When I first heard about the perfume exhibition at Somerset House I wasn’t that bothered about going. I scanned the list of perfumes to be showcased and didn’t feel tempted. I was totally missing the point though. This isn’t just about the individual perfumes, it’s about interacting with fragrance in a new way.
Rather than a traditional exhibition, this is an interactive experience that seeks to open up your mind and give context to what you’re smelling, as well as chart the evolution of scent through recent times.
“Multi-sensory exhibition featuring ten extraordinary perfumes and their pioneering creators, who have radically changed our perceptions of fragrance over the last 20 years.”
I’m grateful to Megan of Megan In Sainte Maxime for suggesting we went along last Saturday. It was lovely to get to hang out with her and we had a lot of fun.
I know it’s only just opened but it was nice to see a queue of people waiting to go in for the 3pm session.
SPOILER ALERT: I mention which perfumes the rooms represent, so if you are planning on going along, you may want to read this post after you’ve been.
The exhibition’s content was selected by Senior Curator Claire Catterall and fragrance expert/writer Lizzie Ostrom (Odette Toilette).
The first room was a brief run through some landmark scents of the last century starting with L’Origan by Coty from 1905 and ending with CK One in 1994. They included Chypre de Coty, Shocking, Vent Vert, Youth Dew, Georgio and Opium.
At the start of the 10 perfume rooms we were offered a piece of card and a pencil to write down our thoughts on each scent. What an excellent idea!
Room 1 had a trough of small dark beads strewn with black balls that had scent inserted into them. One of the staff told us we’d go through the first 5 rooms before we’d find out what the scents were and this process would then be repeated with a further 5.
The first perfume turned out to be Comme des Garcons 2 by Mark Buxton which aims to capture the scent of ink used in the Japanese art of Calligraphy. CdG were ground-breaking in developing personal fragrances inspired by synthetic substances.
Room 2 held a big metal cube with vents at each corner, releasing the fragrance. Maybe it was the delivery system which made me note down “hot radiator” but there was a definite whiff of paint and dust. The actual perfume was Escentric Molecules Molecule 01 which I didn’t recognise at all.
Next, in room 2, was a suspicious looking rumpled bed in a dimly lit room and I quickly twigged that this was Secretions Magnifiques by Etat Libre d’Orange. What at first seemed like balled-up tissues impregnated with scent, were attached to the covers and I had to push myself to pick one up and sniff it. There was that stomach-churning aroma of bodily fluids and metal mixed with white flowers.
In sharp contrast to the previous room, Room 3 had billowing white linens at the windows and a dream-like video playing on the wall. I recognised Olivia Giacobetti’s En Passant the moment I lifted one of the lengths of white fabric to my nose. A lovely wistful scent of fresh, watery lilacs by Frederic Malle Editions de Parfums.
Room 4 had little scented bean bags and two purple chaise longues which were being hogged by a reclining couple. The perfume was very faint on the fabric but I got an iris-tinted powder. It turned out to be Olfactories Purple Rain by Prada: a high-end reworking of their Infusion d’Iris perfume.
After the fifth room the fragrances were revealed with descriptions, notes and a chance to try them again.
The fragrance I found the most intriguing was up next, although the room wasn’t quite as inspiring. There was a narrow shelf which seemed to be decorated like a desert floor the day after hipsters had been camping out – like a scene from Burning Man. The aroma on the little pyramids was smoky and dusty but I also noted pine needles. There was a cool vibe created by a speaker playing an American voice talking about perfume over the top of a Velvet Underground-style soundtrack.
El Cosmico by D S & Durga contains notes of dry shrubs, desert pepper, pinyon pine, creosote, dry sand accord, oak and khella.
Scented bean bags were used again in room 7 which contained bark benches and a tree stump. The scent was not too dissimilar to that of the previous one to my nose but nowhere near as complex. I noted down that I wouldn’t want to wear it as personal fragrance but would love it as a scented candle. It was Charcoal by Lyn Harris for Perfumer H.
Next we were met by a room of people studiously painting away in silence. There were little jars of what Megan correctly identified as L’ Air du Desert Morocain by Andy Tauer and you were encouraged to paint your impressions of it.
We had the most fun in the Avignon room. With its hanging black, leather-look pouches and little cubicles, Megan understandably got a 50 Shades vibe. It transpired that it was actually seeking to represent confession booths at Catholic church. Through the lattice-work in the walls we could hear who I assume was perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour, talking about the composition process.
In Room 10 you picked out a scented cuddly toy and had your photo taken with it. We concentrated so much on selecting our toy and getting our photo taken (which wasn’t easy as there didn’t appear to be a flash or countdown) that we didn’t spend much time focusing on the scent.
It was Dark Ride by Xyrena which seeks to replicate the aroma of theme park water rides and includes notes of chlorine and fog machines. Our picture was sadly too appalling for public consumption.
As before, the next room contained information about the perfumes in the last 5 rooms.
It was great that at the end of the interactive experience there was a chance to talk to some perfumers from Givaudan. They were also doing demonstrations of how to put together an accord. People were really interested and one woman even asked if they had any civet for her to smell.
There were some individual ingredients to try from the previous 10 perfumes.
They were collecting and taking photos of people’s notes at the end.
Of course, you exit via the gift shop but even this was a cut above the rest. You could buy all but one of the perfumes in the exhibition (which is exclusive to Selfridges, possibly Purple Rain?) and lots of fragrance books, as well as a booklet about the exhibition and large scented postcards.
You could tell it was a well thought out project with a great deal of time and effort put into the details and presentation, all with the aim of eliciting maximum engagement.
They’ve done a brilliant job of compelling us to interact with fragrance differently; to think about what we’re smelling and what associations it brings up before discovering the name, brand and notes.
Visitors really seemed to be enjoying themselves, comparing their thoughts and making the most of the interactive opportunities. I was totally impressed.
Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent is on at Somerset House until 17th September.
What do you think about the exhibition and the perfumes selected? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.