Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Public and Private Realm of Perfume - Part 1: Contemporary Perfumes

Contemporary perfumes have become increasingly noticable in the public realm. Some are so strong that they are able to broadcast an individual upon entering a room. Others create a cloud-like aura that hovers throughout the day. They even leave their imprint in elevators, subways and office cubicles. Through the use of chemical extenders that emanate scent creating lift and sillage, fixatives that allow perfumes to last longer, and a palette of strong aromachemicals the modern perfumer appears to have unwittingly unleashed a chemical assault on the public. This has not gone unnoticed.

The prevalence of strong perfumes has sparked a backlash. Many doctors have posted signs asking people to be considerate of others and not wear scent. There are even medical procedures, such as embryo transfers where patients are asked not to use scented soaps or body washes as the odor molecules can interfere with the early stages of embryo development and cause potential chromosomal damage during transfer from petri dish to an expectant mother’s womb. Recently, the city of Detroit created fragrance-free zones in its city buildings after one of it’s employees claimed a co-worker’s perfume caused breathing problems and was awarded $100,000 by the U.S. District Court under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Finally, there are anti-fragrance campaigns that seek to ban perfumes and other synthetic smells altogether from public places.

Indeed, perfumes have become so ubiquitous that they can be found in just about everything we use. A sample inventory of scented personal care products will include: shampoos, conditioners, hair creams, gels, sprays, soaps, body washes, treatment scrubs, face cream, cleansers, toners, body lotions, eye creams, hand creams, foot creams, cuticle removers, hair removers, shaving creams, underarm deodorants, full body deodorants, perfumes, colognes, after shaves, soothing balms, toothpastes, mouthwashes and even dental floss. Almost every personal care product we use has some form of (usually synthetic) scent or flavoring. Our cleaning products are also heavily perfumed. They include household cleaners, deodorizers, scent neutralizers, detergents, solvents, and conditioners that add up to a relentless battery of smells that can not only assault the senses but can also lead to chemical sensitivities.

And as if that weren’t enough, there are architects and perfumers (Christophe Laudamiel) who are enamored with the idea of environmental smells that go beyond room fresheners or deodorizers. They seek to create scent environments and even an opera! In a recent one-day symposium held at the Parsons School of Design architects and perfumers gathered to discuss how scent could become the new territory for design. “Scent is a tool for architects and designers that should be exploited more,” quoted Paola Antonelli, the organizer for HEADSPACE 2010.

While it is interesting to conceptualize how scent can become a more proactive participant in the built environment, it’s worthy to note that contemporary perfumes have already exploited the most public domain of our cultural milieu, that of advertising our sexuality. Wearers have become olfactory billboards for perfumers where each is trying to scream over the din of the others below. These perfume screams have gotten so loud that perfumers themselves are reacting by marketing the “anti-perfume” popularized by Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garcons or the “non-perfume” such as LolaVie, Jennifer Anniston’s soon to be launched perfume.

What has all this done to the private realm of scent; the mysterious aura of the individual, the carnal knowledge of the nose? For one, it has reversed our notions of public and private so that the smells of the bedroom can now be found in the boardroom (and everywhere else). We have become unconditional participants in the erogenous lives of others. Ironically, by thrusting out the scent of the individual and saturating the environment with aroma chemicals each of us has lost the breathing room of the self we once enjoyed. We’ve lost the room to explore our own odors, the odors of others and the smells of the natural world. In many ways I believe this is in response to the sensory deprivation that has become endemic to modern living. We use smell to recreate a world that doesn’t really exist. Perfume has become a substitute for living in the natural world where our senses were stimulated by the odors of our own bodies and our surroundings. Throughout history scent has been used to mask putrid odors, but our culture seems to be waging a war against natural smells. We wear our perfumes like armored vehicles, intent upon protecting ourselves from the terrain of natural smells.

I grew up in Iran where strong smells were inescapable: infrequently washed bodies, breath pungeant with raw onion and bazaar floors wet with animal feces, blood and urine. By contrast, there was the smell of fruit: peaches, cucumbers, melons and flowers like roses, jasmine and orange blossoms that were intensified by the arid climate. The smell of dust settling as gardens were watered in the evening and the occasional plastic-sweet plume of opium wafting over brick walls. I don’t remember the smell of detergents, cleansers, shampoos and creams. In fact, the only artificial smells I recall came from the occasional American product that seemed wildly exotic at the time: watermelon lip gloss, strawberry shampoo and Love’s Baby Soft. Otherwise, my world was defined by everyday things: the pages of a fresh notebook, fountain pen ink and pencil wood. Perhaps this helped develop a more subtle and sensitive nose that despite the strong smells of the city, did not feel the urgency to mask or perfume them.

By constantly having synthetically perfumed products around us we may be overloading our sense of smell to such an extent that it might lead us towards olfactory breakdown. Who really knows what all of these aroma chemicals are capable of doing to our odor receptors. They do cause temporary olfactory fatigue so that we are no longer able to smell the more subtle aromas around us. Now that aromachemicals can be found in countless products the world just doesn’t seem to smell as good as it once did, at least not to me.

(Part 2 of this article will examine the Public and Private Realm of Natural Perfumes)

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Process versus Product

A question came up recently about the discussion of perfume as a process rather than as a finished product. The consensus was that as perfumers, it was more relevant to talk about process than about the finished product. Some felt that a finished perfume did not need further discussion, unless one was to critique a scent. Others pointed out that many perfumers never felt finished with their work; they were constantly tweaking and experimenting with their perfumes even after they had been completed. This got me thinking about the issue of product versus process in the creation of perfume as well as in that of architecture. I wondered how the two disciplines could engage in a dialogue about this issue and how each could inform the other.

