Casting Light

In conversation with the minds that took Aesop’s Brass Oil Burner from concept to product, and growth, vision, and new directions for the brand.

Interview by Charlene Chan
Photographs courtesy of Aesop

One early spring evening, a group of us make our way through the gardens of a 19th-century estate in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney, Australia. Our destination is Vaucluse House, its stone walls currently shielding flickering candlelight from the rising breeze. We’re here to meet with designer Henry Wilson and Dr Kate Forbes, General Manager, Products and Research & Development at Aesop; over dinner, we discuss the Brass Oil Burner, the first design object to be launched by the skincare brand.

That afternoon, we’d spoken with Suzanne Santos, Chief Customer Officer at Aesop. She’d expounded the importance of detail—from the napkins that dressed our table at lunchtime, to the considered movements, music and mood that suffuse the brand’s facial appointments. Out of their stores and in a heritage compound located along the harbour, the same meticulous attention is paid. We step through an entryway scented lightly with Vetiver, Cedarwood, Patchouli and Bergamot—notes from Béatrice, Aesop’s latest Oil Burner Blend—before settling down, blankets over laps, to hear more about the object that has been four years in the making.

Henry Wilson

—Designer, Studio Henry Wilson

Henry, please tell us how your relationship with Aesop came to be.

It was a chance encounter with the founder of Aesop, Dennis (Paphitis), in Melbourne. It must have been six or seven years ago now—we were in a café, and it started really with a coffee, and a chat about design and what I was doing. We began to talk about an open philosophy on design, and it didn’t really go much further than that until one day, he was in Sydney and came to Balmain where my studio was. I think he put two and two together and thought that perhaps I would like to design a store in Balmain. The discussion and our working relationship grew to then become something for another store. All the while, we were talking about this idea for an oil burner; it was sort of going along in the background.

Can you elaborate on the form the Burner takes?

The design is an amorphic, irregular shape. It is cast in brass, and the form was driven by function: it had to be able to heat the oil, have a vent for the candle, and also be something that’s intriguing to look at. The shape is less of a physical embodiment of scent or home fragrance, and more about reflecting Aesop’s minimalist aesthetic and its strong Eastern philosophy regarding design. In many of the stores and even in the graphic text and all layers of the design at Aesop, the messaging is this idea of asymmetry.

How did it evolve from its first iteration to its eventual one?

Aligning on the final organic shape was a long process. It took four years from concept, to prototype, to finished product. It was tricky because the brief was constantly evolving. We started with an early concept to burn olive oil—for a year or so, we were going down this idea of creating an oil candle—and quickly found that if you burn the scent, you lose the scent. So we changed tact and moved to the idea of heating the oil.

There was a lot of discussion about the beaker and we were trying to make this floating wick arrangement. That moved on into ceramics—we took that quite a long way and took a trip to Japan at one point to visit a ceramic making district in the south. Eventually we landed on brass, which I think is something that fits both the character of the Oil Burner and also what we were trying to do then. We probably worked on 30 different prototypes to get to the one we have today. There was a lot of trial and error: from the size of the vent on the lid, to the thickness of the wall, even the air volume inside the vessel—everything had a reason and had to be just right so that the candle would heat that volume and function correctly to release the essential oils.

The final design is a historic combination of brass and candlelight. You get the warmth, you get this feeling through the material, and when a soft light hits the brass, it has that golden allure to it. There’s also the act of pouring metal itself—the way that brass pours into the mould and the way it is created leaves these slight imperfections in the material which are embraced in the design. No two pieces are exactly the same; these very slight variants will bring a personality to each one.

Was it important for you that each Burner would be unique?

Yes, I believe in materiality being something that should be expressed in each piece. If you have brass, you understand that it will be patina-ing and ageing differently because that’s the nature of brass. We try and be as honest as possible with the material and the process. That is something people can connect with—they understand a little bit about the material, about the process, and they can really feel the bond with the object.

So an emotional aspect to your objects is something that you think about when designing?

Yeah, absolutely. We want people to feel a connection and it’s often that the quirky, slightly personal objects in your life are the ones you really cherish. We try to keep that as a thought throughout the design process.

What comes first: an idea for an object, or a brief? Is this different when collaborating with a brand?

The products we develop in-house come from more of an exploration, and are produced in the studio in modest volumes. It’s a very personal approach, because I almost do that as a kind of hobby. Our work with sand casting, for instance, came about because there was a connection to the foundry and we could understand how they were working. The double-sided Travertine is made in Portugal; there was a stone carver there who was doing some really interesting work and we started thinking about wanting to use the material from Portugal.

When Aesop approached me and we started working collaboratively on a small product like [the Burner], it tied in a lot of the ethos with what I was doing in those projects. There’s a respect, a terrific understanding and genuine belief that design can add something to our lives—an ethical consideration that we both share. In that sense, it was a very easy collaboration. Not to say that it didn’t have its times of tension, when we’re four years in and you wonder, “Is this ever going to finish?” (laughs).

So [our work] can come from anywhere, but sometimes it’s material focused, sometimes it’s process focused, and then in cases where you have a set brief like with Aesop, then it comes from the brief. But still, those materials and processes are always feeding back to inform the final piece.

Did you face any major challenges when trying to create the Burner?

