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The niche perfumer creating scents from her Swedish-Gambian upbringing

02 Sep 2019

Photography via @maya.njie.perfumes’ Instagram

The first time I meet Maya Njie is at a perfume-making workshop in Covent Garden, at the invitation of a mutual friend. Maya commands the class as we learn the basics of fragrance formation – starting with the base notes, followed by heart notes (the main body of the perfume), and the top notes to complete the full package. I leave with my own perfume creation, a velvety mix of rum vanilla, patchouli and musk.

Fast forward 10 months later and we reunite at her perfume-making space, nestled in the vicinity of Canary Wharf in East London. As you cross the threshold into the studio you’re hit by a rich concoction of scents: woody, floral, heady, delicate, spicy, earthy notes, all swirling in a cloud that hangs in the air above her study teak desk. There are rows of shelves displaying bottles and vials, mid-century modern armchairs, and sunny houseplants.

Combined with her warm disposition and radiant smile, the room is tranquil, a haven away from the bustle of the city. Some indie tunes play softly from a small Marshall speaker, and immediately, I feel at home. A lot of Maya’s scents are curated to evoke the aura of familiarity, of her own upbringing. As we sink down into her leather seats, she explains how her perfumes are her own memory mind map.

Growing up in a Scandinavian landscape brimming with forests, lakes and organic outdoor treasures, it was her childhood that shaped her adventurous approach to creativity and her innate desire to work with scents and fragrances.

“As a child, it was always there,” Maya says. “I would use my nose a lot growing up for different things, and people always associated me with a scent – so they’d come into my room and ask, ‘What’s the smell here this time?’”. Her current range of fragrances take their names from the olfactory notes found across Scandinavia and West Africa, tying together two distinct regions and cultures.

Since moving to London age 19 from her hometown of Västerås, Sweden in 1999, Maya has constantly worked in the creative industry, crafting the origins of what would later become her own titular brand – a collection of five unique scents: Nordic Cedar, Tobak, Vanilj, Les Fleurs, and Tropica.

“I had a really traditional Swedish upbringing in terms of my culture; baking, coffee culture, forests and the sociable aspects”

Maya Njie

Her first forays into professional scent-blending had sprung from her time at the London College of Communication studying surface design. “I’ve always loved photography since my teens, shooting and developing a lot of film,” she reminisces, adding that her preference for a fun day out is either a photography exhibition or snapping away with her camera. “Using photography for my uni research, it really made me wonder how I could apply it to scents.” The convergence of the two media forms would later arrive like a lightning flash of inspiration, in the form of Maya’s treasured family photographs, mostly taken in her native Sweden.

Her Swedish mother and Gambian father divorced when she was still young, and Maya was raised alongside her two elder sisters. “It was a really traditional upbringing in terms of the culture that I experienced, and in the way my mum came from a traditionally Swedish culture with the baking, fika [coffee culture], the forests, and the sociable aspects,” she says. With the majority of Swedish winters plunged in darkness and sub-zero temperatures, it is the lack of light and warmth that has driven locals to become “professionals at socialising and making it cosy”.

Above all of our other senses, our sense of smell is the most strongly tied to memory and emotional resonance. Her niche scents carry an emotional weight. “There’s a connection between my upbringing, my fragrances, and photography,” she explains. “My teachers always stressed on showing the creative process, the whole journey from inspiration. Because I did a lot of prints inspired by Sweden and The Gambia, I was also demonstrating where I came from. So I started looking back at my old family photos – and I remember them because I always thought they were so beautiful.”

Her niche scents carry an emotional weight. “There’s a connection between my upbringing, my fragrances, and photography,” she explains. “I did a lot of prints inspired by Sweden and The Gambia, I was also demonstrating where I came from. So I started looking back at my old family photos – I always thought they were so beautiful.”

As one of the best-selling products in her current range, Nordic Cedar with its notes of patchouli, cedarwood, and cardamom encompasses the feeling of the Swedish outdoors. “For some reason, people really do take to it,” she comments, “but it’s funny because you get a lot of people talking about Tobak as their favourite.” When I ask her which memory or location is associated with the latter scent, she smiles as she describes childhood family visits to her grandfather’s apartment. 

“He died when I was really young, but I still have vivid memories of going to visit his place, which was a lot like this studio,” she gestures to our surroundings. “It had old armchairs and teak furniture, but it was simply decorated and not cluttered at all. My grandmother had passed away by then, so he was living on his own. We’d bring kanelbullar [cinnamon buns] that my mum had baked, and there was always coffee brewing.”

“I started thinking, ‘How I could attach a scent to this work? What would these pictures smell like?’”

Maya Njie

The smell of tobacco would linger due to her grandfather’s pipe-smoking, a habit that he had retained alongside his untouched flat, still decorated with the interior ambience of the 1960s. “He was really friendly, funny, and just so warm,” Maya emphasises. “For me, that smell has comfort to it, and it’s a familiar and personal experience for me. I think for everyone, there is someone that they think about fondly when they smell tobacco, and for others, it could remind them of someone they don’t like. It could work in both ways.”

Maya then points to a wall behind my seat, where old photographs assemble, falling in line with their colour scheme palettes. They’re an assortment of faded pictures of family members, a solitary house, a forest saturated in bright hues. They’re joined by black and white polaroids, styled shots of herself with her daughter. But it’s clear which ones she has more of a soft spot for. “These are pictures from when my sisters were small, so this is a whole generation before I was born,” she says gesturing. “These were the 60’s and 70’s, and I just love the clothes that they were wearing. My mum was a different age, my granddad was younger, and my grandma was still alive.”

She continues: “I was looking at the colourways, and comparing the palettes of the past to the present day and started putting together palettes underneath each picture to really see it. I showed these to my tutors as my train of thought, and they would be part of my moodboards. Then I started looking towards the route of smells because I was thinking, ‘How I could attach a scent to this work? What would these pictures smell like?’”

The brand of Maya Nije was born from a place of dissatisfaction while working in an uncreative post-grad role. “I made these fragrances for myself. But people fell in love with them and wanted to know where they could get them. It felt a bit weird showing my family photos to colleagues, and strangers because they were so personal. But I didn’t see any other perfume brands telling a story in that way,” Maya laughs.

The visual aspects of her perfumes familial origins are visceral. Whether it is the woody notes that intertwine the sweetness of the Gambian air (“I would smell the incense they’d burn”) and the Swedish outdoors; the leathery smells of the Gambian craftsmen drying animal hides and her grandfather’s vintage leather furniture; the warmth of vanilla from Gambian “hot sugary milks, poured from one cup to another” and her mother’s kitchen baking. Even the tobacco currents from the burning bush of The Gambia’s plains, and memories of her grandfather’s pipe in Sweden. All of Maya’s scents feature a crossing over of cultures, time, and space.

While Maya Nije offers a glimpse into a Scandi-West-African family and their happy past, the scents allow the wearer to create a sensory map of their own lives. “Really, my photo album’s purpose now is to send people on their own visual journey. And they can make their own memories when they wear my fragrances. Things will happen to them as they venture out wearing the perfumes,” she says. It’s a never-ending process of visual memory forming. Now, as I smell my own fragrance made under Maya’s curatorial eye I’m transported back to our time together.