“My intention with The Untitled Series is to give 100 people a month the same opportunity I had at the Times, the experience of perfume unprotected / constrained by marketing and unassisted by the sense of sight. ” Chandler Burr
(Photo Matthew Furman)
Imagine my surprise to discover only two weeks ago that Chandler Burr, author of “A Separate Creation”, “The Emperor of Scent”, “The Perfect Scent” and “You Or Someone Like You” was on Facebook. Not a group page or a fan page but just there, accessible and smiling. I then noticed that some of my fragrance friends were friends with him as well. There it was, the “+1 Add Friend” button right in front of me. Why not click that button I thought?
The next day I received a notice that Chandler Burr had accepted my “friendship’ request, so it was only proper to send a thank you note. And that connection leads us to this series of interviews with the former perfume critic for the New York Times, Former Curator of, the Department of Olfactory Art at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. Author, lecturer and organizer of the incredible Scent Dinners and the man who couldn’t get Matt Lauer to loosen up and smell the roses admit he liked a perfume on the Today show.
Over the next few weeks Mr. Burr will be interviewed by a select group of perfume bloggers each with very different and exciting points of view. (You will be able to follow them from here with links as they happen.) The two main topics we will be discussing are as follows.
The recent Museum of Art And Design exhibition created by Chandler Burr, “The Art of Scent 1889 – 2012” and the wonderful Catalog and the essays from the exhibition. And the incredible “Untitled Series” at Open Sky. On this series a perfume is presented blind each month to be tested with out the participants knowing anything about it. Then at the end of the month the perfume is revealed with the opportunity to be purchased if the participants so desire. At the end of this interview there are links to the M.A.D. catalog and the Untitled Series. (The catalog with samples of each perfume are for sale. The link is at the end of the interview)
It gives me great pleasure to present to you my interview with Chandler Burr, a man of great charm, wit, talent, and generosity. A man with a magnificent nose.
Lanier Smith: Let’s talk about a few of the perfumes and artist featured in the Catalog you’re your recent “The Art of Scent 1889 – 2012” exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design. Actually less about the perfumes but about the questions that arise in my mind from the wonderful essays you wrote in the catalog. “Jicky” and genitals. As I understand it, at the time that “Jicky” was created in 1889 there were no gender assignments to perfume. Just as there is no gender assignment to the Eiffel Tower created the very same year. When did that change and why?
Aimé Guerlain (1834–1910)
“ The genius of Jicky is that it could never have existed
in nature. Guerlain had created both a new work of art
and a new art form.” Candler Burr
Chandler Burr: It changed mid-20th century for a very specific reason: the industry needed to sell perfume to heterosexual American men, and given that for some reason straight American men instantly equate scent with femininity—which Italian and French men don’t, at all—perfume marketers had to use gendering to give them psychoemotional permission to wear scent. So they put “homme” or “for him” or whatever on the bottles, and the guys calmed the hell down.
Francis Fabron (1913–2005)
is extraordinary for its strange beauty,
which ignores time. It is a work that
smells as if it were made tomorrow.” Chandler Burr
Lanier Smith: The legend says and the ads would lead us to believe that “L’Interdit” was created by Hubert de Givenchy for Audrey Hepburn. Now thanks to you turning the spotlight on the true artists of the medium of scent we know it was created by Francis Fabron. How important is the actual smell of a perfume to the fashion house—Givenchy for instance—compared to the advertising? Where does most of the money go in the creation of a perfume?
Chandler Burr: I get this question all the time, and the answer is a little frustrating because it’s easy to respond that—somewhat infuriatingly—most of the money goes into the packaging and marketing. And on a bottle by bottle basis, that’s true; in general the majority of the money per bottle goes into the bottle + cap + cardboard liner + cardboard box + the marketing images on the box, in billboards, on the designer’s website and vimeo and the Condé Nast Entertainment network + the film in which a model or actor walks moodily through a Greek ruin/ Versailles hallway/ high-production value film set.
But it’s not that simple. It’s been a surprise to me to be told the actual prices of several of the juices we take for granted, frequently perfumes I didn’t think of as particularly expensive (they are). And the willingness of a patron to give the artist a serious amount of money to work with per kilo makes it somewhat irrelevant that, per bottle, the packaging costs more. (Add the complexity of the different concentrations, which hugely changes the price.) Multiply 100ml of expensive oil-in-alcohol-solution, and you can get to a vertiginous investment very fast.
