I have the pleasure to present to you an interview with Laura Natusch of Urban Eden. She makes lovely scented soaps and body butters, and has a small facial care line. Thank you, Laura, for taking time to share with us.
1) Please describe your background. How did you come to make soaps and other bath and beauty products? What do you do when you’re not making soaps and other lovely products?
I started my creative life as a painter– I studied painting at Rhode Island School of Design—but found myself wanting to make something which was not only beautiful but also useful and affordable. I also wanted to make something which was in line with my values. I wasn’t sure what that might be until my husband and I spent a long weekend in Vermont. At the Brattleboro farmers market I fell in love with the soap booth. The soaps enchanted me–the colors, the scents, the way they were presented: unwrapped, hand cut, displayed in rustic wooden crates. Although the Brattleboro market has incredible produce, live music, pottery, breads and lots of ethnic food, I kept circling back to those soaps. And I decided that afternoon that I was going to be a soapmaker, too.
For the first several years after I started my business, soapmaking was my life. I worked eighty hours a week. But now I’ve scaled back so I can enjoy some of my other interests. I’m part of a playwriting group. I volunteer at a food co-op. I cook. My husband, Jake Kaeser, builds harpsichords, and sometimes I paint the soundboards for him. I’m better able to make time for my family, my friends, my cats and my rabbits.
2) Tell us more about your shop name, Urban Eden. I find it such an intriguing and catchy name. How did you decide on it?
I live in a densely populated section of New London, CT. Although New London is fairly small—less than 30,000 people—it’s the urban hub of this area. We have a great downtown, a thriving music and arts scene, and we’re also a little gritty and rough around the edges. I wanted a name that reflected all that. But I also wanted to convey that my products are natural; that my business is earth-friendly, and also that my soap studio is my own little piece of heaven on earth. I pondered the name for weeks, then suddenly it came to me in the middle of the night.
3) Describe your creative process. How do you usually get ideas for a new soap or product, and what is your process for creating and testing that product?
My inspiration varies depending on the product. Most of my soap ideas revolve around scent, which I talk about in the next section. Other product ideas are more practical. I started making deodorant because Alzheimer’s runs in my family and we all wanted to limit our exposure to aluminum. I make things that I use or which a family member or friend requests.
The creative process also varies. At this point, I know my soap ingredients well, so I can work spontaneously and intuitively. Often I change my soap idea mid-batch. Yesterday I was making an old favorite, grapefruit coriander, and only a few minutes before I was going to pour it into the mold I thought, “I bet some frankincense would go well with this.” So I added half an ounce of frankincense. And then I thought that if this was a perfume it would need a floral heart—nothing too sweet, nothing which would muddy the soap’s freshness—so I quickly melted some mimosa and jasmine sambac waxes and added them, too.
With other products, it’s not spontaneous at all. Perfume takes me forever—maybe literally, as I still haven’t developed one I like well enough to market! Perfume is more complex than soap because it evolves on your skin, and it needs to smell good through every stage of its evolution. I make many, many little scent experiments and keep notes. When I get a base note accord that I like, I’ll start combining it with heart note accords, then top notes. And then I wait for weeks, because as the essential oils and absolutes interact with each other, the blend changes.
My husband and I test everything. Fortunately for my customers, we both have sensitive skin. We’re prone to dermatitis and Jake is cursed with eczema. With the exception of people who are allergic to an ingredient, if a product is going to irritate anyone, it’s probably going to irritate us.
4) What strikes me about your soaps are that they are truly perfumes in a bar. I remember finding your soaps when I was looking to add some spice to my bath life, when I was tired of the typical single note soaps like Lavender, Lemon, and the like. One of the first soaps I tried of yours was Secret Garden and it blew me away. Another favorite is your Shahrazad soap, which features tuberose, a favorite note of mine. What are your scent inspirations? How do you come up with such amazing scents with beautiful staying power in the shower?
Oh, thank you! I’ve learned a lot about scent-blending by studying the work of botanical perfumers. Mandy Aftel’s book Essence and Alchemy taught me about the pairing of opposites, how a scent becomes richer and more intriguing if you balance, say, orange with vetiver or patchouli; or a heavy floral with bergamot or lime. Botanical perfumers also take into consideration how quickly or slowly the different essential oils evaporate. Quickly-evaporating top notes (citruses, many spices) reach your nose first. But for a scent to have staying power, you also need bottom notes like patchouli, vetiver or sandalwood. (Although there are some exceptions. In perfumery, lime essential oil is considered a top note, but I find that in soap, it’s quite tenacious.)
