LEFT WANTING MORE: SOMERSET HOUSE’S FRAGRANCE EXHIBITION
There are some real fragrance fanatics here at DG+P, so a Studio trip to one of this summer’s hottest exhibitions at Somerset House – A Sensory Journey through Contemporary Scent – was an absolute must.
Exploring the fragrances from the last twenty years, the exhibition is described as: “taking you on an olfactory journey through a series of rooms designed to reflect the inspirations of the scents, from the Moroccan desert, a Catholic confessional, a water theme park to a lover’s boudoir. Each room will include visual, auditory and tactile references to the identity and influences of the perfumer to guide you on your olfactory journey.”
With the ten perfumes chosen containing such notes as incense, ink, sweat, semen, smoke, rubber and more besides, a bold ambition indeed. How do you bring to life something which is – in essence – entirely invisible?
The first room was a Coty-curated brief history of 20th century perfume, with milestones from each decade. While there are some beautiful bottles on display under glass cloches, it’s stripped back, with fairly limited descriptions of the perfumes and - sadly - no opportunity to smell.
And then, into the main event. Given a pencil and card to fill in your own scent impressions, all very analogue. And enter a series of five pretty bare rooms that visually and physically represent one of the fragrances. No accompanying information, no hints, basically smelling blind. There’s also apparently an audio aspect to the exhibition but this passed most of us by! Think a room with a series of private wooden cubicles, reminiscent of a confessional, where you smell a suspended leather ball. Or dominated by a rumpled bed, the sheets infused with the smell of the most intimate of body fluids. Or a metal shelving unit filled with scented bright-coloured cuddly toys, that you can sniff and have a selfie taken with.
Many of the fragrances were unusual and totally different from the big mass perfume brands that veer between the sickly sweet, apathetic aqua or big amber roughness. Almost to the extent that they were anti-perfumes. After five rooms, the big reveal was made as to which scent each room was exploring, with the opportunity to resniff and revisit, although explanations of the fragrance notes were limited. Then repeat for the final five.
And lastly a room where you could explore notes with two perfumers from fragrance house Givaudan, along with I.F.F., the hidden masters behind the synthetic fragrance molecules that grace everything from Glade plug-ins to the most rarefied of niche perfumes. One of which, I.F.F.’s Iso E Super, is the heart of featured perfume Molecule No.1.
All in all, a very thoughtful exhibition that celebrates everything that makes 21st century perfume distinct and inspiring. Senses of time, place, memory, whether it’s “nice” or not, that are designed to be challenging and individual and very much different. The opposite of the dominant 80s and 90s powerhouse perfume styles that stamped their personality on you. For weeks, it sometimes seemed!
Just as the exhibition content was sparse and even Spartan, contemporary perfume rightfully makes you challenge what you’re smelling aside from brand, bottle and packaging design. But, it seems a little anaemic, slightly more cerebral than visceral. We were left with the feeling that it could have been just a whole lot *more*. More audio, more opportunities to immerse ourselves in what is the most evocative of sensations. Possibly even taste, noting that Jo Loves! and close cousin Jo Malone both offer edible and drinkable versions of some of their most iconic fragrances. Not even an opportunity to interact with the bottles or spray on our wrist.
It might well be that in an understandable reaction to mass, plastic, generic offerings; modern niche fragrance has become a little *too* rarefied. While the ‘juice’ is, of course, more important than the packaging, fragrance has always had a ritual and a magic that can transport you instantly to a different place. A magic that the ubiquitous plain, ecru, black and white contemporary bottles seem to lack, even as some of these fragrances are in the hundreds of pounds bracket. Not even high-end whisky brands are so bold as to strip back the ornament and put their rare blends into an almost entirely plain bottle… perhaps a return to something a little more sensorial and tactile is (over)due.