All photographs courtesy of Willow & Birch Apothecary
Olfaction is arguably the most undervalued and misunderstood of our six senses. But the power of scent has always driven human behavior in a way that is both mysterious and easy to observe. Certain scents soothe us, wake us up, make us ravenously hungry, cause us to feel happy, or sad. Sometimes the reaction — to wood-fired pizza, fresh from the oven — is instantaneous. Other times, a subtle whiff of something familiar, but buried — of a long-dead grandmother’s signature perfume, perhaps — will pull at our psyche quietly, even subconsciously.
Whether we realize it or not, most of us can easily distinguish subtle differences between thousands of scents. One study showed that we can likely differentiate — on a subconscious level at least — 1 trillion different odors. One study published in Neuron found that odors could be decoded in as little as 110 milliseconds.
While the scents we put on our body, or release within our home, may seem like a superficial concern considering the gravity of the medical, social, and economic crisis the world is now facing, it is arguably more important than ever to energize our minds and boost our moods in whatever way we can.
We recently sat down with Anna Krusinski, the founder of Willow & Birch Apothecary, about how she uses scent to make her life — and the lives of her clients — better.
New York Makers: When did you become interested in scent?
Anna Krusinski: Scent has always been an important part of my life. I’ve always noticed how certain scents can wake me up, improve my mood, or just make me feel relaxed and comfortable.
NYM: Is that why you started your own line of fragranced skincare and beauty products?
AK: Yes, but the route was definitely circuitous, I will admit. I really got started when I began making candles, just for myself in 2010. I loved the process of making scented candles, and because my skin has always been so sensitive, a few years later, I branched out and started making my own soaps and skincare, with natural ingredients. Many of the ingredients that go into natural soaps and creams are florals and botanicals, so scent is an essential component.
NYM: What were you doing before that, and how did you turn your hobby into a full-fledged business?
AK: I actually worked as a managing editor for a small book publisher. I moved to Hobart, the Book Village of the Catskills in 2009 with my husband from New York City to work there, and I absolutely loved it. In fact, I still love publishing, and I occasionally freelance. But I grew the business so much between 2012 and 2017, I was able to make it my full-time job.
NYM: What else drives Willow & Birch?
AK: I’m really drawn to the Victorian period, and its focus on beauty and function as exemplified by the designer and poet William Morris. He was always thinking about how to make things better, easier and more beautiful. Growing up, I was obsessed with American Girls children’s books, especially the ones that featured Samantha, who lived during the Victorian era. Now, I’m inspired by Downton Abbey. Everything about the design, to the costumes, to the character and story. But I can’t stress enough how important having natural ingredients is. I made a decision to not work with preservatives, which shaped my product line in profound ways. You are limited for sure, because some ingredients will have a naturally short shelf life. But from an environmental and health perspective, preservatives have so many harmful chemicals that skin can respond to, and many creams actually do more harm than good. Nothing I put in my line of products has harsh chemicals.
NYM: So how did you decide what to include?
AK: Well, my entire line is anchored by four scents I am personally connected to. English Fog is inspired by the Bronte sisters; it’s elusive, and evokes the mystery and moodiness of foggy moors. It has a base of fresh bergamot, with notes of clove and English floral. There’s Lavender Breeze, which is our modernized version of classic Victorian ladies, with a floral lavender base, brightened by clary sage and fresh peppermint. Lemon Zen is restorative, soothing, and uplifting with bright citrusy lemongrass balanced with sweet lavender florals. Finally, there’s Orange Spice, inspired by Victorian Eau du Cologne, with a refreshing burst of citrusy orange zing and litsea cubeba, grounded with the warmth of anise and clove.
NYM: What items do you have in your line based on those four scents?
AK: Soap, candles, perfume & cologne, an essential oil blend and bath salts. I also have a Rose Petals Day Cream and a Sweet Dreams Night Cream, which have become bestsellers because of their natural scents and the skin-healing power of the botanicals in each one. We also have scented sachets to brighten up pockets of your home.
NYM: What’s your favorite scent in the wild?
AK: Well, I’m lucky living in the Catskills. During the summer, there are floral scents everywhere. Lavender has always been my favorite, but we also have a lilac bush in our front yard, and when it blooms, I love to open the windows and just let the scents come in. I instantly feel more relaxed and happy. That’s why I decided to make Willow & Birch a full-fledged business, when it comes down to it. I want the people who buy my products to take that moment, when they’re putting on a cream, or lathering up in the bath to take a deep breath, and a moment, just for themselves.
Like William Morris, Krusinski wants to make products that are beautiful and transformative in form, and function. We may not be able to control everything, but we can make bath-time a moment of bliss, pleasure, and mood-boosting transformation.