Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House

Image Peter Macdiarmid / Somerset House.

Exciting news for perfume fans, Somerset House is hosting a wonderful exhibition looking at ten key contemporary scents and why they are important. Regular readers will know that I launched a fragrance website We Wear Perfume a while back due to my love of all things fragrant and I got to interview the co curator Claire Catterall recently, who confirmed my feeling that perfume was going through something of a revolution.

Image Peter Macdiarmid / Somerset House.

She told me she wanted the exhibition to put perfume on the cultural map, because it’s an important product.

Perfume isn’t the same as when our parents bought it, or even when we were buying up Poison and Giorgio in our teens and early twenties. Modern perfumers such as Geza Schoen of Molecule 01 fame, Lyn Harris from Perfumer H and David Seth Moltz of D.S.& Durga, are making fragrance that take us on a journey and place us firmly in the centre of an absorbing story.

They even try to unsettle us by using ingredients such as creosote, hot sand, blood and smoky ink, in order to create very modern scents

Fancy a drop of semen in your scent? Well Antoine Lee’s Secretions Magnifiques for Etat Libre d’Orange offers exactly that (well, the scent of it, at least) and you may be disturbed as to how much you like it, although it was created more as a dare to see how few people might want to wear it. You can experience it in the exhibition by lying on a bed with crumpled scented sheets.

One thing modern perfume isn’t is dull.

From the breezy, pure-lilac deliciousness of En Passant, to my absolute favourite incense (and the scent of Roman Catholic mass) Avignon, the ten fragrances are richly characterful. Experienced in individual room sets, designed to challenge you to think about what you are inhaling, the scents demonstrate how far perfume has come from just ‘smelling nice’.

There are no rose petals to smell, no piles of cinnamon bark or coffee beans, this is not your usual beauty-hall fragrance experience, instead there are Prada prints to sniff, over-sized and scented snooker balls to play with and hewed sections of tree bark to navigate. There’s even a collection of plant life and litter, sent directly from the desert landscape of Marfa, Texas to illustrate the dry, sandy wasteland that inspired El Cosmico, by D.S. & Durga.

Peter Macdiarmid/Somerset House.

When you get to the end, you can ask a real perfumer in a real perfume lab how they create the magic.

Peter Macdiarmid/Somerset House.

There are events where you can listen to perfumers discussing their work or make your own fragrance with the excellent Emmanuelle from The Experimental Perfume Club (you’ll need to book fast for these).

There is also a small shop – sponsored by Liberty- where the perfumes can be purchased, along with some terrific books -look out for the co-curator Lizzie Ostrom’s A Century Of Scents -and the deeply fabulous magazine Nez, now in English. it’s a fragrant treat from start to finish.

Peter Macdiarmid/Somerset House.

More on the exhibition, including dates and times, here.

 

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