Learning to Read Perfume: A Talk with Chandler Burr
“Perfume is the only art form in which Americans are more illiterate than poetry.”
Though I knew he was born and raised in America, I half-expected Chandler Burr to speak with an English accent. His words, in print, have a strange property of sounding haughty, inflected with a stereotypically British superiority. It might be more irritating, if he weren’t manifestly feverish about perfume. On the phone, he’s disarmingly warm and personable. Burr recently left his position as perfume critic for the New York Times to serve as full-time director and curator of the new Center of Olfactory Art (COA), a permanent department in the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City. He speaks of his new gig as a “g.d. thrill, dream come true.” You can practically see his eyes glisten.
Burr began his career as a freelance journalist, working in Southeast Asia for the Christian Science Monitor. He went on to write for publications including U.S. News and World Report and The Atlantic, covering topics including epidemiology and public health. He never gave much thought to perfume, until the day in 1998 that he met a man named Luca Turin on a train. Turin is a groundbreaking scientist in the field of smell reception, as well as one of the world’s foremost perfume critics. Burr wrote about Turin and his controversial theory of smell in the masterful pop-science-cum-biography The Emperor of Scent, a book I greatly admire for its meta-treatment of nonfiction and its relentless questioning of human bias. Suddenly, Burr was a perfume writer. He went on to author an ongoing perfume column for the NYT’s style magazine (“Scent Notes”) and another nonfiction book, The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris & New York. Burr also published a novel, You or Someone Like You, in 2009.
I recently spoke with him, via telephone and email, about his latest endeavor. He brought the idea for the COA to MAD in early 2010. It’s a concept he’s thought about daily for years, and visiting Paris’s Osmotèque to do a piece for the Times further inspired him. He spent an afternoon “mesmerized” by the scents there; “the works were hypnotic, startling, revelatory.”
The COA won’t be the first perfume museum, but it will be the first of its kind—an entirely olfactory experience. By contrast, the Museo del Perfum in Barcelona is really a collection of perfume bottles; Burr calls this “emblematic” of the way we treat perfume—it’s a way of turning the olfactory art into a visual one, which is more familiar and therefore less challenging. The COA’s exhibitions will counter this tendency with a “zero tolerance policy”: “I will never do exhibitions of perfume bottles or ads, no faces, no films, no packaging, no brand logos. The only art we’ll exhibit is scent.”
The goal of this policy is to strip away the commercial aspects of perfume (inasmuch as that’s possible—Burr acknowledges that “almost all great art was commercial at one point or another”). The goal of the center is no less ambitious than to change the way people perceive perfume—to reconceptualize perfumes as art and perfumers as artists. “The central purpose of the COA is to place scent art in the mainstream of art history,” Burr says. “How the hell are you going to get the attention of the academy? MAD is a terrific museum in the center of the museum world. That’s exactly what I was aiming at.”
Perfume Is What’s Lost in Translation
A museum setting is crucial to perfume’s getting its proper recognition—even more so than for other art forms, Burr claims. With good photography and high-resolution digital images, you can get a “decent to excellent” sense of a painting, sculpture, even architecture.
“Music, frankly,” Burr says, “is perhaps the art form that least needs the concert hall; there’s little or no difference in the actual experience of the music between Lincoln Center and the same orchestra on your iPod headphones at 35,000 feet on a flight to L.A.” Audiophiles would quibble that MP3s don’t approach the quality of a concert hall, but point taken—a good hi-fi certainly allows you to experience the beauty of the composition. Perfume, on the other hand, “is untranslatable.” “Maybe it’s not in my interest to say that because I’ve spent the past decade of my journalistic career communicating about perfume in writing,” Burr says, “but it’s an analysis; it’s not actually experiencing the works. You can’t get perfume via your iPod. You have to smell it. That’s why the COA is necessary.”Whether or not the actual smell of a perfume can be conveyed at a distance, I asked Burr why writing about perfume is not like “dancing about architecture,” as Fabrice Penot of Le Labo said to critic Luca Turin in response to a request for samples. Penot, of course, was merely borrowing the phrase from detractors of music criticism. (The quote “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” has been variously attributed to Elvis Costello, Martin Mull, Frank Zappa, and other wags, though apparently usages of “Writing about music is like _____ about _____” have appeared in print as early as 1918, suggesting it’s less of a quotation and more of a cliché.)
Aside from the fact that a ballet about architecture seems conceptually feasible to me, the cliché is likely to rile anyone who spends time writing or reading criticism (and if you’re reading this, you’re one of those people). Burr says, “It would be easy to say that Penot’s comment is idiotic, and it is, but it’s worse than that. It’s wrong. Art of any kind, in any medium, low or high, by definition wants criticism. Art elicits criticism axiomatically because art is meant to move us, and the artist sets out to do this in a thousand ways. And we like it, respond to it, are moved or bored or appalled or entranced by it. Every fan of Lady Gaga has an opinion on each of her songs. Everyone interested in the art of Chopin and Bernini and Gehry and Frost and Cavallier has an opinion on their work. Critics, and curators, are those who talk about the successes and failures of the artists and of their work.”
Reconsidering his earlier remark on the untranslatability of perfume, he notes that “critics are not translators.” In other words, the purpose of perfume criticism is not to convey the way a scent smells, but to honor and elucidate “the immense effort of artists to create works that resonate, that explain, that create beauty.” As such, good criticism remains worthwhile after you have experienced the works in question.
Tackling Smell Illiteracy
How, exactly, will the COA enable people to experience these olfactory works? Burr has many ideas, with planned and possible future exhibitions including retrospectives of major artists like Calice Becker and Jean-Claude Ellena; tours of the major synthetic molecules of the last century-plus; and considerations of “the problem of reformulation over time of olfactory works for reasons aesthetic, toxicological, moral, and ecological.” The COA will also serve as a resource for perfume professionals and scholarly research, housing lectures, workshops, and open studios.
