Glithero’s installations for a perfume exhibition in Lausanne bring scent to life

Lausanne – Even for a figure as esoteric as Andy Warhol, it is surprising to discover that the artist kept what he termed a ‘Permanent Smell Collection’. The need for this, as detailed in his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), was the realisation ‘that he had to have kind of a smell museum, so certain smells wouldn’t get lost forever.’ In 2012, the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City held an exhibition – that certainly would have had a Warhol stamp of approval – called The Art of Scent. The intent of the curation was to do something hardly done in a museum setting before: treat aroma as if it was an artwork itself, inviting visitors to experience different fragrances diffused through indentations in the space’s walls.

Now, a growing number of museums and exhibitions are coming around to testing our pre-supposed hierarchy of senses: the bottom line is, the focus doesn’t always have to be on what we see. That’s not to say that Lausanne’s Musée de design et d’arts appliqués contemporains chose to neglect the visual aspect of the exhibition making during its Nez-à-Nez Contemporary perfumers show. In fact it decided to bring smell centre stage precisely by playing on its relationship with sight, utilising tangible material to heighten the olfactory experience. Unlike MAD’s exhibition, the show's goal was to transcend dimensions, and render the invisible art form physical.

To do so, MUDAC brought on the London-based studio Glithero to create six bespoke installations designed over six rooms each meant to express a different tendency in contemporary perfumery. The curators, together with the Paris-based olfactory magazine Nez, selected 13 perfumers – including names such as Dominique Ropion and Isabelle Doyen – taking three fragrances from the portfolio of each. They then challenged Glithero-founders Sarah van Gameren and Tim Simpson to devise presentations that could display the perfumes without using their original bottles. But, as a reference to perfume’s typical home, van Gameren and Simpson were still asked to work with glass, and to pay special attention to the material’s interaction with light.

Glithero’s work does, in a subtle way, challenge sensory associations visitors may already have with certain aromas

The experience isn’t just pleasing to the nose, or to aesthetes, though – it’s also designed to be plain fun: in one room, the perfumes are contained in conical glass vessels, closed by a ping pong ball tethered to a large balloon. To smell, visitors must pull down on the string of the balloon, thus opening the seal. Another room symbolically honours the perfumers known for being flamboyant and extroverted by presenting their work in scented fans that emerge from tables.

Because smell has an inextricable relationship with memory and emotion, Glithero’s work for MUDAC does, in a subtle way, challenge sensory associations visitors may already have with certain aromas. Yet while the perfumes take on a life of their own at the exhibition, the installations do not seek to stamp out how one responds to a whiff of neroli oil or white amber – instead, they’re cleverly designed only to enhance one’s perception. Designers who work with multisensory experiences should keep this in mind: they are, before even beginning, already contending with the ‘Permanent Smell Collection’ archived deep within every single visitor – and it’s this they can use to their advantage.

MUDAC's Nez-à-Nez Contemporary perfumers exhibition will run from 15 February to 16 June 2019.

Location Place de la Cathédrale 6, 1005 Lausanne, Switzerland

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