4/29/12

Perfume Is Design



If you spend a considerable amount of time reading through perfume threads on basenotes, fragrantica, badger & blade, and any other popular fragrance site, an odd trend becomes apparent. Half of the posters pose questions or thoughts about a fragrance's usability. There are questions like, "which vetiver is better for summer time?" and "do you think college-age girls will like an old-school oriental on me?" These questions pivot off performance ratings and sexual cache. They aren't queries about the relevance of a perfumer's self-expression, or the emotional conflicts generated by a certain combination of notes. When someone is wondering about seasonal and sexual viability, their concerns are about one thing: functionality.

The other half of the posting populace is more introspective. They're commenting about whether or not they like a fragrance, comparing fragrances to each other, and describing how fragrances smell to them. Their remarks are usually subjective, highly opinionated, and tethered to a finite scope of personal experience. These posts are about a different thing: interpretation. Often posters combine questions of functionality with interpretative commentary, and generate interesting discussions that suck all sorts of fragrances into the dialogue. A few words on one fragrance inevitably leads to many words on dozens of them.


If the dialogue were limited to interpretive conversation, then I would be inclined to think that perfumery is an art form. After all, the greatest works of prior generations of artists are engines for interpretation of the human condition. One glance at Guernica by Picasso can bloom into an emotional analysis of the horrors of war, which in turn can generate reflections on man's nihilistic hostility toward himself, and the shaping of the modern political spectrum of the West. One does not see Guernica and think, "perhaps it would look best in the foyer during spring time." Superficiality isn't invited to this cocktail party.

Conversely, if one were to pick a perfume, any perfume, and subject it to the rigors of intellectual conversation, this dialogue would extend into numerous human affairs, but would not end with them. An exchange on the Big Bang of modern perfumery as it evolved around Coty's Chypre would inevitably lead to considerations as to where and when Coty's Chypre is best worn, and on whom. Chypre's functionality is an inescapable part of its novelty.


Functionality is inherent to design, but not to art. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines design as the transitive verb, "to devise for a specific function or end," and the intransitive, "to conceive or execute a plan." In almost all its definitions, the word "plan" is used. There is an intent, based on a schematic, leading to something operational in nature. We can see this in anything that is designed, from cabinets and refrigerators, to cars and buildings, and even birth control products. Practicality and functionality are welded together in the best designs, and we reap the benefits of them constantly.

Art, on the other hand, is about philosophy, which is one reason why art history and philosophy are often combined in elective college courses. The artist has a view of himself and the universe in which he lives, and attempts to create his own meaning to fill the empty void of existence, and distract from the randomness of it all. Everything, from mechanical portraiture, to emotional free-associative abstractedness, is connected to a musing on man and his humanity. It takes art to convey the inner workings of the human spirit, and for this there are no limits to medium, or to the acceptability of line and image. An artist can present a series of finely-detailed paintings, or just plunk a Popsicle freezer in the middle of the room; as long as his philosophy exerts itself behind the expression, the offering is art.


Perfumery is harder to pin down as design than other designed things, like refrigerators and dishwashers, because unlike refrigerators and dishwashers, it's impossible to see the working pieces of a perfume. It's also hard to accept that perfume does not stray into the emotional grey area inhabited by most works of art. But emotional content is not exclusive to art - there are many facets of design that incorporate emotional and spiritual elements. European war posters of the 20th century are analogs of stubborn commitment to living each day to its fullest, expressed in hard lines and courageous imagery, and are loaded with archetypical renditions of men and women fighting to stay alive and sane. Still, these posters are graphic design, as they serve a purpose: to rally people against a common enemy. There is a subliminal and an overt purpose, with the aesthetics of illustration backed by a subversive manipulation of political allegiance for populist ends. Just look at the futuristic expressionism of Der Krieg by Otto Dix, or the Heroic Realism of Victor Borisovich Koretski's Peace, Friendship, Solidarity, No To Facism, and you see how closely wedded emotion and function can be.

Perfumery is its own form of subliminal and overt purpose. And yes, all of perfumery's working parts are invisible to the naked eye. The success of a perfume, like the success of a refrigerator, is not dependent on one creator alone. Unlike a piece of performance art by Raphael Montañez Ortiz, a refrigerator relies on the competence of the person who makes its parts, the person who develops a specific way of assembling them, and the person who does the assembling. A perfume is the same - it relies on a chemist to identify and create aroma chemicals on a molecular level, another chemist to identify how these aroma chemicals work together, and yet another chemist to interpret that data and assemble the chemicals into a volatile construction of multiple aromas which move together. This last phase, of chemical volatility on display, is trial and error, much like testing a new refrigerator model before it enters the market. There are times when parts malfunction, and need upgrading; there are moments when certain chemical combinations are lackluster and require changing. Eventually a perfect balance is achieved, and all parts are working well. Only then is a product ready for showcasing.


