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The Art of Scent at MAD

As someone who’s loved and appreciated fragrance since the age of four, I am thrilled that scent is now finally getting respect as a true artistic medium at the Museum of Arts and Design, with Chandler Burr’s phenomenal exhibit The Art of Scent 1889-2012. You can fairly hear the collective whisper across the perfume universe – it’s about time! And that perfumers are now recognized as artists makes me supremely happy.

On Monday night I attended the pre-opening party at MAD, an amazing cacophony of sensorial delights. Mr. Burr chose 11 fragrances as stellar examples of the evolution of perfumery, from Aime Guerlain’s Jicky (1889), on to Chanel No. 5 (1921), Thierry Mugler’s Angel (1992), Prada Amber (2004), and Martin Margiela’s Untitled (2010). Also included were perennial Burr favorites Issey Miyake’s L’Eau d’ Issey, Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue, and Givenchy’s L’Interdit.

Visitors enter the all-white room on the fourth floor of the museum, and are invited to step up to a wall and place their noses above an amorphous crevice which dispenses a puff of fragrance. Projected on the wall is the name of the fragrance and details about the perfumer and year of creation, as well as Mr. Burr’s characterization of the genre he has assigned to the scent – such as Modernist, Abstract, or Brutalist – much the way art and architecture are often described.

Visually, the scene around me was as compelling as it smelled! Impossibly long and lithe women wearing teeny, filmy black dresses atop skyscraper heels with swingy, light-catching bib necklaces woven from unusual materials like glass and wool; artfully unshaven men in snap-brim fedoras and orange ties; and a tasty array of perfumers like the wonderful Ralf Schwieger (crowned perfumer-in-residence at MAD) and the uber-talented Christophe Laudemille (in a truly glorious neon-trimmed sweatshirt). There was also a proliferation of architects, many from the firm which created the innovative installation, Diller Scofidio & Renfro.

This is an exhibit that encourages discussion – as you are smelling the fragrances you want to turn to someone and share your opinion! I think a woman I started chatting with (when I couldn’t take my eyes off her gleaming golden vintage Robert Lee Morris collar) summed it up nicely… she said, “I had tickets to the Metropolitan Opera tonight, but this sounded more exciting!

 Image by Ric Kallaher, Courtesy of The Museum of Arts and Design