For too long, our olfactory experience of place has been a bit of an afterthought. But now the nose increasingly leads the way, Tom Kihl finds.
Pause to indulge in the summertime scent of freshly cut grass or inhale a bookshop’s musky paperback and you’ll recognise the raw emotional power of aroma. Just reading about those two celebrated whiffs has likely triggered a brain response; probably a fond, but perhaps even a negative memory, with corresponding little shift in your mood. Still, the use of the nose as an intrinsic part of how we experience our surroundings feels underdeveloped compared with how we regularly fire up the other senses. Sure, scent is routinely exploited (the estate agent who recommends baking bread to make a house feel more homely), co-opted (the hotel chain with their signature room fragrance) and used, fairly brutally, on our bodies and in our ablutions to mask less desirable smells. But beyond the familiar everyday notes of Harpic and Lynx, there’s increasing interest in how we tell stories for the olfactory system. The shift may well be because, alongside taste, smell is one thing we can’t–yet–digitise and reproduce ad infinitum. The experience remains intimate and ephemeral, and the emotional outcome it produces is always totally personal.
Niko Dafkos & Paul Firmin, Earl of East
Partners Niko Dafkos and Paul Firmin recognised a growing niche for more thoughtful scent for the home when they started a new hobby of hand-pouring soy candles in 2015 and set up a stall in a shipping container at East London’s Netil Market. The whirlwind rise of their brand, now known as Earl of East, is the zeitgeisty stuff of start-up dreams, complete with an authentic “side hustle that blew up” backstory. Following their noses turned out to be a very good idea. Just back from running a series of candle-making workshops in Japan, their range is now stocked in over 200 stores worldwide, plus at two London outlets of their own, formerly known as Bonds, and now rebranded under the Earl of East umbrella. From the core range of eight candles, each with its own travel story, their stores expand on the theme to stock all kinds of multi-sensory homewares. “The world of scent is so emotive,” says Firmin. “People are delving deeper into it and beginning to have opinions based on notes rather than just a brand. We aim to breakdown the idea that being able to talk about scent is just for the experts – we all have noses after all.” This democratisation of smell was central to having a pouring room and regular candle-making events at their Coal Drops Yard flagship store. There’s a kind of sensorial alchemy to blending a fragrance that will trigger strong emotions and memories that are totally personalised for an individual. “There is no magic formula to the perfect scent, as that is in the mind of each creator,” says Firmin. “First of all, we ask people to decide if they want to work with storytelling or aromatherapy. Once they have this foundation, we identify what they’d like to achieve – to create a relaxing mood, to evoke a particular season and so on, and this then helps guide them through the various type of fragrance they might want to include.”
Earl of East, Coal Drops Yard, King’s Cross
Their workshops have inevitably now also spawned a book, The Scented Candle Workshop, published in mid-September, which guides readers through all the basics of concocting bespoke scent at home. Of course, a lot of work has gone on behind the scenes at Earl of East before the duo made inroads with their shared love of aroma-led storytelling. “When people tell us they’re planning to start their own business because they need more balance, we find it a little naïve,” laughs Firmin. “The life of a business owner actually means throwing balance out of the window. You need to be prepared to work every working hour – to avoid working that nine-to-five.”
Scented Soy Candles, Hand Poured in London by Earl of East
Despite the slog, everything about their brand and its sensory approach to enhancing our environment smells heavy with exciting, untapped possibility. The next stage of their mission – bringing meaningful scent experiences to as wide an audience as possible – lies in working with other retailers as well as the public. “We really believe in the future of the high street,” says Firmin. “Physical retail is going through a major transition, which in many ways feels late, given the amount of money spent online in the past decade. The future is definitely in experience, as that is hard to deliver in a meaningful way online. Scent has played an important part in luxury experiences at hotels and high-end shops for quite some time. But fragrance is for everyone to enjoy, not just the privileged few, and the way it can change our mood is incredible. We want to uplift, to energise and to make people feel at ease.”
Earl of East / 87 Coal Drops Yard
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2019 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.