Stepping through the door of perfume artist Roxana Villa's shop on Lena Street is like stepping through a magic portal into an aromatic choose-your-own-adventure story. Every object in the room—the cabinet of curiosities along the far wall, the jars of herbs on the shelves, flowers hung from the ceiling, the ancient-looking copper still on the table—provides a reference point in the interwoven narratives Villa creates using scent as her chosen medium for storytelling.

Villa recently distilled local piñon pine resin using this copper still.
Villa recently distilled local piñon pine resin using this copper still. | Leah Cantor

Arriving on a chilly Friday afternoon at Roxana Illuminated Perfume, SFR finds Villa in the back room plucking leaves of fresh sage into a glass still. Villa says she loves to experiment with distillations from local plant matter, handing SFR a jar of sweet, lemony smelling liquid—the essence of chamisa, distilled last week.

Villa creates her perfumes and skincare entirely with botanical materials, excepting the beeswax from her own hives used for hard perfume.

She says "meditation on the natural world" influences many of her custom scents. Her latest collection, for instance, is a "bestiary" of endangered animals, each scent inspired by the personality of a species on the verge of extinction. Dolphin, for example, smells of sea breeze with something bright and cheerful in the mix.

Choosing a perfume here is a fully immersive experience, which is partly why Villa rarely has open store hours, preferring to see customers by appointment so she can focus all her attention on guiding guests toward finding their perfect scent.

On Sunday, Oct. 27, however, Villa will perform a distilling demonstration as part of the Lena Street Lofts Autumn Festival, and the shop will be open to the public.

Perfumes line the cabinet in the front room, none of them labeled.

"It is important to smell a scent with no preconceptions," Villa explains. "Scent memories and associations are often emotional and physical; the memories are felt in the body. To know if a scent is right for you, you have to get out of your head and get in touch with how it makes you feel."

Each tin of fragrant wax sits under an individual glass dome that traps the aromatic molecules as they rise, capturing the scent. Villa lifts the dome of the first perfume, offering it to SFR for a deep inhale of the smell of flowers and fresh grass wafting from the glass.

Continuing the ritual all the way down the line, SFR discovers scents that are bright and citrusy, while others are more herbaceous, taking on an almost medicinal fragrance of greenery. Deep, woodier aromas, reminiscent of incense and leather come last.

Each perfume, Villa tells SFR, is crafted around a story of a person or a place, a plant or an animal. Take Vespertina, for instance, a luscious perfume inspired by the heroine of a graphic novel and conceptual musical album by Villa's husband, Greg Spalenka. The perfume illuminates the tale of a 13th century mystic whose romance with a gallant knight is captured by the scents of rose and jasmine. When worn on the skin, however, the floral scent eventually fades into the base note of frankincense to symbolize the heroine's journey of self-discovery and her devotion to the divine.

A graphic novel and conceptual musical album by Villa’s husband, Greg Spalenka.
A graphic novel and conceptual musical album by Villa’s husband, Greg Spalenka.

The husband and wife frequently work together, Spalenka creating vivid illustrations to accompany each of Villa's perfumes.

Another aroma is leafy and fresh, an ode to the California live oak and the successful battle to save eight specific trees from a high-rise developer in a neighborhood where Villa once lived.

Villa began her career as an editorial illustrator in New York City, and later worked as an aromatherapist in Los Angeles. She stumbled on perfume as the perfect union of her talents when she discovered the historical connection between artists, perfumers and alchemists in medieval Europe. Adding alchemy to the mix, she says, contributed to her sense of having found a higher purpose for her craft.

While she is constantly following her own inspiration, Villa specializes in making custom perfumes for people who want something entirely their own.

Villa blames the association between perfume and artifice on corporate perfume houses that use synthetic chemicals to create overpowering products advertised as tools for seduction.

For Villa, perfume allows for the discovery and expression of authenticity.

"Imagine you are putting on a perfume because of what it makes you feel, because it really resonates with who you are and helps you go through the world being as authentic as you can be," she enthuses.

Taking SFR upstairs, Villa shows SFR how to identify the different elements of a perfume, the chemistry that differentiates the top note—the smell that rises first when a perfume is worn—from the base note: the smell that lingers last. These are just some of the topics she teaches in her online classes and live workshops, the next of which is coming up in November. She says passing the knowledge on is critical, because not many people practice the traditional methods anymore, the "lost arts" of the aromatic magician.