While a building could be considered a finished product, it is, in fact a constantly evolving “work in progress”, one that begins with a concept that is developed through a complex design process. The result is a set of drawings (a simulacrum) that describe the building analytically as a three dimensional entity. During construction further changes take place that form a part of this dynamic process. After a building is inhabited, it comes to life and is transformed by its inhabitants (Colden Mansion in 1859). Finally, after a building has been abandoned, it changes further as it decays. The life-cycle of a building is characterized by entropy. (Colden Mansion today)

If a building can be viewed as a dynamic entity that is constantly changing, can we ever view it as a product? At the inception of a project a conceptual design is presented for approval before the design of a building is developed any further. These schematic design packages necessitate hours of preparation to form a coherent “product”. Fast forward to when a building has been completed and in the pages of a magazine. The photographs that are taken are generally of spaces that have been styled to create an ideal image. Rarely does one see a photograph of a space that has been taken spontaneously. Furthermore, these photographs are selected for their composition, color and other formal elements.

Architects work towards a constantly evolving product through process. There are some, who are engaged and stimulated by the process of design, and certainly there are design tools (imaging software) that allow a conceptual design to appear as real as an actual structure, but in general, the work of architecture tends to center around the production of the object. Process is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

Perfumery is similar to architecture in that an idea or concept generates the process of creation and it takes months, sometime years to develop a perfume. The difference is that while a building is designed through representation, the design of a perfume is done using the materials that actually make up the perfume itself. Process is product in perfumery. Perhaps that is why perfumers prefer to talk about making their perfumes. The process of creation is the creation itself. While the architectural object is dynamic and changeable, the object of perfumery – a finished perfume - is static. That which is dynamic in perfumery is its creation. This is not to be confused with the dynamic nature of a perfume once it is applied and the rates of dry down that create layers of changing scent. The static nature of a completed perfume has to do with the immutability of the finished blend, not a drop more being added or subtracted, it is balanced and still.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Space Time and Perfume

Modern architectural theory was first established by a few seminal texts which included Siegfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture published in 1941. In it he outlined concepts that formed the foundation of a new aesthetic that broke away from the architecture of the Beaux Arts tradition. He argued that abstract notions of space and time were paradigms of this new design. These revolutionary concepts have now become intrinsic to our knowledge of contemporary architecture. Today, we take for granted the notion that we experience space in time. Although we perceive space visually, we actually scan with our eyes and build composites from snapshots of our memory.

So how do we experience perfume? There are strong parallels between how we experience the visible world of the built environment and the invisible construct of our aromatic surround. As a perfumer, one has to be aware of this non-visible world and its potential to impact our spatial understanding in subtle but direct ways.

Aromas are experienced in time creating scent memories that help us remember and orient ourselves in space. When we step into a room we are first guided by our visual and auditory senses. But what about our olfactory impressions? When we transition from one space to another we become aware of odors. These odors help our brain differentiate between safety and danger. If we “smell danger”, our brain prevents us from going any further. However, if a smell is benign, our brain permits us to enter, which is why the inviting smell of baking cookies is so important if you want to sell your home.

Once our initial impression of a space is determined our noses go into “sleep” mode and we are no longer aware of further environmental odors. This anosmia is one of the most baffling phenomenae of our olfactory sense. Why does the nose shut down? Why aren’t we always in a state of smell awareness? The area of the nose that contains odor receptors is directly adjacent to the brain. Through each inhalation we are literally drawing molecules of our immediate environment practically into our brains. Perhaps a likely answer is that our brains are not equipped to handle scent 24/7. We need to preserve that function so that we can detect danger when it is truly necessary. Perhaps our brains evolved to be more visually aware and our olfactory sense ended up taking a back seat.

There is no doubt, however, that there is a relationship between scent and memory. Scientific studies have shown that scent memory is 60% accurate while visual memory is accurate only 15% of the time. Our visual memory is highly susceptible to interpretation while our olfactive memory tends to be more precise and “objective”. So why don’t we rely more on our noses? Perhaps this anosmia makes the nose ultimately less reliant than the eyes, or perhaps our ability to remember scent makes us less likely to constantly have to smell them.

These questions often surface when I’m working on a perfume. Scents can anchor memories of people, places and events or can prod the imagination. What interests me as a perfumer is how the imagination can be evoked, invoked or even provoked. Essences are the material building blocks of a perfume and each has individual qualities that are complex and layered. Many essences also have strong historical and cultural associations, like the rose. However, these essences can also be viewed as abstract elements. The rose, for example, has simultaneous qualities of luminosity and darkness. Instead of viewing it in the traditional sense as a “floral”, it can be used to lighten or darken a blend, depending on how it is combined with other essences.

It is analogous to the use glazing in architecture. A window can be viewed as a functional element for light and ventilation, as a decorative or compositional element in a fa├žade or as an abstract element such as a curtain wall. The latter use of glass in modern architecture allowed us to view glazing as a means of creating an effect, one of lightness and openness in a building. The Glass House by Philip Johnson (left) is a great example of how curtain wall construction can form transparent walls that allow the structure to become a part of nature. Essences can also create effects of transparency, luminosity, porosity or conversely effects of darkness, chiaroscuro and solidity.

For me, the challenge of perfumery is to create blends that bring us into the architecture of our minds where we can experience space in its purest abstraction. One should be able to enter a perfume and explore its arrangement and structure, experience its effects. Natural perfumes evolve over time; as top notes evanesce, other layers are revealed and unfolded. This unfolding is like walking from one room to another where rooms are connected but have different qualities. Architecture deals with the external structuring of space while perfumes evoke an inner construct. This is where perfume and architecture share a common ground, as a means of experiencing space in time.