Emily of Shieh Design Studio and Soap and Restless is well known in the soaping community for her gorgeous creations. Emily is a masterful soaper and has a keen eye for design. In fact, Emily is a designer at an architecture firm, and her skills show in every bar of soap. Emily’s product photography also sets her items apart – check out her beautiful photos to see what I mean! To learn more about Emily, including her photography tips and advice for starting a blog, in the interview below. -A.M.
Emily’s gorgeous Honey Moon Soap, watch her make it here!
How long have you been soaping for and how did you get started?
I started soaping in the summer of 2010, it would be 6 years in a few months. I don’t have a fancy story of how I started making my own soap from scratch, just simply not satisfied with the feel and scent commercial wash left on my skin. What really caught my interest in making my own soap and other bath & body products is that the OCD me loves the idea of having total control. I love how I can personalize every aspect of my bath & body products from the way it looks to the way it smells and feels.
What sort of advice would you give to those soapers just starting their businesses?
To be honest, selling bath & body products is never my main source of income, it’s more of an obsession and hobby than anything. I’m not really good at running profitable business, I’m afraid to give any business advice. However, I’ve always told myself to keep an open mind. There is so much to learn in making bath & body products, even the most experienced senior soap makers can learn a thing or 2 every so often. The science and art of making soap, or any bath & body products in the matter of fact, is endless. With an open mind, your possibility is limitless.
What is your favorite type of product to make?
Cold process soap is definitely my favorite. This is truly the only product that marries technical aspect with artistic creativity. Soap is not just a practical commodity I need in my life, it can be an art too. My new slogan for my soap is “Bathe in Art with Shieh Design Studio.” I feel like a magician beautifying lives in any angle I see fit. It really is more than just cleaning, it can trigger all your senses by seeing, touching and smelling. My philosophy is, “Why settle for less when you can get more?” However, soap is not the only product I make, I also make shampoo, hair conditioner, facial serum, body cream, laundry powder, and even dishwash detergent. I don’t sell these products, they are only for me, my family and friends.
What inspires you to create?
I get inspiration from everywhere. Sometimes it comes while talking about a scent, or a name. Sometimes it comes from a pretty photo or picture. I do get a lot of color inspiration from a color palette site called Design Seeds, it’s a great color site! There’s one unusual inspiration I get from time to time, solving soap making issues. It might sound strange but by trying to solve a problem with making a certain soap (look and/or technical) inspires me to try something new. Another unusual inspiration came from watching cake decorating videos, I found them to have very interchangeable techniques!
Emily is a master when it comes to intricate bars, as shown in these Cherry Blossom Soaps.
How did you come up with the name for your business?
Originally Shieh Design Studio is the name I used to do contracted architectural work on the side years ago when I was still young. Fresh out of school, architectural interns don’t make a lot of money, it was just a way for me to earn some extra cash when I needed to make ends meet. Now that I’m an established designer in an architectural firm, I have not had the need to work 2 jobs, but I kept it, it has my name in it, it’s a no brainer, saves me from getting into a lot of worries from running into similar business names or trademark issues. Sorry, no fancy cute story here either unfortunately.
You run a popular soaping blog named Soap & Restless. What advice do you have for soapers thinking about starting a blog?
I always try to make each blog post not only about beautiful soap and photos, but also informational. I want my readers to learn something at the end of the read. It might be a small tip or experiment, or it might be a new technique I put my own interesting twist to. My mission is to inspire people who have the same passion as me to push their own boundaries. I would say if you ever want to start a blog, you need to be patient and consistent and the most importantly, be persistent. It takes a lot of effort to be persistent, that’s probably the hardest to do. To be honest I struggle with it myself from time to time, like going through a writer’s block, but my readers’ support has always keep me going whenever I think about quitting.
Emily’s beautiful Ocean Earth Soap. Those earth embeds look so realistic!
Your photos are gorgeous! Do you have any advice to soapers for how to take better product photos?
I would say good natural light is important to any decent product photo, the best lighting to me is any morning light before 10 am. Every time I take a photo I think of the whole frame as a perspective composition, not just the object soap. Perspective thinking will get you a more 3D look on a 2D view, think about depth of field rather than concentrating on getting your soap on the picture.
