Scents Ability: How Somerset House made an immersive show about perfume

Perfume is an unusual exhibition featuring ten of the most radical scents of the last twenty years. We talk to its co-curator about designing a show geared to our sense of smell – and why the highly experimental end of perfume-making is finally getting the attention it deserves

Perfume – A Journey Through Contemporary Scent is spread out across Somerset House’s East Wing galleries with ten rooms devoted to ten key perfumes from the last 20 years, each one representing a departure from what most of us probably think of as a wearable scent.

While smell is perhaps our most under-appreciated sense, it’s well-known that it has significant links to memory and recall and, here, in addition to finding out how the world of perfume has changed radically since the 1990s, visitors are invited to take in these strange and unusual scents and record their thoughts and reminiscences.

There are floral notes and discernible spices – but there are also deserts and water-slides, scents that smell of woodsmoke, ink or metal and even – depending on what Antoine Lie’s 2007 Sécrétions Magnifiques reminds you of – certain bodily fluids. Yet, as experimental as these perfumes are, each of them is commercially available and retains a loyal fan base that loves to wear them.

Curated by Somerset House’s Claire Catterall and Lizzie Ostrom (aka ‘Odette Toilette’), the show aims to reveal why the last two decades in particular have brought about radical change in both the perfume industry and in the way we think about scent.

As this is an exhibition about our olfactory experience of perfume, rather than one tied up with our visual understanding of it, the show relies on a series of strange, multi-sensory installations to reveal each perfume. “We wanted to strip away all the bottles and the packaging, all the marketing hype around the perfume, because that’s a different story,” says Catterall.

Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid for Somerset House

As an opener to the show the curators have assembled a guide to some of the most important perfumes of the 20th century – from L’Origin de Coty of 1905 (specially recreated for the exhibition) to ck one, the ubiquitous, gender neutral fragrance of the mid-90s. It’s an interesting decade by decade account of the history of scent (above) – but the real immersive experience starts in the adjoining room.

As Catterall explains, each of the ten key scents in the exhibition comes to the visitor devoid of the imagery that usually surrounds it: there are no brand names or logos to colour your experience. But the perfumes aren’t served up completely free of influence. In each display, the curators and exhibition designers MUF have used an array of physical objects and displays to transmit the scents, the design of each bearing some relation to the scent itself.

At the end of the first five rooms (and after the final tenth) there is a ‘reveal’ room with panels of texts detailing the perfumes that visitors have just experienced. Here, people can compare the perfume’s ingredients against their own notes (recorded on paper as they walk around) and discover the thinking behind the scents.

Certainly, the surprise element to this (and believe me, some of them are very surprising) makes for a fascinating understanding of where perfume is in the 21st century.

Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid for Somerset House

For example, one room contains a huge tray of tiny beads (shown top of post), while another has a monolithic white box in it that subtly releases its particular scent (below). There is a room containing a table and chairs, a campfire-like arrangement of log benches, an unmade bed (yes, that’s where Sécrétions Magnifiques is collected) – and even an area made up like a confession booth.

“Perfume is a very intimate thing and the only way you can smell it properly is to wear it on your skin – which isn’t possible at an exhibition,” says Catterall. “So we felt the next best thing was to try and keep it intimate – [and] we really liked the idea of bringing something up to your nose to smell it.”

In 2012, an exhibition curated by Chandler Burr and designed by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York called The Art of Scent had used industry devices that emitted a puff of scent, but Catterall wanted something more personal and involving.

For Somerset House, sponsors Givaudan were able to provide the answer in the form of a series of inert and odourless testers (that look a bit like cigarette filters) and which can be embedded into other objects that visitors can pick up (or lean in towards, as above).

The scent dispensers that sit in a vast tray of beads is a reference to one of the most radical perfumes in the show, Comme des Garçons 2 by Mark Buxton, which was originally released in 1999. “That was all about his brief of a ‘swimming pool of ink’ – metal, water coming together,” explains Catterall. It’s a highly unusual metallic scent, intriguing but certainly not unpleasant.

Indeed, what’s interesting – and jarring – about the perfumes on display at Somerset House is that they’re not all necessarily pleasant smells.

This turns the idea of what a perfume is on its head – and Catterall believes that the significant changes that have taken place over the last two decades are tied into this. (The growth in connoisseurship – people wanting to know more about how a perfume is made – has also driven interest towards the more radical approaches.)

“People are thinking about perfume less in fashion terms, less as a kind of final touch with an outfit, something they put on after they’ve got dressed – and it seems much more as though they’re treating it like literature or film,” Catterall says.

“They want to be taken on a journey and to have that experience of being taken to somewhere they’ve never been – or a feeling they’ve never experienced before. So, in a way, it doesn’t have to be a pleasant experience, particularly.”