Burr, who says he “loves to teach,” also wants to develop educational programs with New York public schools. He told me that in Paris, schoolchildren participate in “a day of tastes and smells”—a delightful indication of the way French culture embraces these senses we tend to neglect. I told him that I see a strong parallel with poetry—I believe the average American fails to appreciate poetry because they were never taught how to read it. Burr believes we’re even more “dismal” at “reading” perfumes. He’s deeply excited about the possibilities the museum will open, and is confident American kids will love learning about the art, from raw materials to “the great works.” “I have two boys, 6 and 10,” he says, “and they can’t pass up a single raw material I have in my office; they just have to smell everything.”
Logistically, museum visitors will experience each perfume or aromachemical as a scent “formulated for air,” which will come out of the wall in the exhibition space. One shortcoming of this delivery method is that the perfume’s temporal structure, its development over time, is neglected, compressed. Burr concedes this is a “substantive weakness” of the plan. “L’Eau d’Issey is designed explicitly not to evolve on skin. Jicky is the opposite. Formulation for air doesn’t let the MAD visitor fully experience the work. But I’m planning to correct this by supplying the works in standard alcohol solution ([eau de parfum, eau de toilette], whatever we decide is best) so that visitors can put on skin those that most interest them.” Exhibited works will also be available for sale in the museum shop, in uniform, stripped down packaging.
Evaporation is not the only way in which perfumes change over time: The smell of a single batch changes with exposure to air and light, and the formulas themselves are frequently changed for commercial reasons. A piece of visual art is, generally, a unique object, existing in time and space. Perfumes, on the other hand, are more like music—formulas which can differ slightly in execution and presentation and which can be reproduced ad infinitum. When a new version of a song is recorded, or a remake of a movie is made, the original is still available, but unfortunately the same is usually not true of perfumes. Previous formulas are discontinued, and obtaining those versions becomes difficult to impossible. (Vintage perfumes can be found through eBay and other venues, but as availability dwindles, the costs rise considerably.)
Though the museum will feature older and discontinued works, similar to the Osmoteque—perfumes that aren’t, as Burr says, “street legal”—he doesn’t adhere to perfume-snob consensus that reformulations are a crisis for the art form: “I disagree that it’s entirely a bad scene. Look, there is of course the bad form of reformulation. Formulae are changed for two invidious reasons, to bump up profits by substituting cheaper raw materials (purely bad) and to alter a work (including with materials of excellent quality, one should note) to give it more commercial appeal, which is to say to bump up profits.”
He goes on to backtrack a little—“I won’t bother playing devil’s advocate. The artistic value of the work is in its original, integral form”—and then backtrack again: “But actually, no, I should point out that many, many artists throughout history have reworked and altered their works, from doing a one-time touch-up to working on it their entire lives. Stephen Sondheim comes to mind immediately, but the list is endless.”
I was surprised that Burr had no qualms with reformulations done for safety reasons, either: “I’m sorry, but the most competent materials chemists tell me that putting nitro musks on your skin is a very, very bad idea. Perfumers have to reformulate for tox. If they do it well and faithfully, there is no more damage done to the work than an excellent job of restoration done on a Medieval painting.”
Nitro musks—synthetic musks created serendipitously by Albert Baur when he was trying to develop a more effective form of TNT—have been out of use for some time, but every year, the list of materials restricted by IFRA (the International Fragrance Association) grows, many of which are natural materials that are considered safe by the FDA for use in foods, drugs, and other cosmetics, which is why many perfume lovers feel the industry is unfairly regulated. Oakmoss, a material that’s crucial to the chypre genre, is restricted because it’s a potential allergen, not because it’s a dangerous toxin. This is not to say that no restrictions are well-founded, of course. Sandalwood, for example, is restricted due to overharvesting.
Burr also refuses to take sides in the alleged debate between complexity and accessibility—the question of whether great art can be understood by anyone and everyone. “It strikes me as ridiculous to believe either of these extremes should be used a priori,” he says. “Being complex or simple doesn’t correlate with the quality of the work. The quality of the work correlates with the quality of the work.” (In his contrariness, his occasional near-grumpiness, on the subject of perfume, Burr rather reminds me of Turin.)
I was very curious to learn what perfumes the opinionated Burr deems worthy of wear. I asked him if he has a “private collection”: “Of a kind,” he says. “I have the perfumes I really love in my bedroom. I gave Déclaration Bois Bleu to my husband. That says something. I gave him Commes des Garcons 2 Man, which he was wearing yesterday, and as we were coming back on the train I smelled his sweater over and over.”
Though Burr doesn’t wear perfume every day, the art is present in his daily life, even outside his work, as parfum d’ambiance. “A few months ago I asked Jérome Epinette for a bottle of an astonishing Robertet bergamot at 10% in alcohol; we spray it on our sheets on going to bed. I spray a Firmenich Italian lemon expression on my sons’ pillows in their bunk bed. I have a bottle of Un Jardin sur le Nil on my bedside table. When the alarm goes off on dark winter mornings, I sometimes reach over and, even before turning on the light, spray a mist of it over our heads, and in an instant there’s this insanely delicious summer sunlight all around us.” With music on our stereos and art on our walls, why wouldn’t we want beautiful smells decorating our lives, too?
The Center of Olfactory Art is located in the Museum of Arts and Design at 2 Columbus Circle in New York City. Its first exhibition, titled The Art of Scent, 1889-2011, will open in November 2011 and run for three months.
Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney is Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found in Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, The Laurel Review, Puerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.