When Jerry Vittoria brought the Firmenich perfumers and evaluators on a tour of the Dept of Olfactory Art at MAD we had a fascinating debate about whether or not they, the perfumers themselves, cared about the bottle. Again, surprisingly to me—I just assume everyone in the industry shares my “who the hell cares about the wrapping, let’s just smell the juice” opinion—Harry Fremont said he absolutely wanted his perfumes in their bottles with their images. At which Ilias (I think it was) said he absolutely would prefer everything in a lab bottle, which I agreed with of course, at which other perfumers argued that the visuals were inherent to the experience, and I said my usual thing about “You don’t wear the bottle or the girl, you wear the juice” (startled at having to make this argument to perfumers) and so on.
By the way my understanding is that de Givenchy told Hepburn he was naming the perfume “Audrey Hepburn,” to which she replied, “Je vous l’interdit!” (I forbid you from doing it), so he called it l’Interdit. Who knows if it’s true; it certainly makes a nice story. And it’s an insanely killer perfume. Imminently wearable today. One of the all-time greats. I wear it.
Magazine add for l’interdit by Givenchy
Lanier Smith: With the emergence of the American School with “Aromatic Elixir” by Bernard Chant it seems that opens the way to many other American design houses to take off as they did in the 1970’s and 80’s. Yet isn’t it true that the first American perfume to rock the French establishment was Estee Lauder’s “Youth Dew”? Was that a fluke or a forerunner to the emergence of the United States as a power in the world of perfume?
Bernard Chant (1927–1987)
“Aromatics Elixir transcended the somber
formality of classical French style and
gave way to a work capable of conveying
multiple narratives simultaneously.
Here was a French story, but the story
was told, for the first time, in English.” Chandler Burr
Chandler Burr: My understanding is that, yes, Youth Dew was the first American perfume. Commissioned by perhaps the greatest of American scent patrons, Estée Lauder, created by an American artist, Josephine Catapano. It was a forerunner, but as I pointed out the Art of Scent exhibition, when artists import styles from other cultures, they often work in the school then-dominant—or, even more conservatively, a previous, hallowed school. In this case it was the classical late 19th-century French school. Youth Dew reassured clients that, even though it was Made In America, it was thoroughly French, in the way that Lexus first put out cars that if anything out-Mercedesed Mercedes. Made In Japan but as good as Made In Germany. Once established, Lexus came into its own, as did American patrons and scent artists.
Lanier Smith: I never got “Angel” by Olivier Cresp and thought it too sweet for my nose. But in the context of Surrealism it makes perfect sense and I can appreciate its maladjusted juxtaposition of notes with a fresh nose. Now it is fun. Placing perfume in the world of art is extraordinary and to some it seems a stretch. Why is it important for the world to understand that a bottle of “Angel” is just as valid and important as the “Christ of Saint John on the Cross” by Salvador Dali?
Olivier Cresp (b. 1955)
“Cresp’s use of ethyl maltol, which he
transformed from subtle ornament to
fundamental structural material,
pushed olfactory art to new extremes
and placed shocking artificiality in
full view. This was the progenitor of an
olfactory Pop Art movement that arrived
in the mid-1990s and continues today.” Chandler Burr
Chandler Burr: I’m glad it made sense for you when seen as Surrealist art. That one seemed overwhelmingly obvious to me—as does Industrialism for Drakkar Noir, which is in fact a better example of Industrialist art than virtually any other you could name in any medium—but I was concerned about some of them. Calder’s work that broke sculptures up into pieces and made them move in space around each other, dividing and re-coalescing into the same-but-different works, seemed quite like Cresp’s approach in Light Blue. So I called Calice Becker, somewhat apprehensively, started to explain my aesthetic reasoning, and at the words “Alexander Calder” she said, “Perfect.” I was relieved.
Lanier Smith: The tastes of the masses seem to be at a watered down level of safe sugar and laundry fresh. Geared more toward the teen-aged audience than more sophisticated noses. For a very long time perfume has been moving away it seems from the classic feel of perfumes like “Chanel No.5”, “Shalimar” and the like. But with “Prada Amber” by Carlos Benaim, Max Gavarry and Clement Gavarry in the “Art of Scent” exhibition you herald the arrival of Neo-Romanticism. Do you believe that the truly great perfumes of the future will only come from “niche” designers or can a Dior or Chanel still be viable to as important creative perfume houses?
