We spoke with Addison Walz, the artist behind Mater Soap, whose love for utility inspires every item she creates. She gives breathtaking insight on her journey, business, influences, and commitment to sustainably-driven design.
I’m from New York City. My dad is a designer and my mother was a photographer. My mother passed away when I was little and in efforts to be more family-focused, my father applied for the American Academy in Rome Prize. When I was 8 years old, we moved to Rome, Italy. It was excellent, the pace is the opposite of New York, it is so sleepy and snoozy for two hours in the middle of the day. My father put my sister and I in a public school and we were thrown into the school system without speaking a word of Italian.
I went to Bolivia and worked on a farm. The owner of the farm had a block of soap that she kept underneath the kitchen sink. I never understood soap, never instigated it, but every couple of days she would cut some of it and refill the bathrooms and laundry room. The soap was made from beef-fat from the farm, directly from the source. That was interesting to me. When I came back, my best friend (I started the business with her, but she’s no longer with the company) and I started to make soap together. We made a couple of bars, gave it out to our family and friends. They liked it and asked us to make more.
When I was 18, I moved back to New York and studied Fine Arts & Studio Arts at Bard College. My interest in painting and sculpture/mixed media led me to start working with the Textile Art Center in New York. I exchanged teaching after school class time for weaving classes and within months, I bought my own loom. I focused predominantly on weaving, natural dyes, and felting. The magic of fibers is that you can manipulate it as a maker, but ultimately the fiber has a mind of its own. It’s a unique, magical quality. I have always been interested in the utility of objects but equally driven by the individual experience of them.
The Mater Soap logo is the Venus of Willendorf, one of the earliest figurines representing the human body. Mater is Latin for “mother”. I wanted to honor both symbolic and actual mothers: my mother passed when I was young and so I was raised by my incredible father, a true Mater. I was always intrigued by a theory which states that, due to the distorted birds-eye view shape of the figure’s body, lack of facial features and tiny feet, Venus represents an early self-portrait of woman made by a woman, rather than the long believed “fertility figure, a good-luck totem, a mother goddess symbol, or an aphrodisiac made by men for the appreciation of men”, as said by Kathleen Kuiper, Encyclopedia Britannica. The physical body is reclaimed to the full ownership of the maker. I wanted to speak of my frustration with the beauty and cosmetic industry and to reclaim the simple rituals of cleansing and nurturing the body with an honest and minimal approach. She represents the brand, the focus, and the idea of the sculpted body through form and function.
We perfected a couple of recipes and continued making and selling soap to friends. Originally, it was about simple packaging, but the reality is people want packaging and branding. I started a small website with very little marketing, and all of a sudden we had a couple of stores reach out to us because they liked the look and branding of our product. Our first two stockists are still our best: Dimes Market and OtherWild. When I first started making soap to sell, I dreamed about selling in those spaces. They were the first ones to contact me. There were literally no investors. I had the studio space, I was paying rent, and already had jobs. We would only put in a thousand dollars here and there. At that point, within the first year, it wasn't fully paying for itself. We weren't sure where we were going to end up. Then, it was working and until this point, it was just me. Eventually, I had to hire an assistant.
We're a soap company. Our favorite thing is soap: the history, function, and beauty of it. We try to keep it relatively minimalist while following our aesthetic. The soap has a low impact on the environment and we package our products as minimally and eco-conscious as possible. Our “bulk program” allows customers to buy a glass bottle and refill it. We don’t use palm oil and we source fair traded organic and non-organic oils. Our product range includes our bar soap line, liquid line, and body products. There is a lot of demand for non-plastic options and that's why I think bar soap is such a cool possibility to fill the demand of trying to remove plastic from our lives.
My dad is an essential oil fanatic. When I was growing up, our bathroom counter was filled with essential oils that my father would anoint them upon himself every morning for his health. A lot of his treatments are with essential oils and homeopathic remedies. I learned a lot about essential oils from him. When I would get a fever, my father would drip immune power (a blend of five different oils) down my back as a treatment. I would take a Tylenol occasionally, but often I was anointed with essential oils to make me feel better. I have a pretty strong sense of their power and what I like, but things change when you’re 8 years old vs. 34. In developing my line, I was looking for a wide range of scents from floral to earthy. With the bar soap, I was trying to cover all the bases, while introducing materials and herbs that are a bit unknown.
The Sea Bar evokes the quality of the muskiness of being in front of the sea. I use pink salt, botanical dried seaweed, and blue Cambrian clay for color. The essential oils are a blend of rosemary, patchouli and eucalyptus. Together, the three of them create a fresh saltiness. The Pine Tar Bar is problematic but strangely sophisticated. I use tar from the pine tree, (a by-product from the lumber industry). It's a remedy for eczema and for dry skin that is incredibly nourishing. It has a crazy smoky scent but it doesn't linger on the skin. It’s complicated because it's almost a challenge for me to sell it and I love it because of that. It’s the problem child. I thought about taking it off the product line until I realized this one actually elevates the others. The people that like Pine Tar, only buy that. They are true die-hards and I believe that's a testament to it.
Things have scaled back, there's no wholesale so everything has changed. It’s just me right now. My assistant can't come in because they live in Ridgewood, which is a long-haul on public transportation. I do miss having help. I feel so blessed that I can still work and have something to focus on, and that I still have income. I am very fortunate to be making a product that people really need at this moment. I never thought I could love soap more. All of a sudden it's the cure-all for protecting your loved ones from this insane thing that's happening. Being able to sell the products that I love so much is literally a gift. I’ve been doing a lot of giveaways to frontline workers, drop-offs, and local pickups. Robin, my USPS contact is the coolest person in the world. I wouldn't be here without her, I cannot say that enough. She is the reason that this business is still going on. I give serious props to all of the people doing these things people once took for granted.
My partner and I wake up and do an hour of Ashtanga virtually through New Vibe Yoga. It's the same series over and over again and for me, the repetition is really helpful. I’ve been practicing yoga for about seven years, having that grounding element really helps and keeps me focused. I speak to the idea of creating rituals in your bathroom. My self care routine is limited. I don't need much and a lot of my products are multi-use. I use bar soap all over my face and serum all over my body. My favorite bar soaps are a tie between Sea Bar and Pine Tar Bar. In the serum, I use a blend of essential oils that are great for skin regeneration & elasticity. It’s a blend my father uses on his skin for anti-aging.