Maayan Zilberman on elevating candy to an art form
Walking into Maayan Zilberman’s Chelsea studio would make anyone feel like a kid in a candy shop – literally. As the model-esque mastermind behind confections line, Sweet Saba, her gastro-erotic moodboard and heart-shaped ingredients bulletin make the space equal parts boudoir and bakery. This comes to no surprise as Maayan‘s current venture follows years as a lingerie designer; hidden behind her glossy kitchen is a lingerie closet bursting with marabou, silk and lace. The confluence of these playful, indulgent worlds manifests in her kitchen, where her cheeky confections – think sugar lipsticks, rap tape-cassettes and Rolex watches – are made. She’s far from an Easy-Baker-all-grown-up; she developed her craft like an engineer, piecing various confectionary techniques together to suit her imaginative vision.
Maayan is as much eye candy as her coveted creations. Armed with a blowtorch and a fresh manicure, she runs her kitchen in an Adam Selman pearl-laced apron and heels. She cites Miuccia Prada as one of her biggest inspirations, as the iconic designer “works around themes not just about clothes.” Maayan bakes the same inventiveness into her confections, from translating a runway earring into a retail installation, making weed edibles elegant, or the sculptural exhibition she just opened this week. She’s breaking the industry mold one candy creation at a time. Here, we talk to Maayan on her unconventional path, and seeing the world through a saccharine lens.
COOLS: Were you always a kid in a candy shop? How did you get here?
Maayan: I was born in Israel on a kibbutz and lived there until I was 3. We moved to Canada and I went to a private school there with a pretty strict upbringing. But I was always creative, and make a lot of art by myself. I spent a lot of time with my grandfather making kitchen experiments. Not cooking, more like combining materials and ingredients in a scientific way. That piqued my interest in making art with a chemical reaction. I studied sculpture in New York, and did an artist residency in Italy with the Ratti Foundation. They’re the world-renowned silk house – Valentino, Gucci, Hermès galore – and they sponsored my residency there. One of the directors invited me to their factories, and it opened my eyes to fashion behind the scenes. As a girl, I always dreamed of Vogue and all the supermodels, but as more like Disney princesses; I never saw myself in that world. But when I saw the production, the alchemy of dyeing fabric, the printing, I was so inspired by how closely tied it is to the art world.
It planted a seed at the time. And out of nowhere, I got a call from somebody who had been following my work who was starting a lingerie company asking, “do you know anyone who would want to be a designer for us?” And I said “I’ll do it.”
COOLS: And just like that you were a lingerie designer?
MZ: I didn’t know anything. This was like ’99 so I went to the library — there was no Internet — and looked into corsetry. It’s like engineering. I bought a bunch of bras, took them apart and laid them all out on the floor, looking at all the pieces. I learned the language very quickly, but wanted to create a new vision. At the time, the industry was full of either really high-end lacy boudoir brands, or extremely sporty, nothing in between. So I thought, “why not make something kind of sporty, but fashion-y?” Like Prada. Tom Ford was making these crazy triangle swimsuit tops, so I started making bras like that, and it ended up being a hit at the time. It was this new thing. And that’s what really launched my career. Making something functional, but interactive and fashion-forward was really interesting to me.
After selling that label, I did some consulting for other lingerie brands and launched a new brand The Lake & Stars, with a partner. And we had that from 2007 till 2012. [Between seasons] I would make special event cakes; I liked building things that you could eat. I even made this one cake that glowed. So building and baking became a fun hobby on the side.
COOLS: That’s how you transitioned into candy?
MZ: After parting ways with The Lake and Stars I was Fashion Director at Frederick’s of Hollywood for a couple of years. I loved that job. It was so creative, and there was so much room for me to do new things in the market, because it spoke to such a broader audience than I was used to. But the company was going awry, so I asked myself, “what could I do next that would be better than this?” I loved making things in the kitchen, but I wanted something with a longer shelf life than a cake. So I taught myself how to make candy. I probably watched a hundred YouTube videos, and put them together like a collage, from an American housewife making candy for her kids, to the lollipop lady in Tokyo. Each video brought a different perspective, and I pieced them together to create a new technique. I wanted to put my own touch on this. It just happened to be a different medium.
