Every once in a while, my Google alerts send me a flurry of links related to some new fragrance release that’s being featured by design-oriented outlets like Wallpaper* and AnotherMag, rather than the typical fashion- or cosmetics-focused sites. Earlier this year, the brand Arpa and its creative director, Barnabé Fillion, were the cause of one such round of alerts.
AnotherMag, which described Fillion as “a model and photographer-turned-perfume-designer who has been Aesop’s ‘nose’ for almost ten years” noted that Arpa’s launch was motivated by Fillion’s “synesthetic recollections, in which scents are intertwined with visions and sounds.” Vanity Fair used the phrase “a melodic escape.”
Around the same time, Wallpaper* covered Fillion’s mix of “audio escapism and aromatherapy” with a claim that “Arpa was early to catch onto the wider sensory possibilities of fragrance.”
Early? Let’s take a look back…
In 1857, the British perfumer Septimus Piesse used a musical analogy to describe the elements of perfume: “There is, as it were, an octave of odors like an octave in music; certain odors coincide, like the keys of an instrument.” Thanks to Piesse, we still discuss the “notes” and “compositions” of fragrances. In 1902, the poet and arts critic Sadakichi Hartmann staged a “perfume concert”— you can read about it here.
And, as “smell scientist” and longtime aroma-author Avery Gilbert reminds us, “Scented theatrical performance has been around for a long time. Eugene Rimmel created a ‘perfume fountain’ for musical numbers in London’s Alhambra theater in the 1860s. Stage directors of the realist school have been using smells on stage since the early 1900s. And people have been experimenting with scented movies since the earliest days of Hollywood.'”
If you’re a fan of the delightful “middle-brow” aesthetics of a certain segment of mid-twentieth century society, you might also enjoy learning about Perfume Set to Music (1948), composer Harry Revel’s set of “musical sketches” inspired by various Corday perfumes. Barbara Herman wrote about the album on her blog a while back.
And for the past twenty years or more, savvy scentophiles have been wearing perfumes by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz (DSH Perfumes) and Christopher Brosius (CB I Hate Perfume), two perfumers and self-described synesthetes who have created fragrances connected to literature, film, and/or visual art.
Just over the past two years, even, the Olfactory Art Keller gallery in Manhattan has hosted multiple exhibitions of aroma-centered art projects that frequently incorporate other sensory elements (lighting, sculpture, music, performance of various kinds).
Lastly, here’s a short list of fragrance brands that have been melding fragrance with other sensory experiences and art practices over the past decade. I hope you’ll investigate a couple of them.
Olfactive Studio: I still remember the first time I came across this new niche brand, just after it was launched in 2011. Its concept, “an encounter between contemporary artistic photography and perfumery; between the eye and the nose,” felt really fresh — and the fragrances were just as thoughtfully designed as the photographs that served as their source material.
I’m still partial to Lumière Blanche, a sophisticated soft-musk fragrance meant to evoke sunlight on blinding-white sand that almost resembles snow. (The photo itself was the work of Massimo Vitali.)
Atelier di Geste: This New York-based studio, founded by multi-disciplinary artist Beau Rhee, has been combining movement, music, and various forms of design, from costume to scent, since the early 2010s. Rhee bottled three fragrances that she originally conceived as elements of a performance in 2012:
The ADG original Scent Trio embodies the concept of olfaction as living theater: elevating moments, intensifying space and time. They were originally created to experience alongside a performance called The Ball of Living Matter. The scents were designed to intensify the choreography’s colors, shapes, moods, rhythms and forms.
Of that trio of fragrances, my favorite was Wild is the Wind — a rose-and-leather composition named for one of Nina Simone’s signature songs.
Jasmin Saraï Parfums: Perfumer and interdisciplinary artist Dana Al-Masri describes her work as “bridging the gap between scent, sound and culture, enlightening people on their own sense of smell.” All her scents are worth trying, but her Playlist collection of 2014 deserves special recognition for its blending of scent and musical influence. The Jasmin Saraï sample set is even packaged in a hand-decorated cassette case, for some fantastic pre-digital nostalgia.
One of my favorites from Jasmin Saraï is How You Love, a lush sandalwood scent that takes Sade’s soulful “It’s Only Love That Gets You Through” as a starting point.
Folie à plusieurs: This Paris- and Berlin-based “intermedia perfumery” has always felt a bit mysterious to me, even though I’ve received assorted small packages with samples and hand-written notes kindly sent by founder Kaya Sorhaindo. Folie’s projects, dating back to 2014, are cerebral and wide-ranging, from “cinema olfactif” (scents intended to capture moments from particular films) to “sonic narratives” (collaborations with between musicians and perfumers).
As a museum person, I’m delighted by Folie’s duo of fragrances from 2019 inspired by the surfaces, materials, and environmental aromas of Manhattan’s New Museum. They’re appropriately unexpected and avant-garde.
DS & Durga: Sometime around 2016, this critics’ darling rebranded itself with a musical concept, tweaking its existing storytelling with audio-inspired logos and song playlists meant to accompany various fragrances. New, sound-associated releases (as part of that revamp) included Radio Bombay, White Peacock Lily (named for a work by American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes) and Debaser, an homage to a classic post-punk track by the Pixies.
(I’m actually more attracted to Siberian Snow and Rose Atlantic, but I have to admit that the rebrand was, and remains, pretty snappy.)
Basically, my complaint is the same as always — my weariness with journalism that refuses to offer context for some supposed innovation. I know it’s a crowded marketplace, but can’t we appreciate something as a contribution to an existing tradition, rather than trying to position every single gimmick or angle as something new?
If you know of any other brands or projects that have successfully combined scent and other sensory inspiration in recent (or not-so-recent) years, please feel free to share in the comments!
Ones that come to mind are L’Orchestre Parfum, which showcases an instrument and a track for each perfume, and Maya Njie, who uses her old photographs for a color palette for each perfume. Sarah McCartney of 4160Tuesdays also correlates each scent note to a musical note, although she doesn’t focus on this in the way she talks about her perfumes.
Hello!! I’m very fond of Maya’s work! and I’m a longtime fan of Sara McC and didn’t know that she had music on her mind when working with fragrance!
It’s funny — L’Orchestre was on my list but I cut it because I’ve only browsed their website and passed their counter in Bloomingdale’s but haven’t actually smelled any of their fragrances yet! Have you tried them? Do you have a favorite?
In some of Sarah’s videos on YT, she describes certain fragrance notes relative to each other by humming the corresponding notes of music; but she also composes fragrances by sketching accords out into “planets” or groups of notes with different colors. I always enjoy her videos.
I haven’t smelled the newer ones of L’Orchestre Parfum but of the first ones, my favorite was Rose Trombone and I bought a bottle. It’s quite rich with boozy vanilla so a little goes a long way.
Also haven’t smelled any of Maya Njie’s perfumes yet, but I got to hear her speak about her creations at a virtual event a couple of years ago and liked the concept of working with old photographs and memories.
I didn’t know all this history connecting the arts of music and perfume! What a rich and fascinating corner of art history, and it really does explain a lot of the terminology.
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I’m glad you enjoyed it! Yes…the notes, the perfumer’s organ…it’s a rich analogy that’s been around for a long time but I don’t think we always realize this!