Maak Soap Lab

Art & Design
Words and Photographs by Ryan Fish

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At some point before its abandonment and subsequent restoration, this building was an auto mechanic shop that snatched up broken cars from busy N Interstate and sent them through its automotive emergency room. I can imagine it, as I walk past the teal roll-up garage doors into the cement-floored lobby—now the retail space of Beam and Anchor—and continue up a narrow staircase to the Maak Soap Laab studio, where Taylor Ahlmark, extending his arms fully to pull aside canvas curtains, is dwarfed by the vacuous space between him and the ceiling, wooden beams looming darkly above the equally-tall, checker-paned windows. Nori Gilbert sits on a wooden chair looking up at a large chalkboard reviewing the recipe for today’s soap.

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Taylor wears a light gray gingham shirt, and his two wild, contemplating eyes gaze toward me, checking for my understanding as he describes the instruments and jars of ingredients sitting rank and file among the shelves. From a young age, he travelled the world and lived in many cities—a privilege of having an international pilot as a father—and catalogued the aromas in each climate and culture, determining which scents defined each locale. In Singapore, as a child, as he weaved through open air markets following his parents, he encountered the stinky aroma of Durian fruit being split open at hawker stands. In Arizona in a fifth grade botany class, Taylor and his classmates clamored into the desert behind the school to study prickly pear and creosote, the needles of the latter which, his teacher instructed, could be rubbed between two fingers to release the aroma of fresh rain. These discoveries—that powerfully suggestive fragrances were encapsulated in nature, and could be released on demand—became the genesis for Taylor’s curiosity in soap and fragrance.

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In the studio, Nori and Taylor prepare the ingredients for the Rose City bar, beginning first with an oil base of olive oil, which lends moisturizing properties but a more fine lather, and of coconut oil, which imparts the bigger white bubbles in lathering. These oils combine with a strong lye solution during saponification—the chemical process of combining an acid (the base oils) with a base (the lye solution) to produce a salt (the resulting soap). The lye solution is made by slowly sprinkling powdered lye into a stainless steel bowl of water. Then the  solution is blended with the base oils using a power drill with a rubber paddle attachment. As the oils and lye begin saponification, Nori adds any plant material or exfoliant, (in this case it’s rose hips); lavender and patchouli essential oils are then added for fragrance.

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Throughout the process, Nori combines the ingredients with small, efficient movements: it seems that, although the lye solution and oil mixtures undergo incredible chemical transformations, she expends little effort, sometimes initiating reactions with the quick addition of a cup of oil or a nod to Taylor who taps in more lye from a jar. But this ease is deceptive, and I soon realize the batter is quietly giving her signals (its temperature, its smell, the way it looks as it moves) that reveal when it’s time to take the next step. Oftentimes she enthusiastically waves me over to show me these signals, and oftentimes I lose myself in her heightened excitement, trying to memorize as many observations as possible as if I’ll be expected to make the next batch. “There’s a point called trace that occurs after mixing the oils and lye together,” Nori explains, “this is the point at which saponification has begun, and the oils and lye will no longer separate.” I watch her test for trace by lifting the spatula out and leaving a trail over the surface of the mixture. The trail hovers on top and takes a moment to recombine: this is trace. “If the essential oils are added before trace they will mix with the lye just like any other oil, and we would lose their scent qualities,” she says as they add the lavender and patchouli oils.

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Taylor lifts the mixing bowl up above the mold and the moltenous soap oozes out as Nori scrapes the leftover with a spatula. They wrap blankets around the mold to preserve warmth, ensuring a complete saponification process. After a couple days the long bricks will be sliced into smaller bars, and the bars will be put into drying racks to cure for several weeks before being wrapped in thin white paper and labeled “rose city”.

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Next, Taylor brings out a wooden block holding rows of colorful vials with scotch tape labels like “mustard seed”, “peppermint”, and “coffee”. He and Nori uncork a vial and pour the contents through a paper coffee filter and into a small brown bottle, separating the infused alcohol from the natural solids. Before sealing the cap, Taylor lifts up the bottle and proffers it to my nose, and upon taking in a deep breath my eyes come to focus and my heart races a bit and I let out a laugh as I smell coffee in all it’s iterations: the dry fragrance of ground beans, the creaminess of espresso, and a sweet candy flavor as I exhale. These tinctures are the beginnings of an olfactory oeuvre.

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These days in Portland, the archetype of the 20-something-year-old resurrecting an age-old craft has ceased to be noteworthy. But, as that novelty fades, those craftsman continue to master and specialize their trade. Nori and Taylor’s development of tinctures signal a new pursuit of purity, to discover the indivisible building blocks and isolated scents that, combined with other scents and applied to soaps or fragrances, conjure an experience and transport a person to a coffee roastery, an Oregon lavender field, or just a warm rainy day. They’re giving the unseen aromas in our world more attention, and that pursuit is noteworthy, and it’s happening in the Maak Soap Lab on the second story of a once-derelict building tucked beneath the Fremont bridge, as thousands of vehicles rumble overhead.

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2 Responses to “Maak Soap Lab”

  1. Jocelyn Rahm says:

    Great piece! Excellent writing and beautiful images…

  2. Jenny says:

    nice photo series. love the tones.

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