Carlos Benaïm (b. 1944),
Max Gavarry (b. 1937), and
Clément Gavarry (b. 1977)
“Prada Amber, however, is a unique
contemporary work in that it draws
directly and principally from the 19th century
school. In lesser hands, it could
easily have fallen into a mere pastiche.” Chandler Burr
Chandler Burr: I admit it’s extremely rough for the big houses to take risks, perhaps the largest risk being—again—putting a serious amount of money into the work. I can make lofty statements like, “In the long run if they don’t make beautiful, which means somewhat costly, works, they’ll find [mass] clients dropping away [mostly just by buying less mediocre perfume, not due to trading up to expensive niche]” but there are, of course, so many exceptions to that that who knows if it’s true. For a good suit, you drop coin. See under: Tom Ford—I don’t even go in the store at the moment, maybe in a few years. For shirts, shorts, flip flops, I love Old Navy. There are some awesome perfume flip flop equivalents, and there’s nothing wrong with wearing them. But they’re not going to last. I’m thinking about the top 30, and some are Old Navy’s, but others are (metaphorically) Tom Fords.
Beyond Paradise and Sensual were both very expensive juices and innovative perfumes. Neither made it; my personal opinion: Beyond Paradise is excellent. Flower Bomb, Coco Mademoiselle—a work of pure loveliness—Angel, Pleasures, all of these are innovative and costly, all are commercial brands, and all are killing it. So who the hell knows.
Lanier Smith: Now I have a few questions about the exciting Untitled Series on Open Sky. Did this idea come from your Scent Dinners? If not how did you come up with the concept that is so exciting. A whole month of smelling a perfume without Brad Pitt or Natalie Portman whispering in your ear how much you should love it.
Chandler Burr: The idea for the Untitled Series didn’t come from the Scent Dinners. It came directly from the way my assistant and I smelled things at the NY Times. I had great assistants. The point of my Scent Notes column was that it was exclusively juice, juice, juice, so we had a very specific approach. Every week my assistant would arrive before I did, unpack the new scents that had arrived that week, and I’d come in half an hour later, drop my backpack, and sit down. He or she would, wordlessly, hand me an unmarked white blotter, and we’d smell. You weren’t allowed to change expression at all. When we felt like it, one of us would start reacting, and the conversation would go from there.
The scents we agreed were good we’d then put on skin—the canvas on which perfume is designed to be experienced—again without looking at the packaging. I tried not to look at the packaging until after I wrote the column.
My intention with The Untitled Series is to give 100 people a month the same opportunity I had at the Times, the experience of perfume unprotected / constrained by marketing and unassisted by the sense of sight. To be honest it’s insanely difficult to arrange each episode, and the Series never would have happened if it hadn’t been for Miuccia Prada. I asked her, and she personally agreed to let me take Infusion d’Iris out and put it in a little lab bottle. She anchored the whole thing.
Smelling perfumes this way is a physically different experience. Your reaction is deeply different. It just is. And that shouldn’t be surprising at all, and I have a very specific example. Think of someone lending you a painting. It could be an original, authentic Tatsuro Kiuchi, whose work I love.
It could be a Cy Twombly, whose work I loathe and look down on and which sells for zillions.
It could be a Velázquez, who I think is stupendous.
It could be a real Alex Katz, whose work I disliked until Ecco, who published my novel, put two of his paintings together to create my jacket cover, and after 24 hours I loved it.
Or it could be a canvas by some kid at NYU art school that you bought for $200. Not a fake. Just not a work recognized as having any aesthetic significance or brilliance. I would never be an asshole and put a crappy juice in an Untitled in order to run some sort of Emperor’s New Clothes experiment, the less important reason being that the people buying the Untitleds are a self-selected group who in about three seconds would be saying, “Yo, Burr, this is garbage.” This really isn’t a game, and so the more important reason is that the Series exists to present masterpieces. Of all kinds. The Untitled you order may indeed be a Goya or a Katz—a Ropion, a Buzantian, the new Vasnier, where the artist’s name is a brand like Goya’s, a name that would immediately make you give the work respect (and market value) even before you’ve smelled it, but as an Untitled you get to smell works without any “startist” (terrible word, but you get the idea) baggage crowding you.