It’s an interesting and abstract thought – and Catterall likens this to the experience we have when we watch a sad film or read something in a book that makes us feel uncomfortable.

“It’s still a great pleasure, they’re still books and films that give you something and that feed you emotionally, but they don’t necessarily make you feel ‘good’,” she adds.

“And I think people are kind of accepting that from perfume as well; they’re happy to wear a perfume that’s maybe difficult to wear but that can still take them on an interesting journey that they’ll enjoy. We are talking about a select group of connoisseurs, if you like, but there are a lot of people who will want to wear a perfume that is really quite strange, for a number of different of reasons.”

For Catterall, it was important that the ‘perfumer’, too, had a presence in the show as a creator. “We really wanted to position the perfumer as an artist in their own right, which has never really happened before,” she explains. “One of the main things that had changed [in the last twenty years] was that the perfumer was given credit.”

Rather than a filmed interview, the presence each perfumer is transmitted through an audio recording of their voice as they describe their inspiration and process behind their scent.

Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid for Somerset House

One of the most important names here is the aforementioned Buxton and, by extension, that of Comme des Garçons – they are billed in the show as one of the most disruptive brand names that really shook up the perfume industry.

“It’s like what Rei Kawakubo [CDG’s founder] does with her clothes – she questions the meaning of fashion … the idea of beauty itself,” says Catterall. “And when she turned her attention to perfume she asked the same questions of [it] – why do people wear perfume, and why would you necessarily have to wear a perfume that you think makes you somehow sexier or more beautiful? In a way she was the first person to really do that.”

Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid for Somerset House

In his Comme des Garçons 2, Buxton ostensibly created a perfume that doesn’t really smell like one – an “unperfume”, as Catterall has it, that was actually commercially successful. “That one is the key that opened up the possibilities for everyone else,” she says. “You can make a perfume that doesn’t smell like you expect one to smell.”

Similarly radical is Geza Schoen’s Molecule 01 from 2007 – a scent that not everyone can even detect, apparently because of the size of molecules used to make it. Another “milestone” scent, according to Catterall, it was divisive at the time and still remains controversial in a kind of ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ way.

“It was divisive in the perfume industry, absolutely,” says Catterall. “I think they all thought he was a right chancer – this molecule had been in use since 1973 mainly as a blender in other perfumes; it’s an ingredient that makes all the other molecules ‘sing’. So it enhances them and blends them all together – the ‘umami’ of perfume, if you like.”

Photographer: Peter Macdiarmid for Somerset House

If one thing is for certain from the evidence on show at Somerset House, the role that perfume plays has altered significantly over the last few years. While perfumers began to experiment wildly, Catterall suggests that our own tastes for the adventurous have also been driving change.

“People love Dark Ride [Killian Wells’ 2015 scent which replicates a water theme park],” says Catterall. “Don’t ask me why, but they do! Actually, I do know why – there is this memory of the smell of chlorine. It’s kind of an extreme thing, but there are lots of people who love the smell of tar, for example. I personally love the smell of glue.”

In the gallery shop, another of Wells’ scents, Sneakerhead, is also for sale. “It’s the smell of box-fresh sneakers,” Catterall explains. “For me, it smells like the top of a brand new Barbie doll’s head and I absolutely love it! Wearing it is wonderful. It doesn’t smell particularly sexy, but it makes you smell brand new, if you like, which I think is such a beautiful smell.”

Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid for Somerset House

“It’s really interesting that a lot of these perfumes take really modern, unusual smells but make them beautiful,” Catterall adds. “And I think it’s interesting how we we’re moving more and more away from wanting to smell like flowers or fruit and we do want to smell like concrete and gasoline and tarmac. Something like charcoal – twenty years ago you would never have got a perfume that really smells of wood in the way you get wood perfumes now. But our tastes are changing and quite a lot of that’s down to these quite radical perfumes – they still filter down into the mainstream as people get used to the ideas.”

Returning to Sécrétions Magnifiqes and its “scent of sexual pleasure” as the gallery has it, it’s hardly surprising that this exhibit really has divided the audience. And perhaps it’s not wholly unsurprising either, that this was partly the point.

“There are some people who love it, but most people hate it,” says Catterall of the fragrance. “And what’s interesting about that is that Antoin Lee, the perfumer, when he was approached to do it by Etienne de Schwartz of Etat Libre d’Orange, he [was] asked to make a perfume that most people will hate and maybe a handful of people will love. That was his brief.

“That was one of the perfumes to really question what a perfume could be,” Catterall continues. “There are a lot of people who will wear it just for the experience of it – and, in a way, that’s kind of what it’s about: Are you going to wear this scent and are you prepared for the journey it’s going to take you on?”

Perfume – A Journey Through Contemporary Scent is at Somerset House in London until September 23. See somersethouse.org.uk

Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid for Somerset House

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