Berlin has a way of bringing about a sensory overload. From the ear-splitting sirens and shoves of strangers’ shoulders in rush hour, to the taste of warm street food on lunch break, to sights of all the eclectic styles worn by passersbys, and the smell of, well as of lately, winter dampness and rain.
But there’s one sense unlike the others. One that has instant recall to memories or places of one’s past. It’s the sense of smell, and Mallory Chen, founder of Lit Lab, is obsessed with it, so much so she’s created an entire operation dedicated to it. Founded in 2017, Lit Lab is a DIY candle making studio, where one can select his or her own desired fragrance to bring home, filling it with triggered memories fuming from its wick.
We sat with Mallory to find out her Berlin, founder and candle story.
When did you come to Berlin and what brought you here initially?
I came to Berlin for a tech job, like the majority of expats. I was working in London and had the opportunity to visit for a weekend. When I returned it was already a sealed deal that I would move to Berlin.
One of the biggest challenges when arriving here is finding a network of friends and collaborators. Did you struggle with this? What were some things that helped you to expand your network here?
I think this really depends on your routine, free time, and hobbies. I found a great network through yoga, which has all types of people from different backgrounds and industries, but also similar physical and mental health lifestyles.
When and how did the idea for Lit Lab come about?
Oh man, there are so many parts to this. I knew I wanted to open a candle store before I graduated college, because I love candles and it was the one thing I would buy even when I was a broke student. My fascination with different scents and their associations with memory is the root of all this, and once I started traveling I realized how powerful the sense of smell actually is. For everyone there are some things you smell in your day that will instantly transport you to a vivid memory, be it a person, place, and/or time. As an expat, many aromas would take me back home, or remind me of school, or my mother's home-cooked meals.
I wanted people to be able to stimulate their sense of smell and also encapsulate a memory into a candle, whether they make a fragrance to commemorate a moment in the past or capture the present — every time they light the candle, the memory association is there. All of this became a reality once I got to Berlin because it’s such a creative, diverse, green, and most importantly affordable city.
Lastly, my goal was to make a beautiful, affordable product that can be reused over and over again. Whenever I bought a candle, I would usually throw it out. There are ways to upcycle everything, but with the candles it just made sense to refill them with more soy wax and a new fragrance. Zero waste, new experience. My candle designs are also inspired by the Bauhaus architecture in Berlin, and I make every single one by hand. There is something very rewarding and cathartic when you have a physical product to show for the work you put into it.
Has founding the lab helped you to feel more rooted in Berlin? Do you feel that it's supported you in "finding your people" / expanding your network?
100%. Making the decision to start a business is huge, so it's important to feel rooted in the first place. I've found that Lit Lab has opened the door to many types of people because after all fragrance is applicable to so many industries. I'm always on the lookout for other makers because there's no doubt there’s a possibility for collaboration. It's very exciting.
Do you have any advice for new expats in Berlin in regards to reaching out and finding like-minded people to collaborate and socialize with?
Meetups and Eventbrite are good starting points. They are very easy to find events and groups related to your hobbies, career, and lifestyle! There are several expat meetups on there too.
As the founder of Lit Lab, do you have any advice for other newcomers who are considering starting their own businesses and projects?
Take some German classes. You'll need it when dealing with the Finanzamt and anything public service related, and I promise you'll feel less useless when you're on the phone with them. :) Yes, Berlin is very international and on colloquial terms it’s fine to communicate in English, but when it comes to business you will be able to jump through more hoops if you at least try to speak German.
The “Lost to Found” series showcases several amazing Berlin-based organizations run by expat women, with goals exactly like Cluster’s: bringing people together to learn and grow.
Check out the first interview of the series with Margherita from Women's Writing Lab Berlin and the second interview with Shannon Getty and Shari Mahrdt of Women’s Film Network Berlin.