WOMEN OF NOTE:
Ali Johnson | Founder of Sphaera Soap.
For twelve years Ali Johnson has made soap that turns everyday acts into small pleasures. Coming from a long line of makers and an artist herself, Ali’s hands first resonated with mediums such as metal, textiles, paper and clay before her attention turned to soap after the birth of her first child. Seeking a gentle alternative for regular handwashing in the domestic space, she decided to experiment by making her own—a catalyst moment that nurtured the beginnings of what was to become her own business, Sphaera Soap. Launched officially in 2015, Sphaera soaps are thoughtfully crafted in distinctive solid cube shapes inspired by Plato’s ideas on universal elemental forms—where the cube represents the earth—and traditional practices of the oldest soap makers of Aleppo and Marseille. Coloured by fine natural clays and honouring botanical ingredients that harness gentle moisturising properties, Ali delivers a considered and artful approach to a product that has gained newfound meaning in her capable hands. Here, Ali answers some of our questions in isolation at her dreamy house in Wellington, Aotearoa.
Location: Wellington, New Zealand
Date: 11/5/20 Time: 8pm
Where are you from and where are you now?
I am originally from rural NSW, however Wellington NZ has been my home for the last 18 years.
Can you tell us a little about your home, what is the view like?
We are lucky to have a beautiful little 1960’s house filled with sunshine and surrounded by trees. It faces northwest to a beautiful range of bush covered hills, a special place to watch all the wild weather Wellington provides.
Are you a morning or evening person?I wish I could say a morning person, it always sounds more virtuous somehow, however I am definitely more focused and productive in the evenings.
You founded luxury soap brand Sphaera Soap in 2015, what was the impetus to begin this journey?
I had been regularly making soap since 2008 and eventually my wonderful sister-in-law Suni Hermon, a fellow artist, encouraged and supported me to create a brand and business using the skill set I had developed. In my creative process I have always enjoyed exploring mediums and concepts that appear simple but are actually fascinating and nuanced on closer inspection and consideration. Soap and rituals of cleanliness play many roles in history, religion and culture and the chemistry of the substance itself is also very interesting. I consider it a sculptural medium with wonderful sensory appeal.
Sphaera’s approach to process and production is grounded in slow, sustainable practices, could you tell us a little bit about your ethos?Simply, I hope to create something that does no further damage to our beautiful world. Everything we do has an impact, however rather than be overwhelmed by that in a small business I try to take an incremental approach: start from the best possible place at the time, and commit to improving things with each new change and decision. The idea of the ‘blue planet’ has always resonated with me, protecting and restoring the water of our Papatuanuku (Earth Mother).
There are currently seven varieties in the Sphaera range to choose from, how do you source and select the ingredients for each signature blend?
Each bar is a composition of harmonious elements, crafted for a particular skin type, use and purpose. Each soap formula is a science of balance, as each ingredient affects the whole and the experience of using the product. I do a lot of experimentation and research of new ideas and ingredients, especially what interesting locally sourced botanical ingredients I can use.
The Laundry Bar is based with Sweet Orange, Lavender and Sandalwood, an ideal product to gently cleanse our Deiji Studios linen wears. What are your tips for hand-washing natural fibres?
I often will wait till I have a few of my more precious things that need to be hand washed and set aside a time to clean them together. Always check your garment's instructions for water temperature and drying method before beginning. Our laundry bars are designed to lather directly into your bowl of wash water, or gently applied directly to a stain. Always rinse gently and well.
The function of Sphaera is grounded in quiet moments of self-care. How would you describe your own relationship to self-care?
I think honesty is useful here, my relationship with self-care is not as consistent as it could be given what I do! I do aspire to something small each day however often days will go by where the demands of family and work take precedence. My self-care is often as simple as remembering to take a few deeper breaths and not judge myself too harshly.
What do your morning and evening rituals look like? Have they changed at all during lockdown?
Our mornings have become very peaceful in lockdown, slower and quieter with everyone emerging at their own pace into the day. An evening walk as a family has been a lovely edition to our day as well. On the hard days I have spent time reflecting with so much gratitude on our safety, privilege and abundance in New Zealand and what we can do to help as the suffering increases around the world.
Is there a specific Sphaera blend that you’d recommend for regular hand washing?
Our Citrus and Poppy seed bar is a fantastic all-rounder for regular hand washing, it is a hard bar that lasts well but is still gentle on the skin. For something without the exfoliation I would recommend our Sweet Almond and Green clay. For those with very sensitive skin that are struggling with all the washing our Kukui and Kaolin Clay is a great choice.
In life and work, who and what inspires you?
Currently I am finding great inspiration in the work and stories of older women, seeing the rich quality of creativity and self discovery that can come in the later part of a life and what dignity, strength and wildness older women can share with us. My grandmother became a ceramic artist in her mid-fifties after aspiring to do so from 8 years old when she first held a ball of clay. Whenever I feel a lack of time or space in my life I think of her and know it will be OK, there is time.
In what part of your home do you spend most time in?
A little tricky to say at the moment, I feel like it is hard to get clear of the kitchen currently with everyone at home however I love being able to get into my small home lab and studio and get some work done.
What are you currently reading and listening to?
I usually have fiction and non-fiction on the go at the same time, at the moment it is Blowout by Rachel Maddow and The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro, both as audiobooks while I work and cook.
What do you do to unwind?
A bath is always my favourite way to relax and change how I am feeling, usually with a novel and a beeswax candle as well.
What is a significant moment of your past that has informed where you are today?
My partner and I made a very spontaneous decision to move to his hometown of Wellington in 2002 after we had made significant plans together to live elsewhere. It was a strange moment of accord that has led us to a very rich and happy life here.
Interviewed by Chloe Borich for Deiji Studio’s Field Notes