Your soap designs are always so creative and beautifully executed! What is your process for conceptualizing soap designs?
My inspiration usually comes very randomly. For example, the Ocean Earth soap I recently made, the idea came from the failed soap scrap (soap stuck in new mold that would not give clean release) that I ended up rolling all together to form small soap balls. I realized they look like mini planet earth after I’m done rolling. When life gives you lemon you make lemonade, when I gave myself Earth looking soap balls, well, I make Earth theme soap! Most of the time my most creative ideas come from trying to solve problems.
The inspiration can be from an image I see online or while watching a short video of a master chef decorating a cake. How do I bring that into soap? Sometimes it takes no time to compose a plan but more often it takes me days to materialize a concept. And more often than I would like, my plan A doesn’t work out, resulting to spontaneous plan B or even C right on the spot. When there’s no time for you to react, i.e. soap batter getting thicker by second, it actually helps yourself pushing your own limit to do things you never would have thought about doing.
What is your favorite Bramble Berry product and why?
There are actually quit a few. I really like their 9 Bar Mold with the silicone liner. I don’t use the dividers, just the silicone liner. I designed so many soaps using that mold. It is giving me the perfect 8 bar dimensions to showcase a lot of designs. There are also a few fragrance oils I love which I can’t get from other suppliers: Cherry Blossom (the best oriental musky floral in my opinion), Fresh Snow (I wish snow smells this good!), Vetyver (that’s how a sexy man to me smells like), and Heavenly Honeysuckle (best and long lasting honeysuckle I’ve ever encountered).
Tell us something unusual or unique about yourself!
I don’t think there’s anything unusual or unique about myself. The only thing I can think of is probably pretending to my personality. As a Chinese girl who grew up in Asia for most of my childhood, everyone thinks I’m a very loud and an outgoing extrovert. I can talk to anyone and make friends with anyone. And if I like you enough I will even make the effort to visit you even if you live in another country. I went to visit Celine from I Am Handmade in Ireland 3 years back. We made soap and had a lot of giggles. You’re welcome to watch the two soaping videos uploaded on Celine’s YouTube channel TheSoaperstar. What most people don’t know is that there’s another me inside, she is total introvert. When not working, she would rather stay home and not say a word or go anywhere for days. That’s about as unusual as it can get, which is not much.
How pretty is this photo? This is Emily’s Mayan Gold Soap.
What are some of your other hobbies and interests?
Oh boy do I have too many hobbies and interests! Over the years I went through paper crafting, knitting, spinning my own yarn, acrylic painting, jewelry making, etc. Until I met DIY bath and body products, this obsession is so big it took over most of my spare time, even in my dreams sometimes. Other than spending time designing the next most creative soap and researching new ingredients for bath and body products, my interest is in traveling. My husband’s hobby is taking landscape photography, so we usually try to go to places that have unusual scenery. My real love though are the animals and the cultures. Everywhere I travel to I would take time staying at a place filled with history and culture, just walk on the streets trying to fit in to see how the locals live while waiting for my husband to capture the moment through his camera lens. Traveling to other cultures allows me to be open minded. I wish more people can travel more often. You don’t have to agree with other people’s culture and believes, but you can learn to accept our differences to make this world more peaceful.
Emily’s beautiful Mulberry Frost II Soap. I love those colors together!
What is your number one soaping tip?
Keep an open mind, there are many ways to make good and beautiful soap, there’s no right or wrong method. And be patient, you can’t build an empire in one day. Take your time to research, there are tons of information available, most soap makers are more than happy to help and share. We have a rather large online soaping community, don’t forget to respect each other, that will go a long way, more likely to get a lot of help.
Have you ever experienced a horrible soapy fail? How did you work through it, and what did you learn?
My most memorable soap fail was the time I use potassium hydroxide to calculate sodium hydroxide use in bar soap. My batch came out way too caustic, burned my skin touching it. That’s how I start researching about what to do with heavy lye soap and what to do with it. This is a case of a loss turned into a gain, I learned to make my own laundry powder using the lye heavy soap.
What do you love most about creating bath and body products?
I love how I can personalize every aspect of the products I use every day, the very reason why I started making them in the first place. I don’t need to depend on the what the market is selling. I love to research and know exactly what ingredients are in the products I use daily.