How do we experience perfume? Do we wear it as an accessory? A personal expression? A status symbol? Do we sense it as a fleeting vapor on people we love, or get annoyed by it on strangers in an elevator? And with all the visual, marketing, and lifestyle cues we associate with it, is there a way to experience fragrance on its own, without all the advertising and cultural “noise”?
Chandler Burr has spent over twelve years exploring and writing about perfume – its artists and scientists, its ingredients, and the complexities of art and trade involved in bringing it to market. He is the Director and Curator of the Center of Olfactory Art at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, and the scent editor at GQ. He was also the New York Times perfume critic from 2006-2010.
He is also the scent curator at OpenSky, the online retail platform where expert and celebrity curators share specialty products in a social setting. And it is at OpenSky that he is unveiling a new way to experience the art of fragrance: The Untitled Series.
The Untitled Series strips away the marketing, the hype, even the brand names and the artist perfumers, and presents the perfume on its own – as a work of art. The fragrances, which Burr selects from favorites currently on the market, are presented in 50-ml lab bottles, with no identifying information save a critical assessment of their structure, their beauty, their relevance as works of art. One hundred bottles of a new edition are made available on the first day of each month, and at the end of that month the fragrance’s identity is revealed.
In an email interview, Burr spoke about his intentions:
“[The Untitled Series] has three painfully specific goals: Allow people to experience perfume, perhaps, for those for whom the visuals and the brand have always played a crucial role, for the first time. To allow people to see the forest for the trees.”
“And second to renew the sense of beauty and, as cheesy as it sounds but I actually mean it, wonder that comes in a truly brilliant work of olfactory art. We forget the extraordinary power that they have, a power dulled and chipped away over time by over-application of billboard and fashion model and—I hope my bosses at Condé Nast don’t see this—glossy ad.”
“Third is to apply language to perfume so that we can actually have an, as you put it, dialogue, a conversation about perfume, and I’m going to be doing this by applying a highly-developed, perfectly adapted language that already exists, traditional art history vocabulary. We already have the language. We just have to use it, and we have to—and doing this will only help us—see perfumes as whole works of art.”
“I never have and never will use the word ‘notes’, a superficial and meaningless marketing term…[that] reduces, metaphorically speaking, a Rothko to blue, red, and green acrylic paint and some stretched canvas rather than the actual painting as a painting, and it reduces Mozart’s Requiem to: ‘The Requiem has notes of basset horns and bassoons and trumpets and timpani and violin!’ Idiotic.” … The Untitled Series is a way of looking at olfactory art in a way, free from the other stuff, that lets you answer that question for yourself.”
“My point is to make [this appreciation] as mainstream as humanly possible. Most people are still going to respond to visual marketing. It’s what will speak to them, and that’s fine. I’m completely biased of course, but I suspect there’s a larger percentage of the market that would like and respond to a very different way of marketing fragrance, and that’s what we’re testing with The Untitled Series.”
At OpenSky, the first edition of the series, S01E01, sold out immediately from its June 1 launch. It’s too early to know how customers will respond the the fragrance, which Burr describes as “one of the most seamless pieces of scent work I know, almost unnervingly perfect.” He reminds fans that the Untitled Series isn’t about guessing what fragrance is being presented; rather it’s about experiencing “a work of olfactory art on your arm without a name or anything other than what the artist set, in its purest state, before you.” As customers receive their vials, the comments should start coming in, which will be worth visiting the site for, even for those of us who’ve missed out on the opportunity. How will they perceive the perfume? And how will they describe it?
The series will continue, with a new fragrance introduced at the beginning of each month. And for those who can’t get one of the one hundred vials of each month’s fragrance? Burr’s first scent exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design, The Art of Scent: 1889-2012, opens on November 13, 2012.
Chandler Burr, the Untitled Series at OpenSky.com.