Q&A with the Founders of PLANT Apothecary

by Jessica Deseo on 10/13/2016 | 13 Minute Read

PLANT is a line of apothecary goods that will make you feel good, inside and out. Not only are the products comprised entirely of natural ingredients, but they’re made with the help of disabled adults who work at the nonprofit BKLYN UNLTD workshop. We sat down with Holly McWhorter and Bjarke Ballisager, the founders and husband-and-wife team behind PLANT Apothecary, to discuss Scandinavian modern design, premium packaging, and creating products with a conscience.

Theresa: You’re both former architects, so how do you feel that this background has helped you in creating and managing PLANT?

Holly: I’d say the most direct connection between our work as architects and work with PLANT is the emphasis on aesthetic design. Other than our formulations, our approach to our package design is both of our strong suits, if you will—it’s what initially prompted us to launch the line. We wanted to bring really safe, simple, straightforward product formulations to market in packaging that was equally straightforward in design, and at the time (2011), there weren’t so many brands doing that. Then, beyond the aesthetics, I’d say there’s a certain “design thinking” approach that we bring to running the company. Architecture in practice is all about problem-solving to reach an idealized goal—sometimes in necessarily innovative ways, and we bring that approach to pretty much everything we do at PLANT.

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Theresa: Products have names like WAKE UP, BE WELL, GET HAPPY, CALM DOWN and GET IT ON. Why did you choose to associate the product names with feelings rather than scents?

Holly: Well, the way we look at it, the feelings and the scents are one and the same! I create scents using the principles of classical aromatherapy, which although it’s associated with really fluffy and ethereal ideas, is actually a concrete science. Certain scents, especially those of natural substances, have been documented in clinical studies to induce certain states of mind. So I use the essential oils of plants to create certain feelings that they’ve been shown to bring about, and try to combine them in new and different ways that you probably won’t find in other product lines. 

The main inspiration for the body washes, for example, which were the first products in the line and have those “feeling” names, is that so many other natural and organic brands—at that time—seemed to be using their packaging to sell the customer a certain kind of fantasy of what buying their products would do for them. And a lot of it was really flowery, beige, and in general either hippie-dippy or dreamy/fantastical. Which is fine if that’s what you’re after, but it also seemed a little disingenuous—and definitely not what we would want to buy for ourselves. We wanted to bring out natural, organic line that was 150% straightforward about what it would do for you, and not try to sell you on anything else. As in, Want to wake up? Use WAKE UP, it’ll help you wake up!

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Theresa: How do you incorporate Danish design and inspiration into the branding and packaging design for PLANT? 

Holly: The main way is via the simplicity, in combination with functionality and environmental sensitivity. We both have a huge fondness for Scandinavian modern design in general—Bjarke got it honest, being from Denmark, and I by chance grew up with a lot of it at home in the US. The clean lines and simple graphics with a lot of open space definitely show that influence. But beyond that, Scandinavian design tends to have a certain practical functionality about it that we try to emulate in our choice of packaging materials. For example, we’d never use glass for a product meant for use in the bath or shower. Glass might impart a more high-end feel, but what if you drop it in the tub and it shatters under your feet? So we use PET plastic instead, which is not only one of the safest plastics for humans (in that it doesn’t leach bad stuff into the products), but it’s the most widely recycled and recyclable plastics in the world—and the only byproducts of making it are hydrogen and water. Green packaging is a big part of our mission, and would be even without the Scandinavian influence, but you can definitely a connection between the two. 

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Theresa: What are your main goals when a consumer looks at, holds, and uses your products and how do you try and achieve that through design?

Holly: I’d say our biggest goal is to help them draw a connection between the straightforward nature of our graphics and packaging and the purity and high quality of the actual products. We’re always grappling with a certain challenge that isn’t unique to the beauty industry, but which is a huge part of it: High quality, and a “premium product” brand identity, tends to be associated with an excess of packaging—as in unnecessarily heavy glass bottles and jars, outer cardboard packaging, and cellophane wrapping around the boxes. It’s a packaging language the consumer speaks and responds to, and has come to expect from products that aren’t inexpensive. But in addition to wanting to communicate the extremely high quality of our ingredients and formulations in our packaging, we have a commitment to the environment, as well—so we don’t want to use any more packaging than is really needed. It can be a tough fence to walk, and we’re constantly thinking about it… But we like to think we’re making it work!

