Awash with meaning

Through her artisan soap-making business Sphaera, Wellington’s Ali Johnson finds joy in taking a personal approach to an old tradition.

Long before Ali Johnson enrolled in art school, she’d experienced all kinds of different mediums. Making things was an integral part of her upbringing in rural Australia, and having already explored ceramics, woodwork and metalwork, felting and papermaking, she went on to study goldsmithing, silversmithing and sculpture.
Moving to New Zealand in her early twenties, she turned her attention to another interest: complementary medicine. For the past 15 years, she’s worked as both artist and health practitioner, and has been continually intrigued by how these ostensibly disparate realms enhance and inform each other. Today her creative practice combines both disciplines and sees her working with yet another medium: soap.

Ali, how did you get into making your own soap? When my first child was born in 2008, I found that the continual handwashing needed when caring for a young child was hard on my skin. A bit of research into my supermarket soap revealed it was more of a detergent, so in the quest for something gentler, I made my first batch of simple castile soap.
It seemed others were searching too, as I ended up giving away that first batch and needing to make more. So from there, I began to craft my own recipes. Soap-making became an achievable, practical and pleasing process that sustained me creatively when my sons were young and life felt overwhelming.

When did it become a business? I’d been selling soap to family and friends for several years when my sister-in-law Suni Hermon suggested it could be something more. She had a different yet complementary skill set and gave me the confidence to launch Sphaera as a business. It has evolved a lot in the past three years. There’s been a lot of learning and late nights, but I’m glad we took that leap and started when we did.

TOP & ABOVE Sphaera’s new collection features a cube shape inspired by Plato’s thoughts on universal forms — the cube representing earth — and the oldest soap-making traditions of Aleppo and Marseille. “As a miniature, functional sculpture, the geometric cube evolves with use into a softer, more organic pebble shape, like a river stone that sits comfortably in your palm,” says Ali, who’s pictured in the main image at the top of the page, on the right, with business partner and sister-in-law Suni Hermon.

Is there a story behind the name Sphaera? ‘Sphaera’ is an old spelling of the word ‘sphere’. We were looking for an encompassing name, something that would allow the business to grow into whatever it’s meant to be. ‘Sphaera’ had connotations of a creative sphere to work in, and also pleasantly reminded me of a soap bubble.

What are the benefits of the cold-process method you use? This method involves the soap ingredients being combined in small batches at fairly low temperatures, then poured, hand-cut and air-cured over a period of several weeks. This protects the beneficial properties of the natural ingredients, yielding a very mild soap, one that gently cleanses and protects the skin.
Many people with sensitive skin who have avoided soap in the past can safely use a well-made cold-process bar without irritation, due to the natural oils and glycerine content. Commercially produced soap has the glycerine removed and other chemicals added, so it’s very different.

TOP & ABOVE Sustainability is an integral part of the Sphaera brand. Ali and Suni source local and organic ingredients wherever possible and minimise waste at every stage of production, plus their products (which include a laundry bar) are vegan, cruelty- and plastic-free, long-lasting and as gentle on waterways as they are on skin.

Where do you source your ingredients? A big part of our business ethos is to use local ingredients from New Zealand and the Pacific whenever possible. Sphaera’s olive oil comes from the Wairarapa; our Wild Kelp, Sea Salt & Pumice bar is full of West Coast ingredients, and the kawakawa we use comes from the tree growing right outside my studio. New Zealand has a few great online soap-supply stores that we source from as well. Sometimes, though, we do need to look further afield for the right ingredient; for example, our Sweet Almond & French Clay bar features a beautiful green clay that we import from France.

ABOVE Beautiful soap-cutters custom-built by Ali’s father take pride of place in the studio. “Sphaera has benefitted many times from the skills and generosity of family and friends, including my very patient husband, Thomas, who keeps building me more soap-drying racks,” says Ali.

Can you tell us a little about the science behind your new range? Creating a new soap formula is a science of balance, as each ingredient affects the whole and the experience of using it. I like to research many possible ingredients before experimenting with those that work best together in a new composition.
Sphaera’s first range evolved quite naturally through the use of clays to colour each soap, and this second generation tells a new story. Each bar is a careful composition of elements crafted for a particular skin type, use and purpose.

What inspires your scents? Creating a scent blend is a three-fold process. First, I imagine what you might expect each bar to smell like given its colour and use. Then I put together a scent palette of the essential oils suitable for each bar’s function or intended skin type. These palettes are then refined using perfumery techniques into a balanced scent blend that also has a therapeutic purpose. It’s a gradual process involving many test batches to see how a blend ‘settles’ into a soap formula and changes during the curing process.

ABOVE For Ali, washing and bathing are transitional rituals as well as practical ones. “I enjoy a hot shower to wake up in the morning, washing my hands after arriving home to leave the outside world behind, and a long soak in a candlelit bath to relieve stress and prepare for sleep.”

People have long used special soaps to scent their underwear drawers — what are your feelings on this? I think it’s a lovely traditional habit, as long as they get used up eventually! I love that people treasure the soaps I make, but they need to be used to be fully enjoyed.
Sphaera soaps help people experience a little bit of luxury during the everyday ritual of bathing, and as an artist, I’m interested in the idea of a transitory sculptural object with multi-sensory appeal that changes as it’s used. There’s an intimacy to that process that other art mediums can’t provide. I guess it’s a way to appreciate good design not just as an object but also as an experience.

Interview Alice Lines
Photography Bonny Beattie

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