Monday, February 9, 2015

Mondays with MAAK LAB: An interview with Anoria Gilbert

Yesterday I was lucky enough to find myself downtown at the new Maak Lab location. Surrounded by the best smelling smells in all of Portland, I had the chance to sit down with Anoria Gilbert and chat about their new space, their new products, and why no free time is a good thing.

Fozzie:  How did Maak Lab come about?

Practicing our Waltz
Nori: Well, my background was pretty opposite, not much to do with what we do now. My education was in behavioral psychology and Spanish, which was great for school but work wise a little unsatisfying.  Taylor has a background in architecture so he had a lot of design experience. We came to Portland together after graduating from school in Arizona, worked some crummy jobs, felt out our new city, and considered going back to school in Eugene. But when we checked out the school one quiet rainy Sunday, we just couldn't bring ourselves to leaving Portland -- it felt wrong. So we decided against that, and stayed here to start our own thing instead. On the drive back were throwing around ideas of things we should do -- get into printing, make cards, something with textiles? It took a while to figure out what made sense.

F: What made you land on soap?

N: I had some experience with soap making and we had already been enraptured by the smells of Portland for some time. They were so distinctly different from Arizona -- there were smells everywhere, they smelled good, and it wasn’t just pollution and dry cactus. We knew how to make soap, and wanted to use the things around us -- there’s so much local flora and fauna at our disposal here. So we just started tinkering with that. We started steam distilling essential oils, we built a steam distiller and made our house reek of lavender for three days and yielded a quarter ounce of essential oils. We found essential oils work really well in soap, and started messing around with the idea in our basement. We started getting to know local brands in the meantime, and saw Portland as a really fertile land for entrepreneurs. Shortly after that we got into Beam and Anchor.

F: How did you guys end up at there?

N: Its weird looking back on it now, Portland seems so small. We knew Matt just a bit from his launch of Wood & Faulk -- he had people wear test his belts and give him feedback, and Taylor got a prototype. Then when he started the Portland Bazaar he invited us to be vendors, and the after party was at Beam & Anchor, where his studio was. He tipped us off that there was still one spot left next to his shop, we took a peak, and we're eager to meet Robert & Jocelyn. It was the perfect space for us -- around other small brands, cool people, and just a beautiful space in general. Robert & Joc were a little skeptical because they didn't want us to stink up the building, but with a little proof that we weren't the next Yankee Candle factory, it was a go. It was a great fit, we got really lucky.

F: What was one of the pinnacle moments for the company?

N: The first point where we like “Yeah, we can do this!” was our first wholesale account. We met our friend Bob Davis who curated Lizard Lounge, and he was just really supportive and into what we were doing. It was the first major signal that we were on a pretty good track. It was also the start to finding a really good community of people here. 

F: Where are your products currently being sold?

N: We sell nationwide, stocked in a lot of fashion-oriented and lifestyle shops, and internationally pretty strong in Japan and a few other countries. 

F: What was/is the philosophy behind Maak Lab?

N:  We really try to go at things with an experimental viewpoint, not just “this is how soap has always been made, and this is how we have to do it too." Yea, they made soap 300 years ago from the ashes of their fireplace and the lard from the pig butchered for dinner, and we can follow tradition but it's been more interesting to revive it with something more interesting. With cooler design, with natural ingredients, with things that are from here, and with ingredients that you normally use. We've thrown tobacco in soap, used gin berries that gin we made from, just different things. We’ve also made soap from the lard of a fat pig just to see how to do it (the process reeks of bacon, FYI). We’ve found our niche in more unisex to masculine scents, natural ingredients, things we like ourselves. 

The other side of our philosophy is we want our products to be for the habit. Everything we make is for some aspect of your daily routine. So if you’re washing your armpits, lighting your candle to freshen the bathroom, reading a magazine in bed -- we’re  targeting things that are habitual, things that you’re going to do over and over again, making those habits a bit more pleasant. 

F: I’ve always loved your soap, but now I know you have a few more products, what’s in the current line?

N: Our current product line is soap, candles and salve. We’re on the cusp of doing liquid soap too. We’ve got a lot more in the works for the year too, trying to roll into all the habits.

F: I noticed the new bottles for the liquid soap, and was really intrigued by the names of the new product. Can you tell us a little about that?