Theresa: What have you found to be most important when running a business as a husband-and-wife team?

Holly: Remembering that as much as this work means to us, it is, after all, just a job. When things get hairy with work stress spilling over into our home life, our motto has become “It’s just soap!” Running a company like ours can be, and often is, not just difficult but all-consuming. It’s pretty much impossible to just leave it at the office at the end of the day. So we make a huge effort to remember that if PLANT didn’t exist, we’d still be Holly and Bjarke the couple, doing something else to earn a living—so we can’t let work stress just have its way with our relationship. 

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Theresa: To create the products, you work with BKLYN UNLTD, a nonprofit workshop that gives disabled adults access to work training and paid work opportunities. Why did you decide to team up with them for PLANT and what do you like most about the partnership?

Holly: We actually started working with them for our organic travel spice kits, which we’re now in the process of spinning off into their own brand. I started off making a different version of them myself, long before meeting Bjarke, but I eventually had to find a place to mass-produce them—and in the process learned about workshops like BKLYN UNLTD, that give work to adults with mental and physical disabilities. There was no reason not to choose one of these places for the job, and I was drawn to the idea for personal reasons as well—my mom had had a mentally damaging brain aneurysm after 22 years as a university professor, and the loss of her ability to work was something she never got over. 

So Bjarke and I both knew how much it could mean to a disabled person to be able to do something productive every day, to get paid for it, and also just have somewhere to go every day and see other people who are also working. Because of that, we made it part of PLANT’s mission to keep a place for disabled workers in our production process, no matter how big we get. The first place we worked with was a similar workshop at an organization called AHRC, in Manhattan, but we outgrew their capabilities after a few years. We then moved production to another workshop for disabled adults up in Poughkeepsie for a couple years, but the whole time, we were keeping an eye out for somewhere located within NYC. We eventually heard about BKLYN UNLTD through Gaia DeLoreto, owner at the time of a fantastic shop called By Brooklyn, and we immediately made the move over to them. We were really happy to find them, because it’s important to us to keep our labor and suppliers as local as we feasibly can.

So we had BKLYN UNLTD’s facilities certified for handling and packaging USDA organic products for us, and we’ve been working with them ever since. I’d say the best part is the people there. The management and the workers themselves are some of the best people you could hope to work with. And a lot of the workers seem to really enjoy the work, making it a real pleasure for us to be able to give it to them.

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Theresa: What are some of the best qualities of PLANT that are magnified by being produced at BKLYN UNLTD?

Holly: It might sound a little corny, but I’d say our emphasis on love. Everything we’re trying to do with PLANT is about caring—for the people who use the products, for the natural environment, and for the people bringing the products to market, too. As a company, we put a big emphasis on work/life balance, for example. And that regard for people’s quality of life is what’s at the heart of our partnership with BKLYN UNLTD. We see work as one of the main ingredients of a fulfilling life, so we’re really happy to be able to provide work for the disabled people who work there. Everyone there pitches in according to their ability, and it’s a wonderful thing to see—and to have a hand in making possible.

Theresa: What do you hope for the future of PLANT?

Holly: In practical terms, we’ve been talking for years about bringing out some hair products…and maybe, just possibly, a sort of spinoff line for kids and babies. In the meantime, we’re just focusing on new products in general. We have some new face oils and some bar soaps coming out within the next month, and we’re really looking forward to both of those launches. Then in more general terms, we just hope to keep moving forward and promoting our ideals—by continuing to make our products more available to more people, by educating more consumers about the importance of natural and non-toxic beauty and grooming products, and bringing our products to their attention by way of our package design!

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Husband wife team Holly and Bjarke. PLANT products are made with the help of adults with physical and mental disabilities, who work at the nonprofit BKLYN UNLTD workshop in Brooklyn. BKLYN UNLTD's mission is to give disabled adults access to work training and paid work opportunities.

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