On a rather gloomy Shoreditch morning, Mary McLeod of KANKAN and myself had the pleasure of meeting Maya Njie; the Swedish born, self taught perfumer, transporting us into her family photo album through a masterfully crafted selection of small batch fragrances. Positioned across two levels, the exposed brick walls and Scandinavian decor of Maya’s studio perfectly capture an essence of minimalist ease you would expect from the mind of a surface design graduate. Immediately upon entering the studio, you’re blanketed in a blend of nostalgic aromas, with notes of tobacco and bergamot carrying you through the stories and photographs of Maya’s scent collection. Upon our visit, we were lucky enough to ask Maya a handful of questions about herself, her creative process, and her approach to scent as an added medium.
If you can give us a little intro as to who you are to set the picture…
I was born in Sweden and grew up in a small industrial city on the outskirts of Stockholm. My dad was Gambian and my mother Swedish and so I experienced a mix of influences from both cultures whilst at home. Growing up I was a very ‘nosy’ child with a passion for the finer smelling things in life which I would collect wherever I could.
Moving to London was a desire of mine as I entered my teens and I relocated here shortly after turning 19 - It was a place bursting with both art and music and that was the big draw for me at the time.
When I became a mother, it brought on a desire for change in my direction of work. I started studying Surface Design at the University of the Arts and worked visually within print, pattern, and photography. Having always been drawn in by scent I veered towards multi-sensory expression, combining visual design, photography, and olfaction. My old family photo album from the 1970’s was my starting point to creating my fragrance collection and it went on from there.
We’d love to hear a little more about your amazing business, how this came to be and the mission of why you do what you do?
At its core I use fragrance as an art form and use this medium to honour my creative urges and cultural heritage. The aesthetic of my brand is Scandinavian in its simplicity and direct communication. I believe that the personal photographs that drive the inspiration behind each of my scents as part of the visual fragrance narrative tell a story on their own that points towards mixed influences and backgrounds.
The typical Swedish backdrop is visible and further enhanced by the West African heritage and influences. I love Cedarwood and use it a lot, that combined with Cardamom and Vanilla is very Swedish. Tobak is the one fragrance that reminds me of both my granddad growing up but also Gambia and its wood and leather craft markets. Tobak covers a lot of ground for me in that way. Tropica is my reminiscent of the beaches of The Gambia; sea salt, oily skin, sunscreen and fizzy drinks.
That said, Nordic Cedar is my historic best seller.
The power/importance/value of scent in our lives, what does this mean to you?
I use scent throughout my day in different ways. My shower mist wakes me up in the morning, and if I go straight to the gym, I have a fragrance in my bag that gives me a little boost and an oil that I inhale in the sauna. Working on formulas is the most intense way of experiencing smells as you are often evaluating and working with potent materials, diluting them opens them up and they become really enjoyable. Scent enables me to do so many things.. wake up, feel inspired, get excited, feel emotional, relax. Outside of work this is my favourite time of year because the spring brings such beautiful smells and it often happens in the space of a couple of weeks. Everything pops, both colours and fragrances renew.
What does the creative and development process look like at Maya Njie?
The process usually involves me experimenting with ingredients over a period. Letting them sit together and maturate and experimenting some more. Also taking photos and working with colour is part of the process I use when developing new scents. I also love packaging design and exploring different avenues. Multi-sensory projects often contain all the above and I get to do a bit of everything.
What has been the biggest business 1) success and 2) challenge you’ve had to overcome that you are most proud of?
For a long while I was on my own in the business and missed having someone to share ideas and solve problems with. It’s a lot of hard work and it doesn’t let up either. Thankfully that has changed as I’m developing a small team who are just as passionate about the brand as I am. In terms of successes, I’d say that my biggest is working in the perfume industry full stop. I am proud of my small team of people dedicated to the production line, fulfilment, and communication of our perfumes. I am proud of the launches I have under my belt with contemporary and forward-thinking companies.
What are some of your daily rituals that you rely on to make you happy?
I like a good stretch and I am happy after I have exercised. I have my ups and downs with this routine but ultimately, I am happier when I am active.
What does home mean to you?
It’s where I switch off, rest up and get to spend time with my family and friends. Where I get to hug my cat, I wish he was more generous. Where I get to do my gardening. I know very little about gardening but it’s kind of a luxury to have one so I aim to change that.
What is your favourite scent and why?
I’ve always loved the forest-y smells so, woody smells? I don’t know if it’s because it reminds me of Sweden where I grew up? There’s just something familiar and comforting and warm about say— cedar wood, Virginia cedar wood is one of my favourite notes and I use it a lot. I’ll have my home smell of it but also use it in my perfumes.
Which classically ‘bad’ smell do you love?
The smell of spray paint and spray mount I find pleasant.
What is the one smell that triggers a memory - what is that memory?
The burning of leaves reminds me of being a child and going to the Valborg bon fires, or Walpurgis night in Sweden on April 30th. It’s a way of welcoming spring with song and celebration after a long and tough winter.
What’s your 2021 sustainable pledge you’ve made?
We produce in house and are small scale manufacturers, we make only what we need and it works for us. We also offer refills on our perfumes in order to encourage less waste. It’s been a welcomed service by our customers. Our suppliers source sustainably and pledge to keep striving towards more sustainable practices in all areas of their business.
What actions have you done recently to help your carbon footprint?
As a business and personally I support Ecologi and their climate projects. I have found it being a really helpful way of reducing the carbon footprint we have and it gives me peace of mind being able to follow them and the work they do in different parts of the world. They work a lot with providing infra structures that have long term positive effects within agriculture and renewable energy. Through the support they receive they have planted over 40 million trees globally.
What is the first place you recommend to visitors that are coming to town?
If they want to experience real London I send them to Pellicci’s for breakfast, a small Italian cafe on Bethnal Green Road, I always have a good time going there. For a more contemporary breakfast go to Ozone on Leonard Street. Columbia road flower market is nearby which is a nice destination if you are visiting, I think. French House in soho is a lovely little pub and restaurant that I like to visit when I’m in town.
Meeting and speaking to Maya was an absolute pleasure. Her emotional and multi-faceted approach to scent design results is the most beautifully nostalgic curation of fragrances, capable of transporting you to memories and places that you’ve never experienced. A self-taught master of ingredients and blending, Maya hosts workshops in her East London studio that welcome those who are keen to learn the art of perfumery. It’s certainly only a matter of time before the KANKAN team return to Maya’s studio to take part in a workshop to celebrate the importance of scent in our lives.
Check out more about Maya's range and her workshops!