Maayan Zilberman’s Candy-Coated Dreams

Photo: Alan del Rio Ortiz

We hold onto things. Letters; movie stubs; keys to old apartments. Things pile up in drawers or medicine cabinets or shoeboxes and envelopes at the back of our closets. They are the kind of things we take out once in a while, turn over in hand and mind, and put away. The kind that have meaning but no use.

Confectioner / lingerie-and-jewelry designer Maayan Zilberman has found new use for her nostalgic objects. She turns them into candy, using the original item—old photo slides or CDs, a zip drive—as part of the process. 

To candy is to preserve. The first candies, by that name, were fresh things crystallized in sugar: fruit, flowers, seeds. Zilberman doesn’t candy, she candifies, defining her method in reverse: taking things already preserved—in memory, in shoeboxes— and turning them into something fresh.

We visited Zilberman in her Brooklyn home to talk about her new venture, the medicinal uses of candy, and how we can’t quite shake the stuff we believed as children.

Making candy wasn’t always something that I was interested in, but it was a material I had access to. I wanted to experiment with foods that had more of a shelf life, so I started making bubble gum—that’s a big project that I’m still working on—but I was home sick recently so I didn’t have access to a lot of my materials. When I looked around the kitchen, I realized I could melt and manipulate sugar. The more I played with it, the more it became this body of work.

I make the candies by casting them in icing sugar: I bury the object that I want to replicate in the icing sugar, pack it down, and then I take the object out and pour the melted, liquefied sugar into it. I really like the notion of having the object buried, as though it were something that came out from rest. As a kid I used to dream that if you buried all your stuff in the ground it would turn into candy. That seems to be the story behind all of this; that it feels like it’s been buried, left, and turned into something. I felt similarly about my cakes when I ran my cake business—putting a mixture into an oven, moving away from it, and having it come out transformed. There is something really poetic about that transformation, that rebirth. It’s also probably why I was never really into being a chef, because you’re watching everything happen as you cook.

Photo: Alan del Rio Ortiz
Photo: Alan del Rio Ortiz

The candy pieces come out totally imperfect and that’s what I like about them, they’re weird and janky. I never like things to look perfect. The imperfection gives them a story; a narrative starts from things that have been manipulated.  And I always like to use the original object—there is something about burying the real thing that becomes part of the process. I also don’t want to make candy that looks like candy. Whether it’s lingerie, jewelry, cakes, or candy, I always want my designs to look like something other than the obvious medium. It’s just something more unexpected, an element of surprise.

I also like to give the candies a reason for being sweet. With these soap bars for instance, eating it plays on the idea of washing your mouth out with soap. The handcuffs you have to lick to get them off. I’ve also started to add essential oils into the candy, using the flavors in dialogue with the form, or sometimes subverting it. So the soap tastes like mint, and so does this candy replica of a bottle of hot sauce—fire and ice, an antidote to the original object.

I began with cough candies, which I made out of necessity for when I was sick. I had mint and eucalyptus at home, so I added them to the candy to make them medicinal. Then I started manipulating the idea of what a cough candy could be. With the notebook and Sharpie set—flavored with lemon and ginger— I realized that having the candies dissolve in tea would change the structure of the sugar again, transform them into something else. It comes back again to transformation; I liked the idea of making the Sharpie candies and giving them to someone else, so that they can stir them in their tea. I wanted to put the objects into liquid to be drunk like a potion.

A lot of the objects I make into candy are nostalgic—objects that have no use anymore, but have memories attached to them. Like my art school slides, or photo slides from my backpacking trip after college. I made a retainer, which I thought was funny because it sticks to the roof of your mouth. One of the major traumas of my childhood was losing my retainer; my parents made me dig through a dumpster to find it. I also made a zip drive. It looked like a fossil, like it could last forever, but actually it’s so ephemeral and could just melt away.

I had some friends over for dinner the other night and we made voodoo candles. We put notes in the candles so that you could burn the candle and get the note. That project, like the candy being buried, comes from that same place of privacy, of owning something, putting it away, and revisiting it; like a time capsule. I think it’s something that children are so mystified by but we all do it, even as adults.

ON HER WORKSPACE

I’ve redone my kitchen many times, with the exception of the items I’m not allowed to touch. It’s not ideally how I would want the space to look, but it has become a deeply engrained part of how I make things look. All the materials and objects I keep in my kitchen are to make the space look more like school or a chem lab. I wanted it to be somewhere where you can learn. I use an artist’s cutting board instead of a food cutting board.

I recently got rid of my 1980s appliances, which I’d had since I was a kid. I had to stop having them all around me anymore. I was so steeped in the nostalgia, I needed to do a clean sweep to not be defined by the objects in my past. People would come over and the first thing they would see were all of the appliances, which are really fun historical objects, but it became the focal point all the time. It’s kind of like cutting off your hair; it was defining me. The things that i’ve kept that are meaningful to me: these sandwich-coasters, my spotlight, and my giant pencils. Those things always need to be in my kitchen.

Photo: Alan del Rio Ortiz

ON THE FUTURE

I’m working on designing a kitchenware line based on tools I wish I had. I like entertaining but I don’t always have the right utensils that fit my aesthetic. I want the designs to interact with the food that I’ve made, to make items that have more personality.

I’ve also been teaching kids how to make candy, and seeing how they react to it has had a really strong effect on me. Every kid wants to know how candy is made, and discovering it changes their lives—now any time they have dessert they’ll have an idea of where it comes from. It also made me realize that I want the candies to be accessible, so that everyone can enjoy them. It should be easy and fun.

Photo: Alan del Rio Ortiz
Photo: Alan del Rio Ortiz