In fairness to other soapmakers, I think most of us know all this. The reason you see so many simple citrus or lavender soaps is that the top note essential oils generally cost much, much less than the middle or base notes. A pound of blood orange costs less than an ounce of good vetiver.
As far as scent inspirations, I sometimes turn to specific perfume families. Last year I made a green chypre soap; my Shahrazad soap is structured like an amber perfume. Other times I’m inspired by a certain mood or a feeling, like the bracing sensation of standing outside on a winter night. And often I’m inspired by food (aren’t we all?). I just made a soap based on Vietnamese cuisine, scented with lemongrass, lime, ginger and coriander.
But most often I find inspiration from the essential oils themselves. I become intrigued with a certain oil, and I wonder how to extend it, or deepen it, or bring out its fruitiness or its warmth. Or—more cooking inspiration—it’s like the way you’re inspired when you look in your pantry. After you’ve gained some experience, you don’t need to follow a recipe in order to cook dinner. You see what you have in the house and you start to play.
5) What would you consider to be your signature product or scent and why?
Oooh, tough question! That’s like asking a Mom which baby she loves most!
Though sometimes I venture into other facial or body care products—and I am really, really proud of my deodorant—soap is my signature product. It’s what initially got my heart racing. But which scent? My own favorite might be Ginger Orange. It’s got a hint of vetiver, and I’m crazy about vetiver. But on another day I might say Tranquility. Tranquility has a sandalwood/vanilla base juxtaposed with lemon, ginger and cardamom. I don’t know that I have a signature. I’m always chasing the next scent, always hoping it will be the best scent ever.
6) Can you describe the best feedback you’ve ever received, or describe an interaction that you had that made you feel good about your creations?
A lot of my best feedback has been for my deodorant because people are so grateful to find a natural deodorant that works. And I was really tickled last November when a regular customer asked me to put together an assortment of more than a dozen sample-sized soaps for her mother. She wrote back and said her Mom actually squealed when she opened the box. It’s great to know I helped make somebody’s Christmas.
But the most affirming interaction I ever had with a customer—one that made me feel good not only about my work but about people in general—was when I was having money problems and had run out of supplies. An online customer—someone I’d never met in person– gave me the money to buy enough essential oils to get me over the hump. She believed in my work and didn’t want to see my business fold. It was such a generous act that I can still get teary-eyed over it.
7) What plans do you have for your shop and soap line in 2011? What should we be looking out for?
I’m excited about experimenting more with floral waxes! Floral waxes used to be considered a throw-away byproduct of the distillation process, but now quite a few of them are commercially available. They allow soapmakers to incorporate floral notes like tuberose or jasmine without having to charge $20.00 a bar. I’ve worked with a few of them—tuberose, rose, several jasmines, and now mimosa—but I’ve only begun to explore the possibilities.
And—I know you’re waiting for this– maybe this will be the year I come up with a perfume. I’m actually working on one now based on my Tranquility soap at the request of one of my customers. I’m hopeful, but who knows? Last year I worked and worked on a champaca-based perfume but was never quite satisfied.
8) Do you have any favorite crafters or artisans that you would like to share with us?
Charna Ethier of Providence Perfume Company, Roxana Villa of Roxana Illuminated Perfume, and Liz Zorn of Soivohle are all making gorgeous botanical perfumes. And I’ve just ordered samples from VireoPerfumes. I’m excited to finally try her perfumes–she has a great reputation for both her scents and her customer service.
And I’m a member of the Etsy Earth Team, a group of crafters committed to eco-friendly practices in both their businesses and their lives.. I know your readers would be interested in the bath and body artisans, but there are also fiber artists, jewelers, seed savers…they’re a good group to support.
9) What advice would you give to budding soap makers or other crafters and artisans who are looking to present their wares to the public?
No one is born an expert. If other people can do it, you can too. That said, keep your expectations realistic. You probably aren’t going to make wads of money, you’ll likely feel rich in creative satisfaction and in community. Also, there’s a lot involved in any business, even a tiny one, beyond making a beautiful product. You have packaging, shipping, bookkeeping, customer service, marketing, lots of photographing if you’re selling online, lots of schlepping if you’re selling at craft fairs. But if you love your business enough, you’ll learn to do it. I’m a total technophobe, but even I learned to take a reasonably good photo.
Lastly, appreciate that there are lots of wonderful things being made by lots of wonderful people. When someone chooses to buy something you’ve made, it’s an honor. Stay grateful, and never take your customers for granted.
10) Is there anything else that you would like to share?
Only that I thank you for giving me this opportunity to reflect on and talk about my business. Now I’m inspired to get back in the studio!
Thank you again, Laura!
If you are interested in being the next featured artisan, or know someone who should be featured, please leave a comment.