We met up with Jean and Oliver Pelle to tap into the thought process behind their crisp design sensibility. They talked aesthetics and offered us an inside look at the production of their famous Soap Stones, which are available at The Gift Shop. Photos by Corey Olsen.

You have several studios here, each dedicated to specific things you’re doing.

Oliver: that’s how it developed really. I think we initially were only in this middle space and then when the studio started to grow and our neighbors started to move out, started to spread out a little bit. So we also keep changing a little bit how the studio works because new products need more space or some products need less space, it fluctuates a little bit. The lighting studio has been kind of the most consistent one.

Each object get compartmentalized into studios, is it the same with ideas?

Jean: I think it just starts off with a spark of an idea and then in order to pursue it and to explore it we have to physically make the thing. I think that’s how all of our products start out as, they come out as concepts and ideas and we would like to explore in. Once we get to that point we actually need the physical space to turn it into a production line. It’s grown kind of organically; we never really planned it out like this. We would have various lines but I think we’re more in pursuit of ideas than actually trying to create products or manufacture.

O: I think our minds generally wander also. The other part of your question is also about where the ideas come from. For us, they always tie into our personal interests at the time. It has something to do with formal exploration and our architectural thinking or training kind of flows into that a little bit. We explore certain ways of how to put things together. Sometimes we focus more on furniture pieces and now we’re focusing back on some of the lighting pieces so it meanders a little bit, but the core of the work is always very personal and it always very often stems from our own needs.

Do you have any skills that compliment each other?

O: We’ve recently been trying to be more specific in really what our roles are… I think our roles are a little bit different. We always discuss ideas. Obviously we’re husband and wife so we go home and we discuss. I think Jean’s strength is very often in conceptualizing the idea and coming up with one. Jean has a very good sense of how a product might fit into the market in a certain way. Maybe my strength is in the development of it and trying to really source it, draw it, integrate it and try to find the technologies to do it. Jean develops the concepts very often and then we sort it out through the making process, we always consider them fundamentally linked. We try not to outsource our ideas; we really try to keep everything in the studio. It’s really important we are the people in the end that make, assemble it, and put the thing together.

J: Yes. And there’s many aspects of layering on top of whoever has contributed last. There’s an action-reaction type of involvement between the two of us. I think definitely we do have stronger suits [laughs] in certain areas than others.

O: It really helps that, in the end we always agree. It’s never that she’s in love with something that I don’t like or the other way around. In the end, when we start evaluating the physical pieces, we agree on what the right decision is. 

J: If we both agree that’s a good sign. If one of us disagrees it’s probably like: “oh let’s retool it or rethink it or reconsider it.”

How would you define your style? Do you agree there is often a tension between material and shape?

O: It’s not so much that we're trying to be avant-garde or trying to do something different. It is more about the excitement we feel that comes from juxtapositions of ideas, materials and expectations.

J: I think maybe that tension and that paradox arises from the fact that there are two designers and we have different formal tendencies as well and material tendencies. Oliver is very purist, abstract, all about geometry. He can speak for himself but that’s the way I feel, he’s very much an architect in that way, Cartesian grid. I love spheres and curves, softness, roundness and maybe you can speak about masculinity versus femininity in that too. 

Inside the Soap Stones Studio

How did the idea of a soapstone come across?

J: It first started as a submission to the NYC destination exhibit for MoMA. There was an open call for designers in the New York City area; we submitted these initial ideas of soaps that were cut from gems like shapes. Then we came up with 7 different color and scent combinations and 3 different sizes, it was a very good color palette in that it had a combination of really bright punchy colors but then it was brought back down to earth with the neutral earthier tones like the amber, the onyx in the crystal. I think the design is really in the choice of colors, and also the different shapes from the smaller nuggets to the larger stones, even the bigger rocks and how they all kind of sort of create a really well balanced composition. I think the appeal is the combination of the sizes and the color palette.

O: People are surprised that each one is hand cut rather than molded. Each stone is individually faceted so each piece is really unique. The only knives that would work were really expensive kitchen knives so in the end. We ended up with all our nice knives here in the studio and I’d be at home wondering where all our knives went [laughs] but they were all here.

Did you use to carve soap before?

J: I did actually carve soap when I was a kid. I would cut little animal figurines or little objects and things like that from bars of soap because it’s so easy as a material to sculpt with. My dad’s a sculptor and so I would help him in the studio. A lot of that comes from that background. I don’t think it was any kind of direct correlation that one day I’d be making sculpted soap or anything like that.

Do you make your own soap? Or do you order bars of it?

J: We have a soap-based supplier and they are really large chunks of pre made glycerin soap. It’s a very high quality soap. It is all vegetable based, all natural. There are some chemicals involved in the saponification process but it’s as natural as glycerin soap can be, and with that we add our own dyes and our own essential oils and we create.

Do you cook it?

J: We cook it here on our burners and then we pour them into tubs. They’re always small batch productions. We also have a heat chamber. The soap material is actually plain and then we do our own thing to it to get the color. It is very lightly dyed and perfumed just right, with only essential oils. Throughout the years we’ve figured out how to get this kind of transparency in the glycerin soap at what temperature it needs to cure and how long it needs to cure, how long we need to cook it. There’s all sorts of hurdles that we overcame in the production to get it to look like the way they are now. They had all sorts of problems at the beginning.

O: They would sweat. They would cloud.

J: All sorts of things were coming out. Some soaps were brittle, so we found that temperature that we could perfectly hand cut it and it still retain the solid shape.

O: It’s why it’s nice and warm in here.

J: It’s still evolving, I feel like it’s so very makeshift. And this is where we stock pile the soap and this is where we have scraps.

It seems like the palette is evolving, I see more than 6 colors, am I right?

J: There are 7 classics that we don’t stray from and then there’s always rotating specials that we create and put out seasonally and just depending on how well they do or if we’re bored with them then we switch them out again so right now we have pink / sea salt and then we have fog / black pepper, so those are the current two specials.

How long did it take you to make the studio fit the idea? 

J: I’d say a year and a half, because you don’t know where it’s going. It’s a sales driven process so just depending on what the response it, if it’s positive then you can go in that direction but if the response isn’t there then you know you can’t fit out your studio in order to do what you’d like to do with it.

O: We’re dedicating this entire room almost to this product.

J: It wasn’t like that at all, it was just like one table with a burner or two and it started off much like the candles and then we realized that this really had to need its space in order to do its own thing.