A chance encounter with the biophysicist Luca Turin led Chandler Burr to write The Emperor of Scent, his 2003 book on the science of smell. Known for championing the establishment of perfume as an art form, Burr was the New York Times perfume critic from 2006 to 2010 and is now curator of olfactory art at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. He hosts “scent dinners” around the world, combining fine dining with an interactive master-class in fragrance.
Bora Kwon Where did your interest in scent start? Did you have an interest before you started researching the books?
Chandler Burr No, I had absolutely no interest at all. I have a Master’s degree in international economics and Japanese political economy. I spent a lot of time in Asia and I studied in Beijing at a Chinese university and I began in the Philippines as a stringer for an American newspaper, so I’m really an Asianist. I was reporting on politics and economics, but I’d also started reporting on science. One day I was standing at the Gare du Nord station in Paris waiting for a Eurostar train to London and a guy was standing there next to me and we started talking. He was Luca Turin. I started writing his story and I really thought it was going to be this book about science, and it turned out to be The Emperor of Scent, half about science and half about smell, perfume and these other astonishing things.
BK When did you cross over and begin to appreciate it as an art?
CB Luca had written a book about perfume which was art criticism of scent. It was called Parfums: Le Guide and he critiqued them as works of art. After I wrote The Emperor of Scent, the New Yorker approached me to do a feature. They’d never done anything on perfume and they were fascinated by the idea of perfumers, these people who actually made and designed perfume. I was looking at different brands and perfume houses to visit and, in an incredible stroke of luck, Hermès let me inside, and I watched the entire creation of their fragrance Un Jardin Sur Le Nil. They were completely open throughout the process. I did the piece for the New Yorker and then the New York Times asked me to write about perfume for them. I said, well, I’ll do it on condition that you make me a New York Times art critic but give me the medium of scent.
BK It is really difficult to convey fragrance in words. The perfume industry talks about notes, but I’ve never found those to be completely helpful. I grew up in the city and originally had few reference points when it came to natural scents. I didn’t know what a gardenia or a tuberose smelt like.
CB The word “notes” is often used in an intentionally misleading way, to convey a marketing concept that has nothing to do with the actual perfume. It’s the desire to sell perfume as a luxury product, when it’s actually mass market. People say “notes of praline”! There is no note of praline. OK, it’s probably hydroxybutylthiazole and maybe aldehyde C-18 and maybe Laotian benzoin and maybe a small number of pyrazines and maltol, and you come up with something that’s super-sweet and that smells like praline, but it’s not. Look at that painting over there – so what are you supposed to say, “notes of black and white and grey”? Well, you can, but it’s not the painting. It tells you nothing about it whatsoever. It doesn’t say anything, and it doesn’t say anything about a fragrance if you say it has notes of praline in it. I think the better the works of olfactory art, and the more you treat them as art, the more notes just don’t matter.
BK But isn’t it that people don’t have the language to talk about fragrance, so they like “notes” because at least it gives them an idea? It references something they know.
CB My whole point in life as a curator right now is establishing a language in which we can discuss this and having scent recognised as an artistic medium. Why? There is a design aspect to a fragrant work of art and then there’s a pure aesthetic aspect, and you have to combine the two: they are not dissociable. I’m thinking of painting, sculpture and all these artistic mediums – perfumes are exactly the same. They have a structure, they have a way in which the artist set out to create something and put the materials together. If you want to create a perfume that has a light effect, the effect of glass and a light surface, then you don’t want to use things that have texture. You have to know which raw materials those are. You don’t use clary sage, for example, which has a very rough, textured smell.
BK The fragrance industry package products with a story, so that people have a concept they’re buying into. The way you look at fragrance actually makes people think about it. Some people, when I’ve discussed scent in that way, say: “I don’t want to know, I just want to enjoy it. Why do you have to intellectualise it? Why do you have to analyse it?”
CB That’s incredibly stupid. It’s like saying, when I go to see a movie I want to turn off my brain, I don’t care about the plot or anything like that. Whatever, I just want to be entertained for an hour. Yes, you can enjoy that when you’re a child. But once you grow up, does any thinking person really enjoy a movie where they don’t think at all? No, I don’t believe they do. Or they’re very immature. A movie has to have an extraordinary combination of things to be a great work of art. There is nothing wrong with looking at a movie and taking it apart, seeing the director’s point of view and fitting it into literary theory, auteur theory, first-person narrative, multi-person narrative, unreliable narrator, the production designer, etc. You don’t have to be interested in them but if you’re not, you’re missing that point of view. It shouldn’t, for anybody who has any depth whatsoever, destroy a painting to understand the social context in which it was created, to understand the life of the painter. Sometimes the painter has left a very specific written or spoken testimony – “Here is the reason I did this” – and that informs the way you look at it. You can look at it without having that and you can enjoy it, but I think ultimately, if you want to get deeper into it, you have to have some understanding. In postmodernism, it is both even more that way and not that way at all, because postmodernism is this idea that the concept is the work of art. The American artist James Turrell has bought an extinct volcano in Arizona, and he’s turning it into a work of art that is entirely about the experience of the work of art. It’s not the concept. That’s post-postmodernism. He isn’t Duchamp, who’s giving you a urinal and saying here’s a work of art because I say it is. At the time it was revolutionary but now we’ve moved on. Perfume, olfactory art, is an experience of something real.
BK The way modern perfumes are made is dictated by the French tradition and point of view. That’s where the training schools are and the majority of perfumers are French. Grasse is where the raw materials industry flourished. Are there any other viable perspectives?
CB Not yet. Scent in its art form really is French. It was in France where it was most developed and it’s fundamentally a French art. The French started things; they made these huge contributions to the world, from mathematics to chemistry to biology, in the arts and cuisine. But France is in this horrible stasis where it doesn’t realise that it’s actually not the centre of the universe anymore. We’re not in 1640 and the world has passed French cooking by. It’s gone, it’s dead, no one’s interested, and if you are then you’re an idiot, because we’ve grown up. It’s the same thing as insisting on 1930s movies, which were very specific movies in a very specific style, and they were great in their time, but it’s been done. There are new things being done, and cuisine changes and art changes and music changes and perfume will change. You can enjoy things from the past, but to insist that that alone is “real” cooking, ”real” film, ”real” painting, “real perfumery”, etc, is just stupid. §