Do you know what scents you really like? Whether you’re loyal to a signature scent or dabble with a collection of seasoned favourites, Somerset House’s new exhibition is set to change the way you think about fragrance forever.
From Guy Bourdin to Isabella Blow and most recently Sam McKnight, Somerset House is known for its forward thinking fashion and beauty exhibitions, but its latest offering is entirely different. Inspired by the thriving online fragrance writing community and the growing trend for independent fragrance creation, Claire Catterall of Somerset House and Lizzie Ostrom, the fragrance expert and writer better known as Odette Toilette, have created Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent - a first of its kind show shedding light on the magical world of modern perfumery.
While we’re all aware of the power of smell (just think how easily one whiff of a familiar scent can transport you back in time), what is often overlooked is how perfumes play the role of cultural object. As the first room of the show illustrates, fragrances distinctly reflect the zeitgeist of their time. Displaying an iconic fragrance from each decade of the 20th century you can see the post-war freedom for women via Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew, the unapologetic opulence of the 80s with Giorgio Beverly Hills and the stripped back androgyny of the 90s through CK One - the first major genderless fragrance. Similarly, the current demand for escapism scents says something about the turbulent times we find ourselves in.
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But how do you go about creating a show in one of London’s most iconic exhibition spaces about something you can’t actually see? For Catterall it was all about presenting modern fragrance as art, something that never has been done before in a UK gallery. “It is very important to say it is art, show it as art and display it as art. I wanted to show it as an art form in its own right and present the perfumers that created the scents as artists,” Catterall told me.
Catterall, along with her team, chose ten scents that have shaped the last twenty years of perfumery to showcase. Each is presented in it’s own room in a minimal format with no indication of the fragrance name, bottle or branding. “We knew the scent had to come first. It was determining what’s important about each scent ,and stripping away anything that is too obviously visual or any information that could distracted you.”
Like ten pieces of performance art, each room is unique. The scents are not pumped out but hidden within the installations for you to discover and make your own judgements and opinions. “Each room is an intimate experience. We liked the idea of people being able to pick something up and bringing it to their nose to smell,” Catterall explained.
Working closely with the perfumers, Catterall wanted to show through each installation how the scent came to fruition. “We didn’t want to hint at the notes but instead get inside the mind of perfumer and their inspiration.”
Antoine Lie’s Secretions Magnifiques is hidden in the sheets of a Tracey Emin style bed, Bertrand Duchaufour’s Avignon is concealed in a Catholic confessional, while Killian Wells’ Dark Ride is placed in a selection of kitsch cuddly toys for which you can take to pose in a photobooth - cue the Instagram moment. Each room transports you somewhere entirely new whether that’s a campsite in Texas or the Scottish Highlands reinforcing the transportative power of these modern perfume creations.
As you move between the rooms you are asked to share your thoughts of what you are smelling and experiencing before the later rooms reveal what the fragrances are and their significance. Unlike the commercial fragrances that dominate the market - complete with celebrity-faced campaigns, fancy bottles and marketing jargon - this show puts the emphasis on more unusual scents themselves and the pioneers that created them. While we may think we only like floral or citrus scents for instance, you may find yourself drawn to more obscure scents – think ink, bonfire or popcorn. With the fragrances presented purely as scents you can smell them with a fresh nose.
“I think it allows people to consider perfume in a different way. Perfume is more than something I spritz on after I get dressed - it’s particularly profound and important.” Head down to Somerset House to see for yourself…
Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent is on until the 17th September