Exploring Aromatic Landscapes With D.S. & Durga
Walking down the leafy streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, en route to meet the founders and creative heads of the fragrance brand D. S. & Durga (DSD), I am struck anew by how this city thrives on its contrasts. Not so long ago, Bed-Stuy was a rather far-flung neighbourhood with a slightly menacing edge and now, with its beautiful brownstones and planted front porches, it is the typical scene of gentrification. This is what NYC is about, the gritty with the pretty, the rough with the smooth, and this contradiction is exactly what has allowed the drive, ambitions and big ideas to blossom for couple Kavi Ahuja Moltz and David Moltz. They have created one of the biggest fragrance brands in New York (actually, the USA) and describe their work in purely poetic terms…as aromatic landscapes evoking stories, fragments of music, literature, art and moments past while painting a picture through scent.
For creatives, so much of what we do is reflected in our daily lives; the details that fill a home or a studio, or our notebooks…and entering the home of Kavi and David feels very much like entering the world of DSD. Light and space, their children’s drawings over the fireplace, crystals and books piled on tables, candles and attar in cut-glass bottles, sculptures and tapestries and the soothing sounds of Billie Holiday set the tone. All the various details make up the whole, but each one is its own story.
First, the technicalities. Kavi, who is Indian, was born and brought up in New Jersey by two doctors who met at medical school in Pune, fell in love and moved to New York to set up a clinic in the Bronx, where they practise to this day. She trained as an architect, and much of that training and cross-disciplinary ease is evident in the packaging and branding that she designs for DSD. David is from Swampscott, a small town north-east of Boston. He went to film school, became a musician and then translated his talent for storytelling and mood weaving into the successful launch of the fragrances.
They met on the street outside a bar in the East Village in 2007 and fell in love (all good stories are love stories). They bonded over their mutual love for herbal manuals in used bookstores, tattoos, mythology, music, Russian literature and poetry. It was a moment in time when it seemed like everyone in NYC was building something new, creating their own worlds. This rampant feeling of possibility manifested itself in the origin story of DSD that same winter, when David’s much-loved home-made concoctions for his friends led Kavi to realise the power of stories told through scent. (The ‘DS’ stands for David Seth, Seth being his middle name, and ‘Durga’ is David’s nickname for Kavi — it is not a direct reference to the goddess, but a name taken from Pather Panchali (1955) by Satyajit Ray. She is the sister of the film’s main character, Apu). Since DSD is a reflection of the couple, the influence of Indian culture comes through loud and clear. For Kavi, India is the motherland, and she has been going there each year since she was a baby (her parents’ determination to make sure their US-born children were solidly connected to their home country). David, who has been an avid follower of Paramahansa Yogananda since before they met, is also deeply affected by Indian culture.
You can call it serendipity — the odds of these two people, who share similar interests, aesthetics and passions, meeting randomly — but it would be more fitting to call it the magic of New York, where something like that could spark and bloom, transforming into a partnership and a business that does not follow convention.
Our conversation turns to their brand, inspirations, design ethos and tattoos….
Did you have a moment of revelation? Or was it the recognition of a gap in the market or, perhaps, a conversation with friends that made it all come together?
Kavi (K): A lot of our friends had their own companies, so that influenced us. We didn’t have a master plan at all. We just thought it was bold and different, and no one was making what David calls ‘aromatic landscapes’.
From starting without any experience in the field or in business, how has the journey been?
David (D): You do just that — begin. Start experimenting. Get your hands on everything you can. Analyse everything you smell. Take copious notes.
K: We kept putting our earnings back into the business — constantly upgrading the packaging — all the while learning about the perfume industry. No one was willing to answer questions, really, or help. We had to figure everything out from scratch.
How did Kavi’s background as an architect inform the design of the packaging and the entire brand aesthetic?
K: D. S. & Durga is really about all the things David and I love — and their very detailed worlds. I trained as an architect, but feel that I could apply that knowledge to anything design-based. It’s about understanding the language of creation and critique. Without that, I couldn’t define the brand — how certain things are DSD, and others just aren’t.
David dips into myriad worlds — of literature, music, obscure poetry, etymology even — to source witty, charming names of the fragrances and candles. For example, Radio Bombay, Portable Fireplace and other charmers like Concrete After Lightning and Big Sur After Rain. This is such a pleasant departure from the usual attempts to be sensuous and mysterious while naming fragrances….
D: I think that when people find out about the level of detail and thought that goes into each of our products, they feel connected to them. We never did much market research anyway — just made what we wanted to and hoped it would resonate. Now that we have a flagship store in Manhattan it’s great to see who walks in and how they react to our story.
The design of the packaging, branding and store is a study in minimalism while retaining whimsy and elegance (personally, I love that it has an almost brutalist feel). What are your influences?
K: I have a visceral reaction to brutalism — the geometry, the concrete, the scale — I am very drawn to it. But I have been out of architectural practice for 10 years now, and feel a lot of distance from ‘isms’. I’m not really a minimalist, I actually love many different styles and ornamentation too. But when it came to the store, it was all about texture because that’s what I’m really after. As far as the packaging goes, it’s an evolving process, and you can see that across our products. They were all designed by me over a span of several years. My tastes changed, and that is reflected in what you see. That’s what can happen when the branding isn’t conceptualised all at once. I’m always trying to rein it in and look at everything cohesively, but sometimes, you just want to view an element individually, without simply plugging it into your branding formula.
