When the scent-smiths behind Portland fragrance design studio Maak Lab work with clients, they're not just interested in hearing about their customers' favorite smells.
"Any perfume maker can make a candle with a bergamot-heavy nose, but we like to get a little more conceptual than that," says Anoria Gilbert, who co-founded Maak Lab with her partner in business and life, Taylor Ahlmark. "We'll tell clients, 'Think about the rave you went to when you were 16. What did that feel like?' Then we can pull inspiration and ingredients around that memory."
Gilbert and Ahlmark founded Maak Lab in 2010, and moved into their airy, minimalist flagship studio in 2014. The company is about to open a larger, more casual shop on East Burnside Street, which will also serve as their production facility to fill orders for a growing clientele.
Maak Lab is quickly developing a reputation as one of the city's most original and creative designers of signature fragrances, and when you look at the wide-ranging, visceral descriptions of their products, it's easy to understand why.
The company's Labside fragrance combines scents of "white cedar, Wi-Fi and magazines." Working with apparel designer Caesy Oney for one of his Draught Dry Goods collections, they created a candle that smelled like flower bouquets and disinfectant. Submarine Hospitality Group turned to Maak Lab to produce scents for its restaurants Ava Gene's and Tusk. The candle used in the latter's restroom mentions notes of Cyparissus, a character from Greek mythology whose grief at having killed his pet deer caused him to transform into a cypress tree.
Despite the company's steady success, scent design is not a career path that either Ahlmark or Gilbert thought they'd find themselves in. Given their respective degrees in architecture and research psychology, they speak more like professors than sensualists. They have a multisyllabic fluency regarding matters of organic chemistry, and deliver thoughts in complete paragraphs studded with terms like "bifurcation tree" and "olfactive identity."
The couple lived in Arizona while attending college in the late aughts and, like many young people during those years, found themselves in possession of advanced degrees with minimal job prospects. So they packed up and moved to Portland.
"Portland is the answer to the question that is Phoenix," says Ahlmark. "It's green, there are young people, and it's actually cool."
Now living in a state full of lush foliage and complex fragrances, they turned their college soap-making hobby into a small business. Although they both did a little bit of everything for the company, Ahlmark found success developing the concepts and branding for each scent, while Gilbert was more inspired refining fragrances in the lab.
Tender Loving Empire was the first to pick up Maak Lab products during those early years, and other shops quickly followed suit. But Ahlmark says collaborating in the hospitality industry is what really allowed the company to take off both creatively and financially. Their hospitality clients—first the Hi-Lo luxury hotel, then Knot Springs spa in the Yard building—wanted a comprehensive scent package, or as Ahlmark puts it, an "olfactive identity." The projects required more than just a pleasant scent, because whatever fragrances they came up with would play a major role determining the atmosphere of the space, alongside the lighting, the décor and even the architecture.
To reach new creative heights with their scent design, Ahlmark and Gilbert needed to evolve even further. Instead of using just essential oils that can be purchased at any New Seasons, they expanded their toolbox by bringing fragrance isolates into their mixtures. Using isolates expands the possibilities for a fragrance, because you can create scents that wouldn't be found in nature. Some aromatherapy advocates find using isolates to be unnatural. But Gilbert and Ahlmark are willing to embrace scientific advances in their field if it means bolstering their creativity.
"People have this false dichotomy of is a scent natural or is it unnatural," Ahlmark says, "but there isn't really a clear line there."