To purists raised on old-school standbys like Coast and Dial, bar soap seems like an unlikely candidate for cult devotion. Yet in the creative enclaves of Brooklyn, Toronto, Los Angeles, and beyond, a growing number of modern makers have set about reinventing the utilitarian staple with equal attention to aesthetics and well-sourced ingredients. If there’s a cathartic allure for the people who produce them—“It’s soothing, it’s simple, it’s methodical,” says Karen Kim of the hands-on process behind her elegantly understated line, Binu Binu—it’s an equally sensorial experience for those who lather up, with soaps that are faceted like jewels, striped like Frank Stella paintings, and scented with bracingly fresh botanicals. In the March issue of Vogue, we profile our favorite small-batch producers. Here is our expanded online guide to those who are redefining clean design, one palm-size bar at a time.
Based outside Portland, Maine, John and Linda Meyers have distilled their self-proclaimed obsession with stripes into glycerin blocks with such charismatic color-fragrance pairings as Bellini-scented ombré pink and coconut-tinged surfer pastels. Their signature linear motif (no easy feat to execute) draws on a diverse set of influences, including Italian design master Ettore Sottsass, artists Donald Judd and Frank Stella, and 1980s fashion by Esprit.
“We put design front and center,” says Jean Pelle of the aesthetics-driven soaps that she and her husband, Oliver, produce out of their Brooklyn studio, Pelle. (The Yale-trained architects also create a line of lighting and furniture.) After the surprise success of their hand-faceted Soap Stones, which debuted at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Destination: NYC” exhibition in 2013, the two recently debuted a second collection called Folly, which marries architectural forms (domes, columns) with offbeat ingredients (charcoal, volcanic-rock pumice).
When Karen Kim hung up her product-director hat at the online retailer La Garçonne early last year, she set out to translate that same spirit of modern refinement into her handmade beauty line, Binu Binu (Korean for “soap soap”). Inspired by the country’s famed spa rituals and cultural touchstones, Kim’s nourishing formulas feature ingredients like crushed sesame seeds, fine clay, and boricha—a detoxifying roasted-barley tea ubiquitous in Korean households. “At the end of the day, you have this physical object that you created,” says the Toronto native. “There’s something satisfying about that.”
After Taylor Ahlmark and his girlfriend, Anoria Gilbert, relocated from dusty Arizona to Portland, Oregon, seven years ago, the “crazy variety” of plants growing in their front yard (think lavender, peppermint, and Douglas fir) infiltrated their early experiments in soapmaking. A full-fledged business soon followed. “Everything that we do is based around scent first,” says Ahlmark of their signature blends, which have evolved to include not only local flora but also unusual botanicals like Japanese hinoki. In addition to running a downtown storefront, the pair also collaborates on private-label soaps with such companies as Tanner Goods, the outdoors label Snow Peak, and the soon-to-open Hi-Lo hotel.
Photo: Courtesy of loyalsupplyco.com
There’s a refreshing simplicity to the geometric soaps by the Los Angeles husband-and-wife team Tsugu Wada and Keiko Matsuo, who designed them to bring “visual happiness” to a guest bathroom. All three bars—a lemongrass-scented golden sphere, a golden cube with hints of blood orange, and a pink pyramid redolent of rose—are packed with hiba-wood oil, which is prized in their native Japan for its antimicrobial and aromatherapeutic properties. The ingredient now has a broader audience, thanks to the soap. “People use it every day,” Wada says. Even if you don’t, he adds, “it’s still a nice thing to look at.”
For Arian Franz, a graphic designer based in San Francisco, her line of all-natural soaps provides much-needed time away from the computer. “You get to see materials transform into something that’s super useful but also sensorial,” she explains of the hands-on process that admittedly has her “hooked.” The formulas vary from ultra-nourishing (Rose Clay, with organic olive and coconut oils) to hardworking (the exfoliating Mechanic, with walnut shells and activated charcoal), but all of them feature a one-of-a-kind undulating silhouette—“a little sculptural element that reminds you that it’s a handmade product.”
The intersection of the visual and the olfactory is at the heart of Saipua, Sarah Ryhanen’s floral studio and soap company based in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. Named after the Finnish word for “soap,” the cold-processed bars are handmade by her mother, Susan, and loaded with moisturizing olive oil and shea butter. In time for their 10th anniversary, the soaps recently got a packaging upgrade with handsome papers and gold-foil lettering. “It’s about simple luxury,” Ryhanen says of the everyday indulgence.
What began as a hobby for Jake and Steph Kopper has become a charming fixture of Newport, Rhode Island, where the Shore Soap Company storefront overlooks the water. After three years of soapmaking in the back of the shop, the by-hand production recently expanded to a nearby studio to accommodate its stockists in far-flung Florida and Australia. An ocean theme fittingly runs through the entire line—from the sea salt incorporated into the formulas (a natural antiseptic) to the names (Cast Away, Surfer’s Sunrise) to the palette of mariner blues and sea-glass greens.
KaKyung Cho, the Korean-born maker behind Bar Soap Brooklyn, credits her upbringing for her early introduction to skin care. While her formulas are rooted in the soothing and natural, with ingredients like jojoba oil, shea butter, and aloe vera, her design has a distinctly modern edge—particularly the two-tone equilateral soaps, which challenge the parameters of the classic bar. Her adopted surroundings have something to do with that. “Being in Brooklyn now can’t be a better education!” she explains. “[It] taught me to be myself and be experimental.”
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