(Their flagship store on Mulberry Street in the Nolita neighbourhood in downtown Manhattan is a testament to this aesthetic. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto the street, ever-changing strips of light reflecting off a wall are programmed to particular playlists, and a poured concrete display table takes up most of the main room. Add to that the beautiful amber candle jars with DSD-stamped ceramic lids, and the lush packaging in heavy boxes with heavy bottles waiting within, and one starts to understand how every detail makes up the world within which we want to reside.)
Do you mull over the names and descriptions of the fragrances with friends? Are there names in an archive that you are waiting to use as soon as the right scent reveals itself?
D: I have a growing list of names and ideas written down. Even words I know I will want to use. I collect them as I go through life — from books, travels, scenes, signs, plants…everything. I make a note of all the aromatic items in rooms and places. I am moved by everything around me. The scents are woven into a story that captures the essence of a certain place or time — hopefully allowing the sniffer access to some fabled world, like you would find in an epic poem or a large-scale narrative. (For example, he describes the fragrance Radio Bombay as a ‘transistor radio hewn of sandalwood that radiates ragas in the Bandra heat. Hot copper lubes warm the soft wood, releasing blooms of musk, cream, peach, ambrette, coco, cedar distillate’.)
You have said that DSD has an NYC DNA – what does that mean to you?
K: We have lived here for a long time. And I grew up nearby. The city always loomed large in my mind as a child — I knew it was going to be a big part of my life. New York is the locus we keep returning to. There’s a toughness here but also magic; here, you can make your dreams a reality through will, faith and a little bit of luck. The American dream is a confusing concept these days, but we still want to believe in its possibility.
The website has imagery that feels modern and yet very abstract — almost the world of Man Ray and more. This is unusual considering perfume brands have traditionally evoked either luxury or romance and sex. What are you evoking?
K: We are very influenced by the world outside that of perfumes. Perfume making, like painting, music and the fine arts, has the ability to convey ideas and stories that can change your life. The website, made by our wonderful friend Lydia Turner, uses images and words to represent the worlds inside our bottles.
There is a big difference between American and European sensibilities. Does this apply to DSD when David is thinking of smells and you are thinking of packaging and the rest?
D: The perfume industry is usually dominated by French sensibilities; everyone wants to be linked to France or introduce a French element into their fragrances. Our brand is quintessentially American. We are more influenced by early American industry, by wide open landscapes and the idea of having the freedom to explore.
Some of your favourite things.
D: Tea, Irish poetry, recording music, family time, yard work.
K: Cooking, family, pasta, dancing, loud music, travel and travel planning.
Your inspirations: movies, design, books?
K: Le Corbusier — all about textures, materials. And the smart use of colour. Charlotte Perriand. Charles and Ray Eames. Kazimir Malevich. For books, just about anything Russian. Mikhail Bulgakov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol. David and I are both obsessed, and I even studied the language in college. I can’t believe I’ve still never been to Russia!
How would you define your everyday personal style?
D: Part urban dad, part Caribbean vacation, part New England, part 1930s Irish gangster.
K: Sophisticated Goth who also loves the beach. Anything black and high-waisted. Age-appropriate for the most part, with hints of midlife crisis when I regress into teenage clothes (kilts and faux leather miniskirts are making a comeback in the US). Gold jewellery. Stevie Nicks (ish). On the weekends, I live in T-shirts and black jeans.
Whom do you admire?
K & D: People who can build things and heal and who love freely. Those who truly listen, people who are genuinely passionate about what they do.
‘Passion’ is a word that comes up frequently in our conversation, as does beauty. And the countless inspirations. As do Kavi’s tattoos. Her first tattoo, at 18, was of Shiva (as she says, “There’s nothing cooler than the god of destruction, the ultimate point of differentiation in our life cycles”), then followed a Shivling, Nandi and Shiva’s cobra. Her grandfather was a devotee of Shiva, and this is partly a homage to him too. There is a beautiful snake on the back of her hand that winds its way up from wrist to fingers (a study in simplicity that was inspired by a drawing on a paper at her niece’s mundan ceremony). Another, of a tuberose, is in memory of her late uncle who would always put some by the side of her bed during her childhood visits to India. A top hat that says ‘Fancy’ under it, is from David’s drawings for their wedding invite.
Everything feeds back into the world that is DSD, and there are now plans to expand worldwide. DSD is already stocked in major stores all over the world, including Barneys New York, 10 Corso Como in Seoul and Milan, and Harrods in London. Tokyo, Australia and the Middle East are major buyers of the brand, which will soon be at Khan Market in Delhi.
The Indian connection is strong, and their first Diwali candle, cheekily named Rama Won’t You Please Come Home, is launching soon while plans for a purely Indian-influenced line of fragrances are in the pipeline. And so it goes. Details come together to form new stories, in both fragrances and art. This feels like the new way to live.