The Experience of Scent, in Memory, Place and Sentience

This blog reference comes from a request from Steve Heller — to write something about scent — about design — and creating and understanding experience. I was talking to him at a conference we were speaking at together — and he asked — “what about that?”

It’s interesting to me that so many people seem to have such a limited vocabulary when it comes to scent. “I don’t like that smell.” Yes, and so…why? Exploring the draw of a person into the realm of scent is yet another mystery, what is captivating – because scent, the alchemy of the layering of perfume — par fumo — is, by itself, a mysterium.
To cense, waft, to smoke.

From the 1530s, from Middle French application is the latest variation on the word is parfum, from parfumer “to scent,” from Provencial, perfumar, and in the beginning, the first combination is founded from the Latin, per– “through” (see per) + fumare “to smoke” (see fume). The earliest use in English was in reference to the fumes from something burning. The idea of a concretion — an quintessence — meaning “fluid containing agreeable essences of flowers, etc., is attested from 1540s. The verb is first recorded 1530s. There are related words: perfumed; perfuming.

This blog reference can be found, as well, in the journals of the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

Scent moments. I can signal a sequence of events in my life that are instantly recallable in the context of their fragrances, that bring forth the character of those moments in a startlingly clear evocation of that instant. Scent travels from the moment to the mind in the gathering of those touches in time.

I think of the realm of the stories told, at campfire, in the crackling night: wind blowing in from the sea, the scenting of pine, the crushed and dried needles in the heated sand, the smoking embers of the flame, casting whispers of fragrance that bring back that experience in the forefront of the mind. And meanwhile, the voice of the teller of tales.”

The Experience of Scent, in Memory, Place and Sentience
Channel mist at sunrise, San Juan Archipelago, Washington. (photo: Tim Girvin)

Scent story. In a way, it’s always about that—the story and the vocation of the legend making, one string of words on another that frames in the imagination, a visualization of the story being spun. But that narrative links to the nature of what scent might be part of that presence—of the fumes of molecules that grace the day or night in the recollection of that experience.

It is this bridge that is perhaps the most compelling link for designers in thinking about the marvel of fragrance in the context of experience—as designed, as sensed, as gathered—in the holism of the spectacle. Fragrance—the layering of scents as a sequence of complex “notes”—builds a kind of psychic bridge from what is around the experiencer to what is being recalled. And, to the very nature of design, this can be built.

Working in the past with accomplished noses—masters of the art of the formulation of scents, layering sequences of literally hundreds of delicate perfumed ingredients derived from a world of plants and animal essences—I’ve had the chance to wander behind the doors of the perfuming world. Not as an expert of scent and the analyses of the emotionality of fragrance, but rather as a designer pondering just how some “fume” might be told as a story and built into the packaged voicing of that story. In studying the history of perfume, in fragrance packaging for example, the art of scent, story and visualization are powerfully intermixed, just like the mystery of the aromas that they contain.

The Experience of Scent, in Memory, Place and Sentience
Lavender pyre, Decatur Island, Washington (left); and Dzong offering stupa, Bhutan. (photos: Tim Girvin)

Scent noses. Pierre Bourdon, whom I met in Paris before he retired, was just such a master at Fragrance Resource. For him, every scent was a designed story. From the steely, marine fragrance notes he innovated in Davidoff’s Cool Water to the woody, smoked sexual pulpiness of Shiseido’s Féminité du Bois, strategies were written to build on the nature of the creation of the scent structure to fulfill the discipline of the brief and the tactical explication of the telling. L’Artisan Parfumeur’s master nose is Bertrand Duchaufour, who speaks of each of his fragrances not as amalgams of essential characters, but rather as studied—and designed—considerations of place and what makes that place miraculous. What is the story of place? His perfume Dzongkha, for example, renders not only the mystical script and otherworldly Himalayan language of Bhutan, but as well of the distinctive sense of locale, made in the Buddhist temples and smoking incensed hearths that fire the sentient environment in the Dzongs, or monasterial temples and community centers, that these ancient edifices reveal.

Scent design. Scent is place and memory—it is experience recalled. Every scent, in the microscopic particulate nature of its diffusion, is distinctive, unforgettable to those who are mindful, informing a significant part of our experience. The memory is a story, and to designers, the idea of linking story and experience through formed visualization—from container to packaged expression, from word to identity, from photography to patterning—reaches deep into the darker, psychic place of scent embedded in our recollections forever. Sensing, scent and sentience—all come from the same Latin root: sentire, to feel.
As designers, that’s where we live: generating the (e)motion of feeling in the signals of message, form, place and storied visuals.

Read more Girvin scent explorations on this blog.


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