The lab bottle the UPS guy delivers to you may also be a work by a total unknown, some artist you’ve never heard of who has no cachet at all but who I think has produced something extraordinary. Or you could be getting what I consider an underrated masterpiece. That’s one of the explicit purposes of the Series, rediscovering these things. That’s why I did S01E02. Mugler Cologne will, I believe, be recognized by art history as one of the greatest works of olfactory art ever created. And we have another wildly underrated great by a famous artist coming this fall. You’ll get it somewhere in S02E01 to E04.
As for S01E10, it’s by an autodidact artist and is brand new on the market. And I’m going to include one in spring 2014 that is a twist on that—not that exactly but sort of that. And it’s not, at all, just about the juice. As several people who are playing have noted, the cost is the ticket price to an experience that doesn’t exist anywhere else: the experience of blindness in an ongoing exhibition of works in an art form that really is only perfectly experienced by the blind
Lanier Smith: Will you be popping in an old classic to see how that plays with the audience? Perhaps “L’Aimant” by Coty just to see how many people think it is “No.5”? Well that might not be fair but will there be some classics in the Untitled Series?
Lanier Smtih: I think we neglect our noses and since I became involved in my passion for perfume I have noticed that my sense of smell is much more acute. The format for Untitled Series is very much like a college course in fragrance with a lecture, class participation and experimentation and interaction. Don’t you think there should be a class or two in universities on how to use your nose? How would you go about teaching a class in fragrance? Art History, Science, Economics?
Chandler Burr: My whole goddamn life for the past seven years has been building the case for every art historian, art history and fine arts department, museum curator, and gallerist to treat scent the way they would paint. Teaching a class in olfactory art should be no more, or less, difficult than teaching a class in music—or music theory or color theory; that’s the equivalent of teaching a class in scent materials and their interactions and qualities versus teaching a class in the works made with them. It’s going to come in the future. Just as photography came and settled in. And when it’s established people will wonder why it ever didn’t exist.
Lanier Smith: Is there a chance “The Art of Scent” exhibition may hit the road and visit other cities around the world?
Chandler Burr: We’re actively working on traveling “The Art of Scent.” I’m writing a new introduction to the show, I’ve designed another section, which is an Entry, to go along with the Gallery section and the Salon section and to set up the conceptual basis for the show more clearly than the Museum of Arts and Design version. It will in fact be very different and much better experience.
Lanier Smith: My favorite perfume moment in the movies is from “Butterfield-8”. That delicious Metro Color infused opening scene when Elizabeth Taylor in her skin tight Helen Rose slip sits down at Dina Merrill’s dressing table and passes judgment over a few bottles of perfume. Then finding one she likes, “Tabac Blond” I am told, slathers herself with sensuous abandon then coolly steals Miss Merrill’s mink coat. Do you have a favorite perfume moment in film?
Chandler Burr: I actually don’t. In fact I’m thinking about it and—I haven’t seen “Scent of a Woman,” which would have given me one—I don’t think I can name a single moment in any movie that uses scent. I take that back. In “Duplicity” Julia Roberts lands at the airport and drives around for 20 minutes to make sure she isn’t being tailed before she parks at the house where Clive Owen is waiting for her. He grabs her at the front door, leans in to kiss her, murmurs, “You smell terrific,” and she rolls her eyes, pushes him off and says, “I *smell like a rental car.” Which is a very precise and very powerful line. The estimable Tony Gilroy wrote it.
Julia Roberts passes a perfume counter in “Duplicity” (2009)
M.A.D. Catalog (which you can purchase) : http://thestore.madmuseum.org/products/the-art-of-scent-1889-2012
Untitled Series on Open Sky: http://www.opensky.com/member/chandlerburr?content=loves
Chandler Burr’s Website: http://www.chandlerburr.com/
Interview Participants in order of appearance:
The Perfumed Dandy: http://theperfumeddandy.com/
Australian Perfume Junkies: http://australianperfumejunkies.com/
Smelly Thoughts: http://smellythoughts.wordpress.com/
Another Perfume Blog: http://anotherperfumeblog.com/
What Men Should Smell Like: http://whatmenshouldsmelllike.com/
The Scented Hound: http://thescentedhound.wordpress.com/
The Fragrant Man: http://thefragrantman.com/
Photos of the olfactory artists and selected excerpts are from the Museum of Art and Design catalog “The Art Of Scent ~ 1989 – 2012”