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The Smells of Commercial Success


The perfumer Oliver Cresp

February 6, 2013

The Smells of Commercial Success
By James Panero

A review of "The Art of Scent 1889-2012"
Museum of Arts and Design
Through March 3

New York

Should "scent art"--perfume, that is--be critically considered alongside music and painting? In "Against the Grain," an influential 1884 novel by J.-K. Huysmans, the decadent character Des Esseintes makes a case that it should. "After all, he argued, it was no more abnormal to have an art that consisted of picking out odorous fluids than it was to have other arts based on a selection of sound waves or the impact of variously coloured rays on the retina of the eye."

Like much of what Des Esseintes says in Huysmans's fanciful and wonderful book, his case for perfume is both logical and absurd--an aestheticism taken to an extreme. But he is right to argue that scents should command a more respectful place alongside sights and sounds, with a critical language that includes more than merely "good" and "bad." By appreciating each sense on its own, says Des Esseintes, we better enjoy its harmony with others, "co-ordinating them to compose the whole that constitutes a work of art."

Just like food and wine, perfume has recently enjoyed a renaissance of sorts among latter-day Esseintes-ists. Independent perfumeries create their own blends. Professionals and amateurs write sophisticated perfume blogs. The 2008 book "Perfumes: The A-Z Guide," by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, has become something of an Oxford English Dictionary for scent.

Now add to the mix "The Art of Scent: 1889-2012" at New York's Museum of Arts and Design.

Claiming to be the "first major museum exhibition to recognize scent as a major medium of artistic creation," the show strips perfume of its extensive packaging and advertising and presents it as an "olfactory art" in a purpose-built white-cube gallery. Curated by Chandler Burr and designed by the architectural firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, the spare exhibition consists of 12 smelling stations seamlessly cast into the gallery walls, a side room with a table of perfume oils, and mouthlike formations sculpted into another wall that spit out scented cards.

The perfumes on exhibition begin chronologically with Jicky, an 1889 blend by the perfumer Aimé Guerlain--considered the first modern perfume for its use of synthetic aromatics and still in production--and concludes with Daniela Andrier's Untitled (2010, designed for Maison Martin Margiela). Along the way we encounter Ernest Beaux's magisterial Chanel No. 5 (1921), Pierre Wargnye's odious Drakkar Noir (1982, for Guy Laroche), Olivier Cresp's diaphanous Angel (1992, for Thierry Mugler) and Jean-Claude Ellena's Osmanthe Yunnan (2006, for Hermès), a scent that starts with an infusion of tea and finishes with a rinse of dental fluoride.

An exhibition of scent is a fresh idea. Too bad "The Art of Scent" is so fishy. With elaborate stagecraft, it is more interested in making the case for commercial perfume as high art, with the rights and privileges accorded therein, than in revealing the artistry of perfume design. For all the hoopla, the show conveys even less than what you would learn walking through the ground floor of Saks Fifth Avenue—which, unfortunately, might be the point.

The urinal-shaped smelling receptacles abstract perfume to absurdity. Paired with illuminated labels that fade to white the moment you want to read them, this is more a show of prestidigitation than olfaction. For a museum of design, MAD seems oddly contemptuous of the design elements that went into these commercial products. "The Art of Scent" gives only passing reference to perfume chemistry and history. It includes an all-too-narrow survey of well-known brands and ignores the independents. It disregards the packaging and advertising that is integral to what these products become. Until the day we have wall-mounted smelling stations in our homes, perfumes are high-end consumables with elaborate marketing campaigns and exotic packaging—a thriving multibillion-dollar industry--and there shouldn't be anything wrong in acknowledging that.

And therein lies the fallacy of this exhibition. Here, everyone is an "artist." Perfumers are "scent artists." Perfumes are "aesthetically influential works of olfactory art." Miuccia Prada, who in 2004 commissioned the perfumers Carlos Benaïm, Max Gavarry and Clément Gavarry to create Prada Amber, is not a fashion executive but a "patron of the arts."

