The Art of Scent at MAD is fascinating and fun

Exhibit image from The Art of Scent at MAD. Looks like a sneeze.

Exhibit image from The Art of Scent at MAD. Looks like a sneeze.

I had the serendipitous pleasure of catching The Art of Scent 1889-2012 at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City a couple weeks ago. A friend and I were having lunch there (the museum hosts a sweet little restaurant called Robert’s that offers treats like parsnip and cherry sorbet1, and truffle grilled cheese sandwiches) and as we’re browsing the posters in the elevator I noticed one advertising the exhibit. I was, of course, immediately hooked just by the name.

Instead of traveling back down to the lobby level after lunch we stopped at the 4th floor to see what the Art of Scent was all about. We walked into a white room with round indentations in the wall at about head level, each with a screen that would slowly phase in the name of a perfume, the year it was created, and the name of the creator. As you put your head into the indentation a puff of the fragrance would waft up at you. A little startling at first, but so cool. The artistry of the exhibit itself supported the idea of fragrance as art beautifully.

What struck me most about this part of the exhibit was how fragrance has changed over the past 100+ years. The first fragrance featured is called Jicky, created by Aimé Guerlain in 1889. My friend and I hated the smell of it, which I can only describe as bitter grass. My favorite is Prada Amber, a fragrance I’d never smelled before that day. It was created in 2004 and is warm, sensual, and I’m guessing has some sandalwood in it.

Another revelation was at the Drakkar Noir indentation. For anyone of age in the 80s there is no way the smell of Drakkar does not take you back to your first boyfriend. Smell is a powerful memory-holder.

The point of the exhibit is to showcase how synthetics have impacted the art of creating fragrances. Jicky, for all its weirdness, was the first commercial fragrance to be made with synthetic versions of terpene alcohols, coumarin and ethyl vanillin. “By freeing olfactory artists from an exclusively natural palette, they turned scent into an artistic medium,” says the exhibit material.

I can understand how using synthetics offers freedom in the sense that you don’t have to worry about the volatility or delicacy of certain essential oils and botanicals, and I’m sure it’s a lot less expensive. But I feel you are sacrificing a crucial aspect of fragrance by using synthetics. It is as much art to build a fragrance using pure essential oils as it is art to craft a perfume using synthetics, with one major difference: the use of synthetics robs the wearer of the natural healing abilities of the original essential oils.

By way of example let’s say you take a monoterpene alcohol like lavender and create the same lavender fragrance in a lab (let’s call this Robot Lavender). Except it’s not the same at all. Real lavender essential oil assists the wearer by alleviating headaches, tension, anxiety and about a thousand other things. Robot Lavender just smells like lavender. It misses the point in a big way.

Another room off the main exhibit showcased the creation of a popular fragrance called
Trésor by Lancôme. There were five stations, each featuring a different “mod” or building block that makes up the complete fragrance. You went along the stations grabbing the fragrance-embued cards that spit out of the wall at you (this exhibit was just the coolest thing I have seen in a long time). At the end the last card contained Trésor. The fun was in smelling each mod separately, then smelling the final product and picking out each mod’s addition to the whole. Brilliant.

The show runs through the end of February, 2013.
1 Taste about how you’d expect it to taste. The waiter asked if we like it since we’d each taken the tiniest possible spoonful of it then abandoned it for the much more compelling carrot cake, and I told him “It tastes as good as it possibly could.”

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