Smelly Maps: discovering Amscentdam*
French perfumer Edmond Roudnitska once wrote: 'Le Parfum est le 8ème art' (Fragrance is the 8th art). At Something Smelly we are on the fence whether every perfume is a piece of olfactory art. Intrigue and ambiguity took hold of us at Chandler Burr's curation of the Art of scent in 2012. It entailed the exposition of mass marketed fragrances as examples of olfactory art.
It was the same year that the Twitterverse put Kate McLean on our smelly map. On April 10th 2014, I was excited to finally meet Kate in person and enjoy the exclusive debut reveal of the end result, the exhibition ‘Smellmap: Amsterdam’. Below you’ll find my smelly notes and impressions of this event. These include a review of the methods used and the conversations with the attendees.
When Kate met BernardoInternational Flavor and Fragrances (IFF) was patron of the arts of the above mentioned ‘Art of scent’ exhibition. In 2011 their Dutch headquarters founded a young initiative: the Olfactive Design Studio (ODS). Bernardo Fleming, an Argentinian fragrance design expert, is the head of this department. Kate met him at the 8th International Conference on Design & Emotion ’Out of Control’ 2012, in London, UK. His keynote conveyed a common passion: using scent to deliver emotion within design.
Bernardo greeted me at the exhibition ‘Smellmap: Amsterdam’ with a warm smile, radiating the scent of Timbersilk (a patented IFF molecule). It smelled like candied mahogany wood on him. He kindly offered more insight in their collaboration and the role of the ODS team:
The making of the Smellmap‘We are the human sensorium’, Kate poetically shared during the event. ‘Words alone don’t do the sense of smell justice’, she added. Her goal is to 'try to understand and come to terms to the multi-sensory human nature. In our journey through the city, we should smell first before we go back to our normal trajectory.'
The theoretical framework behind how Kate's smellmaps come to life, seems to be multidisciplinary. On the one hand it is philosophical in nature. On the other hand Kate uses socio-cultural ethographic research methods. The human experience is key and the emphasis seems to be on emotion, association and memory.
The smellwalks led to a compilation of 640 different smell perceptions and descriptions. Kate referred to these as 'magic moments, like the smell of ‘faint horses’ and finding out that a circus in that area was just about to leave. Or someone sharing 'I love this smell of fish, it reminds me of my best friend'. Describing smells that remind someone of home or something that makes them happy, because they are associated to a person or a special place, this makes the smell story cascades and that is the beauty of smellmapping . ' Her next step was translating the data into 50 broad categories and their visual representations by designing the smellmaps.
Revealing the Smellmap: AmsterdamAt the event the smellmaps Kate designed were divided in a few sections. First there was an exposition of the actual filled in questionnaires that the smellwalkers filled in. The attending smellwalkers could trace their own questionnaire. This brought up delight and discussion among walkers and the other attendees. Some of the walkers shared their smell stories recalling the smells on a specific route. I found this part to be a personal, intimate and refreshing artistic way of experiencing Amsterdam. The expo also showed the one dimensional graphic maps that I remembered from Kate’s blog. A few interesting variations draw my attention: the lines were actually colored smelly descriptors.
Kate on the making of the video: ‘The motion-graphic is an exploration of capturing the ephemerality of smell: the one minute a smell is here, the other minute it’s gone, and we can't always find the words to describe it. A visual can be helpful. Amsterdam comes to life through the canal system. The dots are the emanation points, the source of the smell. Then the range is shown according to intensity and the actual physical area. During the smellwalks, smells drift, they move due to the wind. The elliptical shapes show how the smells travel with the wind, within a certain time span. They also give an indication of their volatility. Thus showing that smells do have a third dimension before they just disappear.’
Recreating the smells, meet the perfumerIn the past Kate gathered and stored the smelly reference materials herself or via local participants.
Actually reproducing and recreating the smells described by the smellwalkers by using raw fragrance materials, was a new experience for both Kate and IFF.
The perfumer, Gregoire Hausson, and the scent design manager, Florent Leblanc were the creative translators of the impressions (the brief) into a comprehensive smelly outcome.
Florent cordially expanded on the creative process of fine tuning the brief:
‘The idea was to reproduce the smells that people perceived in the city. Kate compiled the smells into 11 main ones. The brief was making something that truthfully recreates and represents them, including direction and intensity. And then creating a 12th unique scent that would unite all aspects, while smelling pleasant. Some scents needed fine tuning. My task as a scent designer is to guide the perfumer in the right direction. We constantly need to ask ourselves: is what we created close enough to the brief or does it need modification? For example some smells like ‘laundry’ were quite straightforward. While ‘canal’ was trickier because we needed to combine opposite smells like fresh with moldy.
When our first drafts were sent to Kate, we were delighted to receive very detailed feedback. She was a lot more communicative than our regular commercial customers. For example she prefered smells with a raw edge and that was definitely a creative challenge.’
’This project was exciting because we could go crazy, do unexpected things and let the traditional approach go. Within this project, we could for example reproduce the familiar smell of curry. But while a curry smell makes sense (!) in the kitchen, and in this project, it wouldn’t, in a common IFF product like washing powder. Hmmm, or maybe who knows?...’, he smiled.