"The Art of Scent" purports to strip away the commercial side of perfume. Instead, it merely adds another layer of packaging, covering over the existing labels and selling the elixirs as high art. At times these gimmicks are all too apparent. The room with the smelling table includes a museum staffer whose hawking of the fragrances is little different from a department-store floor-walker's. The "catalog" of the exhibition is a "limited edition box set" of fragrances that costs $285, with a text that is more sales pitch than scholarship.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that "The Art of Scent is made possible by The Estée Lauder Companies--a Founding Major Donor--and other Major Donors, including Chanel, Inc., Givaudan, Hermès Parfums, International Flavors & Fragrances Inc, L'Oréal and P&G Prestige. Additional support for The Art of Scent is provided by Funders Arcade Marketing USA and Guerlain, as well as Diptyque and Women in Flavor and Fragrance Commerce Inc." There is nothing wrong with corporate sponsorship, but here the sponsorship seems to have gone to supporting a nonprofit front for Madison Avenue. With "The Art of Scent," the Museum of Arts and Design has left a good idea smelling rank. Des Esseintes would be the first to turn up his nose at that.



Shopping: PR misses its target

Dara writes:

Recently I have been struck by the success of advertising and PR agents versus the reality of a product. Take Bigelow Chemists, a small apothecary on Sixth Avenue in New York's Greenwich Village. For a few months now I have been reading about this company in magazines. One of its lip balms has been featured in New York magazine, and its hand soap or face cream in The New York Times "Sunday Styles" section. The lip balm might feature pure peppermint oil and smell like vanilla cream soda. The face cream might contain witch hazel and come in a glass bottle the color of aquamarine. In each case, the product placement gave me the impression of a world-class alchemist concocting expert products and peddling them in a fashionable yet down-home environment on a cute block in downtown Manhattan. Essentially I thought I had hit upon another Kiehl's.

Like Bigelow, Kiehl's began in the mid-nineteenth century in downtown Manhattan. When I first bought Kiehl's products about fifteen years ago, it was a cult favorite. At its schlumpy store on Thirteenth Street, one could buy high quality items, such as a shine agent and detangler for hair, or a body wash that smelled like cucumber. The items were packaged in basic plastic bottles that were unadorned but cost a lot. One feature of the old Kiehl's was belonging to a club of like-minded patrons who similarly didn't mind spending a lot on drug store items, but did not want to look as though they had. When I saw the shampoo and conditioner in the shower at my weird Great Uncle's house in Chappaqua, I smiled to belong to this quirky coterie.

Now, of course, L'Oreal owns Kiehl's. But the point is, I can still walk in the store and face an emporium (and an upgraded one at that) stocked with luscious products for my bathroom shelves. In contrast, Bigelow's, which I visited for the first time last week. When I asked my hairdresser who lives across the street about it, he inauspiciously grumbled, "like Kiehl's? No! Like a crowded drugstore." And he was exactly right. Because the company's PR agents have so successfullly positioned the brand as high-end, I was expecting to enter a veritable Willy Wonka of bathroom goods. Instead, I indeed entered a fairly run of the mill drug store. Yes, I saw the C.O. Bigelow products, but on a few shelves crammed at the very front of the store. Surrounding the company's own items were goods from high-end brands such as Bliss, Tocca, Dr. Hauscka, et. al. These did not impress me, because I can go to the Sephora three blocks from my apartment (and from every Manhattan apartment, it seems), and purchase them there. I made Bigelow a destination because I was interested in an old apothecary that had perfected the art of skin salves. While I do very much like the peppermint oil lip balm I purchased, the purchasing experience enthused me less. The crowded store and hodge podge of items made me feel more like I was grabbing for Peanut M&Ms online at an airport commisary than that I was in a luxury goods establishment in Greenwich Village.