In perfumery, the very methods of obtaining building blocks for perfumery are challenging, and require considerable skill. Distillation, extraction by expression, extraction with volatile solvents, and supercritical CO2 extraction are all options. In each case, raw materials are mined for properties which yield the highest concentration of fragrance molecules. Once these materials are secured, the hard part really begins. In his 2011 book, Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent, Jean-Claude Ellena relays the conundrum of every beginner perfumer, with a particularly valuable frankness found in Chapter 5, page 43:
"As a lab assistant to perfume designers, I was exposed to different - often complex - ways of formulating fragrances (this stage is no longer part of the perfumer's training). As an apprentice, I learned things that would help me to fulfill the demands of international markets, aided in particular by the use of the then recent technology of chromatography. I was fed on a steady diet of market analyses and odor analyses: essential oils, bases, and perfumes. In my formulations, I combined materials and believed, naively, in the molecule that would change everything and would finally prove my creative talent."
There is little about this that correlates with the beginnings of an artist. Most artists serve no apprenticeships, rarely concern themselves with the finer points of market demands, and often seek to retro-engineer older technologies for new means - not make use of nascent technologies for future hypotheses. Ellena goes on to say:
"The turning point came when I read a little illustrated booklet with a bouquet of flowers on a black background on the cover. The firm Dragoco had dedicated the whole of their journal Dragoco Report to the perfumer Edmond Roudnitska. The subject was: The young perfume composer and odors. Though dated 1962, the approach was new. He spoke of beauty, taste, simplicity, method, in smelling and judging, but also of erudition and of his philosophy of life. He became a part of my life, to the point that I have long held a secret desire to be called, like the subject of the book, a 'composer of perfumes,' although on his business card he contented himself with the title of 'perfumer.'"
Although Ellena does refer to Roudnitska as having a philosophy of life, the two men do not fashion themselves after artists, but as composers and perfumers alike. Similarly, other designers adopt corollary titles of engineer, technician, and producer. Their tasks are based on the calibration of disparate qualities into new and original consonances, for commercial ends. Cars, for example, employ vastly different materials to transport people in a stable manner. Perfumes employ conflicting agents in a way that harmoniously balances skin chemistry with inorganic chemistry to produce scents that transcend nature. In short, perfumes serve the function of making people smell good, or at least different from how they would naturally smell. Without composition, this is not well achieved.
There is a difference between making someone smell of something, and making him smell like something. Certain naked aroma chemicals, like Ambrox, can successfully make a person smell of woody ambers, without the assistance of other materials. Even with one ingredient, a perfumer's ability to identify this particular aroma chemical as having an inherent complexity makes it feasible to bottle and sell Ambrox as perfume. But the same cannot be done with something like cis-3 Hexenal. Alone, this aroma chemical smells harsh and incomplete. If one were to bottle cis-3 Hexenal and sell it as perfume, its wearer would just smell like cis-3 Hexenal. Without the accompaniment of hydroxyisohexyl 3 cyclohexene carboxaldehyde, the floral elements to support the basic grassiness of cis-3 are missing. It takes a bit of compositional expertise to achieve the desired green, grassy effect.

It is the implicit goal of all perfumers to make people smell of something, namely perfume, and all the elements contained in perfume. They are not in the business of making people smell like something else. Perhaps it is tempting to point to Demeter, the fragrance company which sells products that smell like specific things, and say "what about them?" If I spray Demeter's Lavender, I will smell similar to lavender, but not actually like lavender - and it's still perfumery, because there isn't just lavender oil in the bottle. There are several aroma chemicals cleverly composed to mimic the natural scent of lavender buds. But if I apply some Caldey Island Lavender, and just identify the lone lavender essential oil, then I'm no longer using perfume, but simply a lavender ointment. I cannot say one way or another whether or not Caldey Island Lavender uses lavender alone for its fragrance, and will not try to peg the scent as being "not perfume" here, but one can legitimately question it. Ellena and Roudnitska wrote about the importance of composition in making perfume, for composition is everything in perfume. And composition is an act of design. How well do things function in this order? How well do they function in that order? And so on.

In closing, I turn to a fragrance mentioned in the first part of this "Conundrum: Is Perfumery A _______?" series - Kouros. Pierre Bourdon's classic masculine perfume is a triumph of form and function. It employs natural and synthetic ingredients, composed in a manner to best highlight their effects on skin. It is a marvel of technical contrast, with bright hesperidic notes placed alongside dark-earthy and animalic ones. Smelling Kouros provokes a feeling of happiness, much like the feeling I get when I see a 1958 Chevy. Its natural ingredients stimulate a primitive epicenter in my brain. Its synthetics appeal to my fashion sensibilities. It works beautifully in the heat, and in all temperatures. It's sexy as hell. It is the very essence of modern design.
















1 comment:

  1. Thanks for pointing out Ellena's book. At 99 cents for the Kindle version I couldn't say no. Looking forward to getting a peek behind the curtain on the technical side of fragrance manufacture.

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