The first 40 minutes of this week's Studio 360, New York Public Radio's always fascinating show about design and experience, is entitled “Scratch and Sniff,”and features four short audio programs (in Real format) about the wonders of smell.
“Scratch and Sniff” begins with a conversation between Studio 360 host Kurt Anderson and author Chandler Burr, the New York Times' first perfume critic (“Scent Strip”) and author of the bestselling The Emperor of Smell: A True Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses. In Emperor, Burr profiles the biochemist Luca Turin, a compelling force -- and highly controversial -- in the $20-billion-a-year perfume business. Turin believes that smell is actually a result of molecular vibrations, not chemical reactions, and can be tuned like music. (An archive of Turin's now-closed blog, Perfume Notes, can be downloaded here in PDF format. Turin's monthly “Duftnote” is now published in English in NZZ Folio.) Burr advocates founding a “museum of smell” to celebrate smell as an evolutionary triumph and driver of creativity and commerce.
The show's other smell-related audio articles include “Snow in a Bottle,” describing the work of Christopher Brosius, “a perfumer with a different approach: he bottles the smell of celery, a gin and tonic, thunderstorms, even snow”; “Scent of a Painting,” which looks at the love of painters for the smell of paint and canvas; and “Death in Venice,” in which writer Adam Haslett, author of the short story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here. admires Thomas Mann's Death in Venice for its stench. “Everything in the story, he says, is 'overripe.'”
Smell, as poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman reminds us in her lyrical A Natural History of the Senses, is the most emotive of the senses, able to evoke memories of places, people, and events long after their sights and sounds have been forgotten. When two people experience a smell together, it can be the basis of a lifelong bond. Yet smell is the sense we have the most difficulty talking about. Because smell and taste are so intimately fused in the human sensorium, we commonly use taste words to talk about smells (“sweet,” “sour,” “like roses,” etc.). Ackerman also introduces us to the mysterious folks within International Flavors & Fragrances, IFF, a multibillion-dollar laboratory that invents smelly and tasty chemicals for inclusion in our foods, cosmetics, new cars, and virtually every perfume not made with 100% natural products. IFF's new Visionaire 47 TASTE is “a limited edition arts publication that pairs paintings, photographs, and conceptual images with specially-created flavors.” A best-smeller, for sure.
Digital media do a poor job of capturing and representing smells. Smell-O-Rama, a recent technology for “attaching” scents to email, and other such strange inventions for conveying the experience of smell are notable more for thier oddity than for their effectiveness, although the search continues. One non-digital format that works is “scratch-and-sniff” paper, the once ubiquitous stinker-upper of fashion magazines, now largely banned because it stirred allergic reactions in too many readers.
How can we design compelling experiences to exploit people's sense of smell? Displays of perfumery and taste enhancers are common. A more expansive example is London's Museum in Docklands (sister museum to the popular Museum of London). As part of a historical walkthrough, reports Museum spokesperson John Joyce, modern chemical science has recreated the smells of tides, ships, warehouses, inns, trade goods (like spices, tobacco, and tea), even sailors and sewers, that characterized the Dockland's streets and quays during successive historic periods. Most challenging of all, according to a radio reviewer? Creating the odor of disease and death during the 17th-Century calamity, The Great Plague of London (recalling Monty Python's classic line, “Bring out your dead! Bring out yer dead!”). A laboratory commissioned to develop these aromas reportedly was all too successful: the display is a repellent success.