Target was the other reason I became interested in hype versus reality. Could there be a more over-hyped store right now than Target? I am so sick of the ultra-hip holiday ads on television, which parade along to an ersatz indie rock soundtrack. You might remember I have already spoken negatively of the store here, particularly of the way hipsters Frenchify the name as "tar-jay," with a mixture of pride and self-consciousness. In that post, I admitted I enjoyed my first foray to the store, about five years ago in Baltimore, when I bought Isaac Mizrahi pumps that quickly shredded. Well, yesterday James and I visited an outpost in New London, Connecticut, near where his mother lives.

James had remarked that an editor at a fashiony magazine had highlighted the store's breakfast trays as being particularly designy. We found them at the store--all bamboo sides and tin bottom--and indeed they were cool. I had my own agenda. The make-up artist who painted me for my wedding noted that the Sonia Kashuk foundation sold only at the store was the best she had tried. And indeed an internet product search revealed that many women found the same, that it gave the skin a dewy yet fresh and not oily appearance. Alas, the New London store was out of the product in my fair-skinned color. The store was out of a whole lot more. Behnaz Sarafpour is a designer the company has hired, as they did Isaac Mizrahi, to create a line. But all the small sizes were plucked.

We arrived at admitedly a horrible time: two days before Christmas. But we also learned something incontrovertible: innovative design makes up less than one percent of what Target offers. Here is the dirty little secret, strip away the little bit of Isaac, Behnaz, and Sonia, and Target is Walmart. Target sells garbage bags, plastic toys, and cheap jewlery much more than it sells smart, cropped tuxedo jackets. But the thing is, what we hear about is the tuxedo jackets.

I commend the PR agents. They have done their job. I commend the design team. When James wrote about the re-opening of the Museum of Modern Art for The Weekly Standard a few years ago, he remarked on the museum's tacky Target tie-ins. The museum even served "Targetinis"--target martinis, whatever that means--at its opening party. Alfred Barr must be rolling in his grave.

Two years ago I stayed in an adorable boutique hotel in London's Knightsbridge neighborhood with, as it turns out, Target's design team. They were multi-culti mix from Minnesota, where the company is based. But like a self-described intellectual, these self-described hipsters were about as genuine as those targetinis. There is such a thing as too cool, too hyped. I think Tar-jay has arrived there.


Delman Shoe Sale: Portrait of a Lady

Dara writes:

When my mother asked me yesterday if I wanted to accompany her to the sample sale of a shoe company whose elegant footwear I admire, Delman, I quickly said yes. But when I arrived, I almost very quickly lost my lunch.

What I walked into was a sea of writhing bodies, women on their haunches, on their knees, bending over, waving their arms about, fighting one another for a delicate pink nubuck ballet flat or a flame-red strappy stiletto. My immediate thought was one of revulsion: "I am not one of these beasts with no dignity."

Ah friends, but I am. Who wouldn't in her right mind crawl on a floor, however soiled, if the end result were a tasty set of sling-backs on the cheap?

I am a prude. There, I have said it. My mother, however, is a maniac. She dove right into the fray, sleeves up, ready for a jousting. And she came out with one suede, one floral-patterned lovely of her very own. When it comes to bargains, Mother comes with her boxing gloves on.

The dueling began at the coat check. According to my mother, she was pushed by a woman which caused her to knock into another woman. This other woman groaned loudly. My mother of course apologized, to which the woman responded, "I've just had a lumpectomy." My mother is beside herself: "My goodness, I'm so very sorry," to which the woman then responds, "just kidding." Then my mother was really beside herself. "Just kidding. Just kidding? That is JUST NOT FUNNY." The woman and her friend thought my mother a tad prissy. Then they saw her on the shoe floor and knew otherwise.

I noted the aptness of the shoe sale's being in the Playboy building. Playboy, like popular companies who hold shoe sample sales, debases women. But that's not right. Playboy allows women to act out our baser (sexual) instincts, but it's not liberating because it's only for men. Shoe companies allow women to get in touch with our bestial sides purely for our own self-advancement. And I embrace that (or attempt to).