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Rethinking scents, rituals and personal sanctuaries with co-founders Paul Firmin and Niko Dafkos

“Smell is the sense we tend to think least about,” says Paul Firmin, co-founder of home-fragrance specialists Earl of East. It’s a candid admission from a man who, with Niko Dafkos – partner in life and business – is behind London’s go-to brand for considered scent. And it’s made us think: perhaps it’s time we stopped to smell the proverbial roses. 

Earl of East has blossomed since starting life in 2014 as a side-hustle and stall at Netil Market. Today, in its lifestyle emporiums in Hackney and Kings Cross, the brand’s house-made, travel-inspired candles and self-care products share shelves with a design-driven edit of local makers. More than shops, these spaces are community hubs. Pop in for candle-making workshops, creative inspiration and good coffee.

When we caught up with Paul, Niko and their French bulldog, Piper, our conversation kept coming back to the idea of home. “We’re at home more than ever,” said Paul, reflecting on what the “new normal” means for Earl of East. “So, we’ve looked to create moments that elevate the everyday.” That could mean a spritz of Smoke & Musk while you read the Sunday paper, embracing the art of Japanese bathing or perhaps lighting the herby Greenhouse candle at your desk. No burnout here, thanks.

Talking us through their grounding rituals, the two unpack the science behind scent and why you should let your gut guide the way you fragrance your home.

Share with us one of your oldest scent memories…

Niko (N): Scent memories take me straight to the kitchen, to the smell of dill on my grandmother’s hands. She used to cook for the entire family – her food was really good.

Paul (P): I’m reminded of my grandparents’ gardening. My gran used to grow geraniums on the inside of her windowsill in the kitchen, and that earthy, musky smell takes me back.

Why do you think scents are so evocative?

N: Scent is processed by the limbic system, the same part of the brain that stores memories. It funnels all your experiences. That’s why scent is so personal. When you smell, say, lavender, it will help you relax, but it might also trigger a memory. So my understanding of lavender will be different from yours, from Paul’s and everyone else’s. We ask about people’s favourite scents in our workshops and never get the same answer twice.

Where do you seek inspiration for your products?

P: Travel has always been an inspiration for us. Obviously, that’s been harder this last year, so we’ve moved away from simply creating a scent based on a place and instead built a whole world around it. The Japanese Bathing line of bath and body products is our bestseller – it’s based on the concept of ritual over routine, and is deep-rooted in the country’s culture. In a weird way, the pandemic has allowed us to focus on growing in this area.

Of course, it was also fun to work on Scents of Normality [a charitable project that created candles based on the places we miss most during lockdown: the cinema, the local pub and festivals], and that had a profound sense of place.

Speaking of sense of place, tell us what “home” means to you.

P: When some people talk about home, it’s about entertaining, having people over and showcasing the life they lead. But for us, it’s about creating a haven away from everything. When we started Earl of East, Niko and I were also working full-time jobs. Home became our sanctuary. Our house is on a relatively busy road, but everything we’ve done inside places focus out onto the garden – when you step out there, you’d never think you were in London. We’ve got a huge, 15ft bamboo screen.

Do you have a favourite spot at home?

N: It has to be in the kitchen, after our morning walk, when all three of us – Paul, myself and Piper – have breakfast. We have a low-living situation going on with the bench and table. It’s a very chilled, very nice way to start the day.

What Earl of East product do you often reach for?

P: That’s like asking us to pick a favourite child [laughs]. In the past year, I’ve really got into the bath salts. We’re at home more than ever, so we’ve looked to create moments that elevate the everyday, whether that’s having a cooked breakfast or smudging. An evening bath really helps me decompress. My favourite salts are Shinrin-Yoku – the blend is high in magnesium, so it’s perfect before bed.

N: At the end of the day, I like burning Strand, a scent inspired by Copenhagen. I also use the Sleep Mist – I like the ritual around it. I spray it on the pillow before bed.

Your brand pillars are “create, curate, collaborate and community”. Can you unpack this?

N: Our brand is rooted in a sense of belonging. All products are created by our team in east London, and we curate the other brands in store, as well as events and partner workshops. It’s organic, human-centric, and community-driven. Many of the products we carry are by people we’ve happened to meet or who have walked into the store. Early on, for instance, we collaborated with Thidaa Roberts of Blue Guy Pottery. We clicked at Netil Market and wanted to create something together. This is at the core of what we do. We enjoy sharing knowledge and pushing ourselves to do something that we couldn’t alone.

Tell us about your candle-making workshops. Why should we join?

N: Online workshops have proved really popular. It’s been so nice to connect friends and family across the world – we’ve had people join from Paris, New York, Barcelona. Instead of another phone call, another Zoom, they enjoy 45 minutes of creativity together.

Workshops aren’t just a nice route into learning about making candles, but also into talking about fragrance. People tend to be a bit nervous talking about scent, which is a shame because it’s so personal and emotive. We all have noses. We all smell things and feel things. The need to put it into a vocabulary that sounds impressive is not the point of scent. It’s about enjoying them.

Any advice on choosing a scent for our own homes?

P: Smell is the sense we tend to think least about. Plus, today people often buy candles and scented products from a digital platform, so they don’t have the benefit of smelling them first. My advice to anyone starting out is to consider how you want to feel. You might want to feel focused at your desk – in which case citrus notes are invigorating – or relax in the evening. Lavender is a calming scent we all know, but mandarin and rose geranium have the same benefit.

What’s next for Earl of East?

P: One of the biggest challenges hasn’t been keeping the business going, but keeping our minds active. Last year, we opened a bookstore near our shop in Coal Drops Yard, which gave us something positive to work on. This year, we’re building a bigger studio, working on a charity initiative and have new products coming out. We’re focusing on scent as a way for people to mark moments at home, and how that translates when the world reopens.