N: since we moved to our new shop there’s just been a ton of work that’s gone into it, so for a while we were just dealing with the skeletons of the shop, stripping it down to the bare bones and then refinishing everything. While we were doing that we were thinking about the development of the actual product line that'd  be in the shop. The wet soap just kind of developed around the shop, reflective of the smells inside and outside our new space downtown.  Streetside is our wet soap based off the street in front of our shop. Right before walking in you'll smell the asphalt, crack weeds, wet cement, and just a touch of green plant life. Labside is the wet soap based on smells and common ingredients inside the shop -- white cedar, balsam, tree saps magazines, wifi. Rooftop  is the third wet soap based on the roof of our building, notes of ozone, a little citrus, and solar panels.

My favorite is Rooftop because it’s a very different smell than we’ve done before, in a really good way. The combo of essential oils is almost effervescent and intensely fresh.

F: Do you a have any other favorites?

N: Another favorite is our Wax Bar, if we’re talking about soap, because it has my favorite scent which is the Port Orford cedar. It’s one of the scents that people don’t often have access too because the stock of trees only grows in Port Orford, Oregon and a tiny bit of California. The tree usually gets shipped over to Japan, but we  get a small stock of as much as we can to keep this really unique scent around. It’s a gingery cedar that has the same kick as horseradish but in not such a spicy gross way-- it rounds out to be a sweet, creamy, musky cedar smell. Its great, but most people haven’t smelled before so it's fun to give that experience here.

F: Where do you get the inspiration for all your delicious smells?

N: All over, a lot of its based on exploring and seeking out new scents. For instance we're testing out a curry leaf essential oil the other day, and it smells kind of awful, but kind of awesome. Anything we come across now that we're not familiar with we have to swoop it up so we can learn its intricacies and have it in hand in our scent library. Lots of the time something is in the library for months before we can find the best use for it. 

The scent library portion of our shop is really important for inspiration, and to bounce ideas off people and get their take on smells. It's really fun showing people smells here, because most people don’t have a place to go to learn them. So when people come in here and say “it smells so good in here” we can show them what it is. They may think that they really like eucalyptus or hate patchouli (which truly smells like fresh dirt and is awesome, not at all like a dirty hippie) and we can say here is what the tree leaf smells like, in the form of essential oil. It's a fun way to re-experience the learning with people.

F: This store is honestly one of my favorite places in Portland right now, how do you like it so far?

N: It’s been a really good spot for us, very vibrant -- it feels like the heart of the city. And a ton of awesome shops have gone into of our building, like West End Select, Adam & Ollman Gallery, and North of West.  Inside the shop has been a great experience as well, designing the space, figuring out the new ebb and flow, and just having our own corner of the world to share with people. 

F: What made you decide to open up a storefront?

N: We wanted to bring the smells to the streets of Portland and have a fun place to make our stuff. It also serves as a great testing ground for new product, smells, project ideas, collaborations -- it's lead to a lot of growth and change.

F: The design of this place is just fantastic, what was your process for making this a unique space?

N: We wanted to create a space that would reflect us, and would be functional, utility-based and modular, so it can grow and change as we do.  Since we're doing production alongside our retail, it had to flow together and fulfill both sides of the business too. So we started with industrial pallet racking, cut it up and kept modifying from there. The whole process was a lot of testing, thinking, waking up with a way smarter idea than you went to bed with, just the usual creative process. Eventually it all came together and worked out as we planned. 

F: What’s on the horizon for the store in 2015?

N: We’re starting to bring in other brands into our shop, not a lot, but we want to bring in things that we like, use, and accentuate what we already do. Also, continuing with our own brand development. We have a lot of new projects in the works, from private label, to new products just for the shop. 

F: Any free time coming up?

N: No. We’re here all the time. We’re usually here all hours of the day & night toiling away at something or another, but it’s a good way of living so far. Sometimes overwhelming, but mostly really satisfying. Free time isn’t  there a lot, but this is what I want to be doing so it doesn't matter.

F: Do you find it’s a fair trade off, the work for the free time?

N: The last jobs I was working, I'd come home and feel tired, exhausted, yet stone how restless. It would take all night to recoup from it in our free time. Now we work most hours of the day, there's little free time, but it doesn't matter we're surrounded by a great community and do things We want to do everyday, which is pretty special.

F: So would you say you’re happy?

N: Happy? Yes,  more stressed, but in all the right ways. My goal now is not to be happy, but to be satisfied. I could be happy eating  chocolate and watching reruns of Frasier all day but right now I'd rather work towards that feeling of satisfaction. Wether it's  nailing down a new scent or getting the accounting done for the week, it can be stupid mundane stuff but it's satisfying. Things that can get checked off a list and show progress towards what we're aiming for. So yea, I go for satisfaction over happiness. 

Maak Lab is located at 916 W Burnside. You can visit Nori & Taylor Tuesday through Sunday from 11am-6pm. 

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