Chandler Burr is arguably the world’s most famous scent critic. He has the very rare ability of being able to smell something and creatively articulate it in such a way that you feel like you’re smelling it too. Chandler’s passion for fragrance harks back to the early 90s when, as a young journalist, he happened to meet the perfumer, perfume writer and biophysicist, Luca Turin on a train station platform in Paris. They forged a friendship, which resulted in Chandler’s book about Luca and his work called The Emperor of Scent. A following feature in the New Yorker about the making of an Hermés scent resulted in Chandler being approached to become the first ever fragrance reviewer for the New York Times. Over his four years in the role, Chandler’s reviews of the latest perfumes were like mini works of art in their own right and became instrumental in changing the way the multitudes perceived small bottles of smelly liquid.
During this time, Chandler also released a fascinating book called The Perfect Scent, which compared the process of making two very different perfumes and provided a rare insight into the workings of the industry.
In 2010 he left the paper to establish the world’s first ever department of olfactory art at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. Importantly, this meant that, for the first time ever, perfume had the potential to be given the same level of consideration and experienced alongside other serious works of art. It meant that a door was opened to a whole new way of thinking about fragrance and his first exhibition The Art of Scent 1889-2012, which ran from late 2012 to May 2013 and showcased a series of game-changing scents, really was brand new.
In between times, since 2005, Chandler has organised and hosted a series of incredible Scent Dinners. The idea is that he works with some of the world’s top chefs like Daniele Turco and Gian Nicola Colucci to create a meal based on and inspired by a scent menu of gourmand fragrances (essentially perfumes that smell like different foods) – guests experience every meticulously prepared course via smell then taste. It’s really like the best possible case of sensory overload.
Ode: During your four years as a scent critic for the New York Times, how many perfumes do you think you inhaled?
Chandler: Hmm, 4 years x 52 weeks x 7 perfumes a week. About 1,500 different scents.
Your powers of description are really incredible. Things like: “The perfumer has engineered a clone warrior breathing nitrous oxide. This smells like a sheet of aluminum on a frozen beach..” You really raised the bar high in terms of perfume critiquing. Were people grateful for the vivid descriptions?
Absolutely. I first heard, as I think everyone first heard, of the concept of treating perfumes as what they are, olfactory art, from Luca Turin and in the course of writing The Emperor of Scent, I read a huge amount of Turin’s criticism. It is absolutely clear to the most casual observer that the traditional superficial descriptions of perfumes - things like: “’notes’ of jasmine and blueberry and Martian fairy dust and scrumptious-doodle caramel poodle” and all that crap - is pre-digested pablum with the nutritional value of bubblegum. Perfumers don’t create these works to be dissected any more than a painter creates a painting only for the painting to be idiotically reduced to “’notes’ of red and blue and dingleberry and green.” The painting is a single coherent work. The perfume is a single coherent work. We look at the painting. We smell the perfume. Describe the painting’s impact on you, what it makes you feel, how and why you love it, hate it, are scared by it, are reassured and warmed by it, whatever it is the point is what you see in the work as a whole and what it does to you.
We're really beginning to notice a rise in examples of scent-related art projects - for instance the Australian art collective Greatest Hits who recreated the smell of a new MacBook Pro and the artists Lernert and Sander who combined every commercial perfume released in 2012 into one big vial, which they called Everything. What’s your take on scent based art?
The first crucial point to make is that I have only once, if I remember correctly, written about avant-garde pure art scents. By art perfumes I mean scents that were created with no commercial intent, not created to be sold but merely to be experienced as art. And in my capacity as a museum curator I’ve not yet ever set out to create an exhibition of art scents. What interests me is works of olfactory art that, like virtually all works in all art mediums, are made to be sold.
That said I should make it clear I find them interesting and I believe they advance the state of the art.
I also feel like a lot more things and spaces are being scented - stores, hotels, cinemas etc. Do you think there is a place for this in perfumery or does it meander easily into gimmick territory?
Scent design is no more a gimmick than visual design or auditory/music design.
Absolutely. I understand that you don’t regularly wear a particular perfume because you spend a lot of your day smelling fragrance and it could easily get very confusing. What, if anything, do you think you might wear upon retirement?
I actually shouldn’t say I never wear scents when I’m off duty. I do, not often, but sometimes, so I’ll answer the question by listing some of my scents on my shelf in front of me: Terre d’Hermès, Vetyverio by Diptyque, French Lime Blossom by Jo Malone, Menthe Fraiche by James Heeley, 2 (women) by Comme des Garcons, Un Jardin sur le Nil by Hermès, Oud Wood by Tom Ford. Actually there are more than a dozen others. Not to sound too whatever, but they’re like dreams in bottles.
Thanks so much for your time. We're excited to see what you have in store for fragrance at the Museum of Arts and Design in the future.