When I asked him if his regular briefs were less interesting, he hasted to answer: ‘Oh no, each day at work, I still feel like a kid in a candy shop’. He mentioned the example of a recent commercial brief: ‘create a 0% allergen free cola fragrance for a shower gel for children’. This is a challenging task as a cola fragrance is a combination of orange and cinnamon notes, both very high in perfume allergens.
Kate’s project was his first opportunity to create fine fragrances. And it took him some time to adjust having his name linked to a public project. ‘It is a new thing, this celebrity status of a perfumer and I’m not sure it’s for me’. Before thanking him for his time, I asked his opinion on what it takes to become a Maître Parfumeur. Without hesitation he answered: ‘Besides passion, dedication and experience, one needs to show the ability to mentor others, a good portion of flexibility and most of all loyalty to the company’.
The SmelliesSaving the best for last, I moved on to the meat of the event and the place where I spent the most delightful time: the smell table. A long table, covered in white cloth, displayed 11 round bottles. Each bottle had a different colored label. The colors where visual cues to track the smells back on the map. Next to each bottle there were fragrance blotters, blotter holders and pens. Behind the table, a big sheet of paper covered the wall. There each attendee could write or draw their impressions.
Just halfway the table another participant told me to take a peek at the bottom of the bottle. Discovering that the smell was described on a small sticker, made me chuckle. Not such a blind sniff after all.
Here is a list of the 11 smells, their appointed colors and my smelly notes.
- Waffles in the market: pink-orange; foody, gourmand, caramel, creamy marshmallow
- Warm spicy: bright orange; caraway, cumin, couscous, taboulé (a cold spicy couscous salad dish)
- Flower explosion: pink-red; I recognized this one right away as ‘Bloemenmarkt’, the famous floating Flower market, it was uncanningly well done, fresh cut flower stems, coumarin and notes of freesia and tulips
- Woody, sweet, dry, paint, resinous: brown; I really liked this one, to me it smelled like colonial antique furniture that has just been waxed
- Leafy fresh rain: light green; pungent sharp, freshly mowed grass on steroids
- Herring carts & wet fish: dark blue; to me this smelled like straight up vinegar, while someone else shared it smelled sickly sweet to her
- Coffee with friends: dark brown; familiar smell of coffee brew
- Laundry: pink-orange; distinct scent of your run-of-the mill washing powder and fabric softener
- Old books, attics, smokey, damp: yellow-green; pungent, intense smelly urine and damp sewer, this was the smell that fuelled a lot of conversation as I personally couldn’t pick out the ‘old books’ element
- Canal: light blue; subtle paradox of aquatic elements combined with moldy, stuffy, algae and wet moss notes. In time this smell radiated and lasted the longest, a true dry-down accord and to me the smartest design of them all
- Chocolate powder: pink-beige; another familiar chocolate milky scent
AmscentdamThe ‘glass house’ part of the exposition displayed the end result in two different bottles, accompanied by fragrance blotters and blotter holders. This was Gregoire’s translation of the compilation of all notes into a perfume that could also be worn. I was pleasantly surprised. It was a clean fresh modern floral with surprise elements playing hide and seek. The vinegar note was there ‘You’re wearing herring now, Irina’, Kate said laughing. And the canal note was evident from beginning to long lasting dry-down. This was the fragrance with the most Dutch character I have ever smelled. When travelling abroad and landing on Schiphol, I would say this is the smell I associate with Holland. Very familiar, characteristic and still wearable. And of course different from skin to skin. On Angela Gill, the extremely friendly and lovely event manager from CCCU, it smelled like the most beautiful flower shop I have ever encountered. On Kate’s skin it was canal with a woody warm undertone. On my skin like the greenest bouquet of freesias.
In my humble opinion this is the true essence of olfactory art: a fragrance originating from free artistic vision, not just a commercial brief. Where the artist works together with an experienced perfumer for the purpose of making people feel a connection with the most intimate parts of their daily lives. All set in an open atmosphere where people can honestly share about what they smell, uninfluenced by sale targets or marketing ideas.
Quoting Kate: ‘ what started with something cold and clinical, overdesigned, ended in capturing the subtlety of city, something light and beautiful, that smells completely different on different skins’.
To which Bernardo added: ‘Who can tell if this is really Amsterdam? In the end, it all depends on the interpretation of the perfumer and the people involved, from the smellwalkers to Kate, from the creative team to everyone here today. In a way it is a scent-time-capsule of how a few people in the spring of 2013 and the people here, one year later, experienced and remembered the way Amsterdam smelled like.‘
What the future holds
She finished the event talk by reminding us: ‘ the real fun is exploring for ourselves, smell here, smell now, smell later when you go back through the city.’ Something that I certainly took to heart, on my way back to Amsterdam Central station. Taking a deep breath of the surroundings of Mediamatic: an island between canals, ‘the arteries of Amsterdam’ as Kate calls them, I murmured my goodbyes walking by the withering scent of hyacinths and tulips.
Final notes and creditsSmellmap: Amsterdam is now on private show at IFF, Hilversum, the Netherlands.
Tips on smellwalking
A graduate design student working with scent, maybe the next Dutch smelly event?
A special thank you to the smelly friends providing me with fabulous pictures:
- Kate McLean (RCA/CCCU/wannabe IFF)
- Caroline Claisse (RCA)
- Bernardo Fleming (IFF)
- *Inger Schmidt (Public Library Amsterdam, who also came up with the clever name ‘Amscentdam’)
- Annemarie de Wildt (Amsterdam museum)
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