COOLS: And the name Sweet Saba?
MZ: Sweet Saba is named after my grandfather who got me in the kitchen in the first place. Saba is Hebrew for grandfather. And sweet, he’s a sweet grandpa.
COOLS: You certainly don’t dress like the typical chef. How does your personal style color your creations?
MZ: I like to be polished when I work in the kitchen. I like a waistline. I always have my nails and my hair done. They’re usually cherry red. And I like to wear nice shoes in the kitchen. It all started at my last studio because my countertop was too high for me. I started working in heels, because it took me to the right height. And now that I’m used to it, all my countertops are made at the height.
COOLS: Now you’re that ‘Disney Princess’ in the kitchen. Everything is so vibrant and happy.
MZ: Yeah, I like things to look like jewelry or like candy. Like bright lipstick or bright nail polish, that kind of thing. I remember a Donatella quote saying that your nails and your mouth should look like candy, or like jewelry. That’s one of my mantras.
COOLS: Do you remember your first creation?
MZ: I started making candy at home, just as like a journal on social media. I started with old pieces of jewelry, and watches, and making molds of them. And then I made candy, and gave them to friends. I was taking something really sentimental and gifting it, but when they eat it, it’s like those memories become part of you. It’s this really intimate way of sharing something that’s important to you, yet ethereal as it goes away. So it started from that, like a poetry project. You have this visual object, but then in attaching a flavor, it’s like putting lyrics to music. And that’s all it was gonna be, really. But then I started getting orders through Instagram. I did a wedding, a couple parties, even something for the Golden Globes. All my fashion contacts wanted candy, so I had a built in client base. A friend of mine called me and said “I’m curating a shop series in the meatpacking district in a couple of weeks, do you want to have a shop? I decided took the opportunity, and had a pop-up shop in October 2015. That’s when I launched my business as a real business.
“I was taking something really sentimental and gifting it, but when they eat it, it’s like those memories become part of you. It’s this really intimate way of sharing something that’s important to you, yet ethereal as it goes away. So it started from that, like a poetry project. You have this visual object, but then in attaching a flavor, it’s like putting lyrics to music.”
COOLS: Did you ever think after studying sculpture you would get to this point?
MZ: I mean, I couldn’t have thought of it, because I didn’t have the foresight at the time. But it’s so close to making ceramics. My techniques are very similar, mold-making is the same. Most of my assistants come from art school and have experience with ceramics. So it’s kind of like a dream. I would love to continue doing ceramics, but it’s a whole other ball game. I’d love to do home goods, ceramic home goods and kitchen goods and all that.
COOLS: What other musings find their way into your confections?
MZ: Well I have a show that just opened in Los Angeles, more sculptural pieces inspired by a trip I took to the Smithsonian in DC. I went with my mom, and we spent the whole day in the gem exhibit, like rocks and minerals. It could all just be from outer space from as far as I’m concerned; they were all so crazy looking. So I went back to my studio and started making these big crystal geodes and clusters from outer space. Not to look like real ones, but to look like they came from an alternate universe. And those are the pieces I did in this show.
COOLS: How do you channel a brand into candy?
MZ: I definitely start with concept. And then I’ll do a bunch of sketches and samples before we make the bigger molds. For the flavors, I went with a flavorist. She is a chemist, and develops flavors based on what I want it to look or feel like. I did this thing for Estée Lauder for a perfume launch. We took the notes from the perfume, and translated them into edible, floral flavors, which was really nice. But you have to think about the flavor once it’s sweet. It can’t just taste like pizza, it’s going to taste like sugar pizza.
COOLS: What would your dream candy shop look like?
MZ: I’m working on a shop that’s loosely based on an archive jewelry collection of someone very famous; I would like to create their vault of jewelry in candy. I never want it to feel like you just walked into a candy shop. My first pop-up was a crystal shop, but everything was candy. With The Standard [Hotel], I did all music candy, with little records and tapes. I want each shop to be a site-specific experience.
COOLS: What kind of culture are you trying to create around Sweet Saba?
MZ: I think of it like a beauty company. Sweet Saba is a world where if you enter, you’re experiencing surprise. I like when you think something is one way, and once you spend a bit of time with it, it becomes something else. I want the things I make to be smart and lyrical.