Online | Interiors

Scents and Sensitivity

London, UK

Natural fragrance house Ffern opens a central London store whose design aligns with the brand's commitment to artisanship, sustainability and seasonality

The branding and marketing of fragrances makes for a fascinating case study. If the product you’re trying to sell is invisible to the eye, then eye-catching packaging, celebrity endorsement and huge launches once every few years are some of the sledgehammer-like ways to attract customers. That’s not the way the new breed of artisan fragrance houses do it, though: for Ffern, which was founded in 2018 in Somerset by siblings Emily Cameron and Owen Mears, slick plastic packaging has been replaced by paper and cardboard, and Hollywood A-listers by collaborations with artists and musicians.

So, what would it look like if this branding extended to a physical space? The answer is Ffern’s new flagship store, which recently opened on London’s Beak Street: a temple of calm amid Soho’s busy streets, its pale interior, sustainable materials and hand-crafted one-off pieces of furniture manage to perfectly translate Ffern’s philosophy into three dimensions.

The designer behind the store is Louisa Grey, founder and director of House of Grey, who worked on the project with Cameron, who is Ffern’s creative director. Although furnished sparingly, every piece within the space has been carefully designed, is wonderfully tactile, and has its own story to tell. There is a mycelium-clad desk, display tables made from three different Somerset stones (“we wanted to bring something of Somerset to central London,” says Cameron), and, on top of the tables, wooden dishes that are the work of Sophie Sellu of Grain & Knot, which hold the fragrance.

“For me, most retail design is not a natural ecosystem to feel at ease in. Often when visiting stores in a city like London, I find myself wishing to be elsewhere,” says Grey. “I had been feeling for some time that the retail sphere has become very ‘templated’ and the majority of retail spaces feel very synthetic – highly illuminated with unnatural strip lighting, no air flow – and the result is a space which isn’t warm, inviting or unique.”

Ffern came about when Mears met fourth-generation master perfumer François Robert and his protégée Elodie Durande, with an idea to make limited-quantity fragrances from entirely natural elements, eschewing the synthetic ingredients that most of the big fragrance houses use for their high-volume output. “We wanted to bring back that small-batch, artisan process of perfumery,” says Cameron. “And part of the philosophy is this idea of encouraging people to reconnect with nature and live more seasonally” – hence, fragrances are released four times a year, with ingredients that evoke the season, and once they’re gone, they’re gone. “We knew from the beginning that the space had to reflect this in our choice of materials, so we have walls with a clay finish, or painted with lime-based paint; furniture made from fallen ash; and materials treated with other natural materials, such as black tea used as a dye,” says Cameron.

Because of the way Ffern works, the company has a single product to market per season, but instead of simply lining the walls of the shop with that single product, Grey and Cameron have needed to be more thoughtful and inventive. One wall is taken up by small shelves that each hold the latest fragrance’s raw ingredients, displayed in antique glass vessels, visually conveying the message of the all-natural products (for autumn’s latest scent, there is warming ginger, cardamom pods, coriander seeds and elemi, a resin).

The idea of seasonality, and a feeling of the passing of time, is evoked by a handmade glass diffuser that hangs on the wall (Cameron calls it a “liquid hourglass”), which feels like it was borrowed from an alchemist’s ancient workshop. It slowly drips the latest scent on to a stack of terracotta discs below, filling the room with fragrance.

There is a further room at the back, made cocoon-like with a turmeric-coloured curtain that hugs the walls, furnished with an ash table, stools and a bench made in north London by Edward Collinson. “In the same way that a natural fragrance evolves [on the skin], we didn’t want it to seem like you’ve already seen everything at the front; you have a sort of journey,” says Cameron. This room houses the ‘archive’ – where the back-catalogue of fragrances can be sampled (the ones that haven’t already sold out) and also where small events can be hosted. Stay and drink tea from a hand-made bowl, and learn more about each fragrance, or just use it as time to simply unwind.

In her previous life, Cameron headed up the branding for fashion and lifestyle company Toast, so quiet design – and teasing out the stories behind objects, to help people connect on a deeper level with a brand – is very much her thing. She says that she knew from the start that House of Grey would be the perfect match for Ffern: “Their philosophy and approach to design completely aligned with our own. They are also very sustainably focused and they understand creating spaces that are not harmful to the environment.” House of Grey promotes circular, salutogenic design – spaces that are not just neutral to our health and wellbeing, but beneficial, hence the breathable lime-painted walls (from House of Grey’s collaboration with Bauwerk) and the mycelium table, which Cameron asserts could be ‘grown’ in a couple of weeks should it wear out.

“I was immediately drawn to the sensitivity and love that they poured into Ffern,” says Grey of the collaboration. “It felt very warm and familiar to how I have developed House of Grey. We had a vision and there was a natural synergistic energy. You can feel that when you are in the space.”