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By India• 4 Aug 2018
Ali Johnson’s neighbours can always tell when she’s working on a new batch of Sphaera soap.
Day and night, bewitching scents spill out from the Ngaio home she shares with her husband and two sons and waft down the street. Ali makes her all-natural, vegan, artisan soap downstairs, in a converted-garage studio, and handles the business side of things upstairs, at a desk in the living room.
It’s fitting that Sphaera is a domestic affair, because it was soap’s homeliness that first sparked Ali’s interest. Ten years ago, the trained metalsmith and sculptor was adjusting to first-time motherhood and craving a creative outlet.
“I was living in such a domestic bubble,” she says. “In my previous art practice, I’d always done quite conceptual work, but at that stage, I was so sleep-deprived and overwhelmed that I wasn’t able to do any big-sky thinking.
“I still needed to make things, because I’m sad if I’m not doing that, but it needed to be something really contained and purposeful.”
It took Ali years to master the many skills necessary for soap-making. First, there’s the science. Because the process relies on a chemical reaction, ingredient measurements have to be exactly right, down to the very last half-gram, and temperatures have to be carefully controlled at every stage.
Then, she had to build on her therapeutic knowledge, learning which ingredients were best for which purposes or skin types and understanding the effects different essential oils had on people’s moods. And, finally, she studied perfume-making techniques so she could create the aromas that so enchant her passing neighbours today.
A handmade bar of soap is really beautiful to use . . . It's a luxurious experience, but it's not $2,000 worth of luxury.
There was plenty of trial and error involved and plenty of patience – depending on the ingredients, the final step in the soap-making process, curing, takes between one and six months. But Ali persevered, and, as her skills grew, so did demand for her products, first among family and friends, then among friends of friends, and so on.
In early 2016, her sister-in-law Suni Hermon (now Sphaera’s design and brand manager) convinced her to turn her hobby into a business. Wellington’s Precinct 35 leapt at the chance to stock Sphaera, and shops in Auckland, Dunedin, Christchurch and Napier followed suit.
At $24 per bar, the soaps are an indulgence, but Ali makes a convincing case for splurging.
“A handmade bar of soap is really beautiful to use. The process of lathering it in your hands is gorgeous. It’s thick, it’s silky, it’s creamy. And as you do that, you’re getting a beautiful wave of essential-oil perfume, which affects the way you feel and your skin.
“It’s a luxurious experience, but it’s not $2,000 worth of luxury. It’s a luxury you can have every single day in the privacy of your bathroom. It’s something you can do to look after yourself and feel like you have small pleasures throughout your day.”
In August, Sphaera will release a new range of six soaps. Although the details are top secret for now, there’s no doubt Ali will stay true to her original goal – to turn something seemingly mundane into a thing of beauty.
“Suni’s and my first love is design and visual arts, and we want the soaps to be appealing objects. Once you start peeling back the layers, you find they’re really functional and environmentally conscious and a beautiful gift, but the original idea was, ‘Let’s just make this really beautiful thing to hold in your hand and enjoy.’”
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