Bringing the outdoors in
Words by Margot van der Krogt
Photos by Harry Brieffies
Let’s start from the very beginning.
I was born in South Africa and emigrated to New Zealand with my family when I was 15. After living there for 13 years, I moved to London for two years and then to Amsterdam, where I have been for almost three. I worked in the fashion and retail business for the last 12 years; I studied fashion design, graphic design, and moved into art and creative direction in my last few years working in the fashion and retail industry.
So you grew up surrounded by nature?
Yes, it wasn’t exactly a normal childhood, living next to the bush. We often had wild guests in our garden. At times, we would have to run out of the tree house because the monkeys were coming in, and it was normal to see snakes in our garden. Then we moved to New Zealand where there aren’t as many animals but nature is amazing. On my way to work I passed a volcano, crossed a body of water, and took the train through the bush – and that was all in the proximity of the city. After living in Europe for almost five years, I realised I needed to go back to my roots in some way. I felt starved of nature in my life.
Is that what made you switch from fashion to plants?
After working in the fashion industry for a long time, I knew I wanted to get out. I realised that clothes were only satisfying a part of my aesthetic expression, and I wanted to make beautiful products that also meant something to me. I wasn’t sure how I wanted to do that, but I had always loved designing and making things with my hands. Slowly I began to combine the experience I had gained in the fashion and retail industry with my fascination for nature. I started by making beautiful displays for plants in my house and later discovered the art form of Kokedama – something which spoke to my strong sense of aesthetics and my love of nature.
I began to combine the experience I had gained in the fashion and retail industry with my fascination for nature.
Tell us about the Kokedama plant.
Kokedama is a Japanese word that can be loosely translated as ‘moss ball’. It’s an old traditional Japanese art form that was also called a ‘poor man’s bonsai’. It’s quite a laborious process to make them, but basically, we stunt the growth of a plant of choice by wrapping the roots in sphagnum moss. When taken care of, the plant continues to rejuvenate its leaves but it doesn’t grow into a tree.
When did you decide to make a business out of it?
On a whim, I decided to rent a market stall to see if I could sell the Kokedamas I had been making for fun. I built up the brand We Smell the Rain in just four weeks, and designed everything from the logo to the visual identity to the website, the stand design for the market, as well as all the products we sell to this day. The first market was a great success and we almost sold out of Kokedamas. When a few interesting retail stores like Urban Outfitters and Hutspot contacted me to sell my plants, I decided to continue with it. After travelling in the United States for a month, I got back and found our first office space in just one week. Once I had settled in, people just started offering help. It was summer and friends would occasionally stop by to help make the Kokedamas; it was a really nice time. At that point, this time last year, we were supplying to retail stores and had just started up the workshops.
What characterises We Smell The Rain?
I really saw a gap in the market to have a high-end plant brand. I wanted to offer an opportunity to bring plants into people’s homes as a design feature, as a piece of living art, as opposed to just a plant in a pot. I have always seen plants and flowers as a graphic object, I guess this stems from my design background. The price might be a bit higher than you expect, but that’s because it takes time to make a Kokedama – we make everything to order, by hand.
I wanted to offer an opportunity to bring plants into people’s homes as a piece of living art as opposed to just a plant in a pot.
Why did you decide to do the workshops?
Living in cities, we’re not exposed to nature very much. As children we play outside and don’t care about getting dirty while as adults we’re super clean, we don’t even like a bit of dust – it’s crazy. At the workshops, the first thing everyone has to do is put their hands in the mud. At first, most people are like, “Ah, this is gross!” but in the end, they’re really into it. It’s great to see that transformation and to hear that they really found the whole experience quite relaxing.
How do you hope to contribute to urban green living?
We’re all about sharing knowledge. We want to make people aware that a plant isn’t going to live by itself, and that you do have to look after it. We spend a lot of time helping people with their plants, sharing the things we’ve learnt by making them, answering emails like, “Why is this leaf yellow?” or “How much is too much sun?” We are continuously updating the care page on our website. We believe that when you become interested in caring for a plant you’ve purchased, you’ll move on to learning more about urban green living in general. Because like small planets, our Kokedamas are little ecosystems in and of themselves. And just like the planet at large, they require specific care and attention in order to thrive – I guess this is the message we really want to get across. In this sense, we’re bringing awareness of ‘greening’ into the city in a beautiful way.
Do you have any advice for someone who has a fantastic idea but doesn’t know where to start?
Just start, but do realise no one said it will be easy.