take every single opportunity. The compromises that would have been necessary along the way to suddenly turn Sphaera into a big commercial enterprise just didn’t feel right to me, the instinct wasn’t there. I’ve started the company in my unconventional way and I’m going to keep going that way; it’s okay to be quiet, to be small and to let something evolve.

AC: It’s so important to try to isolate budding ideas from comparisons with what already exists, this is a reoccurring topic with other participants of Advance Copy.

Ali: Absolutely, and I think comparing is such a poison. When I first started practising as an artist the Internet wasn’t there so you were much more insulated. But now you have Instagram and it’s easy to feel like everyone is flying and you’re just crawling, you have to trust your inner critic. For me, it’s not about creating something that’s never been done before but creating a new take, new combinations or looking at something from a different angle. Before Instagram, you would arrive at an idea through your own experience, your process, and you’d be happy because for you that was original. But if you do all of that and then jump on Instagram you can suddenly feel like someone’s already done it. You can short circuit your creative process, whereas if you didn’t see this you’d go ahead and make your own work, which is what you are bringing to the world.

“It’s okay to be quiet, to be small and to let something evolve.”

AC: I’d love to talk about the creative development of Sphaera. The soap’s elegant packaging and distinct cube shape signal a considerable amount of thought put into the external and internal presentation of the product, what came first?

Ali: I started off focusing on the technical side of the process more because I really enjoy gathering information. I managed to track down a few old soap making reference books and a lot of the older resources are now available online. It was a utilitarian process at the start, I purely thought about how I wanted to use what I was making. Once I had a confident technical grasp on that part it changed to looking at the soap as a creative medium, thinking about it as a sculptural substance. I was making a lot of different versions, realising that the conceptual thinking I used in my art-making process could be applied to this utilitarian substance. I was trying to find that intersection between the beautiful and the useful, exploring it a little bit more, seeing how I could integrate form, colours, the history of soap making, the future of the substance, the visual and tactile experience. There didn’t necessarily need to be a boundary between all these things, I could make a soap that performed and smelled beautifully, and had a conceptual story: they needn’t be exclusive of each other.

“I was trying to find that intersection between the beautiful and the useful.”

AC: Your website mentions Plato’s ideas on form influencing your design process, could you tell us more about this root of inspiration?

Ali: Our first range of soap was inspired by alluvial layers and geological formations; these soaps had a much more traditional shape with seams running through them. When producing the new range, I knew that I wanted our soaps to be solid, coloured forms. I started to think about taking form back to its original conversations on the building blocks of life, that’s when Plato’s forms came in. Tracing back the history of a concept, realising that the cube represented the Earth and the original definition of the word ‘sphere’ is the ‘dome over the Earth’. I think this idea spoke to me, the fact that it also resonated with old traditions of Aleppo and Marseille, where they pour soap out onto the concrete floor, score it and cut it out into beautiful rough cubes, stacked into drying pyramids.

When thinking about people experiencing Sphaera soaps in stores, I liked the idea that the bars could almost be like children’s building blocks – you are invited to be tactile and playful with them. I also wanted to address the practical side of soap needing to stay solid, the fact that the cube has 6 equal sides means that it can be rotated easily, so it’s not in contact with water and lasts a lot longer. The bars also evolve from a geometric, sharp sculptural form into a pebble shape, and go through a journey that I really enjoy.

“I started to think about taking form back to its original conversations on the building blocks of life.”

AC: Could you tell us about the types of ingredients used in Sphaera soaps and whether you’ve faced any issues in sourcing these in New Zealand.

Ali: It’s an ongoing process, there are some ingredients that I’d like to use but can’t get in New Zealand, however, creative restraints provide an incentive to explore and work with unique ingredients available in the area. For example, our base oil is sourced from an olive oil-producing area 100km away, with a village press used by a lot of the smaller farms. One soap bar was inspired by the west coast of the South Island, the first part of New Zealand that I fell in love with. Most key ingredients for this grey-coloured bar come from that area: sea salt, pumice and kelp, which is harvested along the coast by people who wade out into the water with big knives to cut raw kelp, drag it out and dry it.

In some way, I feel like this work has strengthened my connection with New Zealand as my adopted country. Especially through the research that I’ve done into native flora that’s endemic to New Zealand, the plants traditionally used by Maori that I can also use.

“Creative restraints provide an incentive to explore and work with unique ingredients available in the area.”

AC: Sphaera was created as a sustainably-minded business, how do you go about ingraining these values into the day-to-day of running a small independent brand?

Ali: In my personal life I take sustainability incrementally and look carefully at everyday choices that we make. I think that’s translated into my approach with Sphaera, not being held back by the idea that I can’t do everything exactly the way I would like to at the beginning, but being emotionally open to improving things as we go along. I find a starting point that I’m comfortable with, that doesn’t do any harm, and try to make it better.

AC: You’ve chosen not to overtly advertise Sphaera’s sustainable aspects on the product’s paired-back, minimalist packaging. What are your feelings on communicating these values, is it important for sustainability to be a key selling point?

Ali: Sphaera is an environmentally and sustainably focused company and it was important for me to make this an intrinsic part of the product rather than an avert one. Instead of being represented as ‘environmentally responsible’ or ‘green’, I wanted these values to be fundamentally built into the products and almost not be explained to the consumer. This is something I was very conscious of because peoples’ perception of handmade soap is very rustic so it’s almost a new idea for a product to be a high-end luxury as well as having environmental credentials. I wanted to carve out a space where what I am making is a luxury product, and it is a luxury product because of the quality of ingredients, the production and the conception. I want Sphaera to be a brand that has integrity and we don’t need to put all those credentials at the front for everybody to see. When I buy something from a company, I would like to take it for granted that they are doing the right thing, I want to aspire to everyone doing business this way.

AC: Ali thank you so much for sharing your journey with Sphaera, we wish you the best of luck!

Ali: Thank you, it’s really lovely to know that people are seeing Sphaera, using it and thinking about it.