Designing with asymmetry in mind is quite a challenging process. If you look at many of the products around you, you’ll notice that there is a symmetry to design. You could draw a line through the middle of any of these objects and rotate the object and it would be the same the whole way around. But with the Burner, it’s different from every side—when I suggested it, I didn’t realise how much work it meant for us all (laughs).

The great reward from it is that you appreciate this from many different angles. There’s not one place that it looks the same; how you situate it, how you place it is very much a personal view of that piece. And for me it started to feel as though I was working as a sculptor rather than an industrial designer.

Now that your team is growing, how do you communicate your vision for the studio and keep everyone aligned?

We’re still very small, so it hasn’t been a real challenge yet. But it’s more about, I suppose, taking on projects that you feel are the right kinds of projects. There’s no desire to grow very quickly and do a lot of work for big companies—that’s not really the strategy. It’s more about seeking out collaborations with clients who understand our process, and enjoy it.

Dr Kate Forbes

—General Manager, Products and Research & Development, Aesop

Dr Forbes, how did the idea for a design object come about, and why now? Does this mark a new direction for Aesop into product design?

The Aesop experience has always been synonymous with scent; it’s always been a part of what we do. About 10 years ago, we introduced the Oil Burner Blends into our range, and ever since then, we’ve been faced with the question of, “What do you recommend to disperse that?” Knowing that we didn’t really find anything that we wanted to suggest, we thought this was the opportunity for us to be able to create something. This vessel seemed a natural extension, a way to link the Aesop design aesthetic with the functional purpose of dispersing aromatic blends.

The Brass Oil Burner is the first object in our Home Care range, and in that sense, it does represent a new direction. We knew that this was something we had no experience in, and Henry seemed the perfect partner for us to want to work with an Australian designer. We have a lot of respect for the way he approaches the materiality of his work, his design sensibility—it is very much aligned with Aesop’s. His passion and experience is something that comes through, and that’s been critical to make a project like this happen.

Interestingly, the very first conversation with Henry was not to create this product (laughs); we actually went to him with quite a different brief. We had an idea that we wanted to create something of an olive oil candle, and mix the essential oils in to disperse scent. Certainly we’re really proud with where we’ve landed up, which is at the intersection of something very functional, the passion we have for design, function and scent—and uniting that all into one object.

So how do you balance these various aspects—design, function, scent, as well as the emotive element that characterises so much of Aesop’s practice?

We believe, fundamentally, that well considered design improves lives. Our sensory experience of a place is inextricably linked to emotion. Of course, products should serve a functional purpose, but there is no reason why functionality and pleasure need be mutually exclusive. We often consider things that give sensory pleasure as being indulgent, but by paying attention to the senses in our configuration of spaces and objects, we can create environments that, simple though they may be, offer something rich and rewarding.

Within our store locations, we try to create a bit of a sanctuary so it really is a full experience. We pay attention to all the details: the scent of the space, the sound of the space, the lighting within the space. You can have some tea, a conversation, you’re able to speak to consultants freely, you’re able to explore on your own. Really, it’s about making you feel comfortable—especially when you’re in a busy shopping location—and being able to just take a pause and have a moment to slow down a little bit.

How did you help finalise the design with Henry?

It’s always a challenge. When we formulate our products, it’s hard to know sometimes when you’ve reached the final version. You go through so many iterations, so much testing, and it was the same with this product. There was the design aspect, which was Henry’s area of working. But it’s a functional object as well, so it was critical that we made sure that as we’re using the product, there was a fine balance between how hot it was going to get to be functional, but not so hot that there’d be a danger in people using it.

Every time something changes from a design perspective, functionality changes as well. What we found as we were going along is you’re going through this loop, and it’s getting tighter and tighter because you change this, and it makes something else change, and you have to make another modification. As you get tighter and tighter, you finally realise that what we’ve achieved is a design which is contemporary and organic. We did all the functionality and safety testing, and were able to do the prototyping to know that we’re able to manufacture this. Once we had achieved all of those in balance, that was when we said, “Okay, we’re ready.”

Can you describe the new scent, Béatrice?

Béatrice is the fourth Oil Burner Blend that Aesop will be introducing to our range. It’s a product that we formulated to compliment the Brass Oil Burner, and it was inspired by the Burner and the nature of brass—we were looking for something really earthy with a light citrus note on top. It contains Vetiver, Cedarwood, Patchouli and Bergamot.

Since Aesop started more than 30 years ago, consumers have had so much more access to information about skincare, about the ingredients that are being used. Has that changed the way you approach R&D?

I think not directly. Even from the start, we’ve been very open with communicating with our customers what ingredients we use, why we use them—it’s a big part of the way we train our consultants. We’ve always had those principles in our products; we’re putting everything in there for a purpose. And that can seem obvious, but I’d say it’s not the case that everyone formulates with that in mind.

It hasn’t always been that everyone discloses the ingredients of formulations, but we have had that to allow our consumers to make educated choices on what they’re looking for, what they hope these products are going to do for them—again, as part of a very honest conversation we’ve always had. I think that hasn’t changed, but I do agree that consumers are becoming a lot more educated, and wanting to know more. So it’s ensuring that we equip our consultants with the technical knowledge we have in the lab, to be able to convey why we’ve chosen to use what we use.

Find out more about the ideas and work of Aesop and Studio Henry Wilson.