24 October 2017
Over the summer, Somerset House’s East Wing was transformed into the interactive exhibition Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent, exploring ten key scents from the last two decades.
At Workroom, our interest in the beauty industry has been fast developing through our close working relationship with the beauty powerhouse Coty. A trip to gain insight into some of the pioneering perfumers of the 21st century seemed like the perfect opportunity for a studio outing. When we heard that François Coty’s infamous 1905 L’Origan – often cited as the blueprint for 20th century perfume – was being specially recreated for the exhibition, we didn’t need any more convincing!
Armed with only a pencil and paper, we began our olfactory journey through ten chambers – each devoted to a single perfume. The most powerful of the human senses, Scent is able to trigger memories far more immediately than any other sensory. Perfume conjured up this time-travelling element of fragrance. From confessional-style booths evoking the sense of a Catholic mass, to shrubbery and the sound of cicadas reminiscent of a Texan desert, the exhibition arouses the nostalgic qualities of perfume by transporting the participant to a place where they can almost feel the scent.
Science and substance
This stripped-back experience of fragrance invited us to focus on the science and substance behind a scent. Some of the scents exhibited almost convey the sense that they are not supposed to be worn: from those inspired by the stagnant, chlorine stench of a water theme-park ride, to ones evoking typically unsavoury smells of smoke and sweat. This alternative display of scent challenged our perception of the purpose of fragrance, and made us think about the opportunities and possibilities within the industry.
Codex des Gestuelles
The way in which Perfume provoked a lived experience of perfume, brought to mind the Codex des Gestuelles, a site the studio team discovered a few months ago. By describing several methods of applying fragrance, the Code contemplates how these
gestures invoke certain personal and cultural ceremonies. Just as the Codex des Gestuelles invites us to consider the wider picture of perfume by attributing meaning to the way it is used in day-to-day life, Perfume invited us to actively explore how perfumers in the 21st century use the transformative nature of perfume to alter the experience of the wearer.
Browsing the exhibition and seeing the key part Coty plays in this ancient but innovative industry was both exciting and inspiring. It was invigorating to see how perfume can push boundaries and challenge conventional understanding of fragrance – yet at the same time reach out to millions of wearers, bringing beauty to the masses and uniting them in a shared experience of scent.