Living in an apartment has definite wintertime perks. Snow shoveling and garbage removal are no longer part of my routine –- but the smell of other people’s cooking sometimes can be.
I count myself lucky to have very thick walls and an excellent fresh air vent in my current abode (a century-old tobacco factory turned into lofts), but since the first order of business for a great-smelling home is to open the windows and vent, I’m still SOL during much of Montreal’s glacial winter.
I have no intention of spending six months stuck with the smells of my own sometimes experimental cooking plus a snow-damp pup as the base notes of my home’s signature scent, so I begin by neutralizing odors. Trust me, you don’t want to skip this step. If you live in warmer climes, open the windows. You’re almost all the way there.
Either way, read on.
This step’s really straightforward. Pop an open box of baking soda in the fridge. You can also sprinkle it on smelly carpets, give it a few minutes to work and vacuum it back up to remove damp odors. Other tricks I stand behind include leaving a bowl of white vinegar on the counter if you’re cooking something strong, like fried fish.
Charcoal is great for airborne odors, like smoke (make sure your pets and kids can’t have at it, so maybe pop it in a Tupperware with holes on the lid if you’re sharing a house with them –- though really, I don’t need to tell you there shouldn’t be smoke in the house with pets or kids.)
My neighbor recently shared this game-changer of a trick: Downy Unstoppables scent boosters are great for sprinkling into your garbage can, at the bottom, and somehow the stinkiest garbage is rendered inoffensive by these little wonder pellets.
You don’t have to change them every time you change the bag, but maybe once a month. I use the pink ones for this purpose (though I’ve never used them for laundry) and they don’t really contribute to the overall smell of my apartment, either, which I prefer since the scent is sweet in that commercial way –- not what we’re aiming for. At least, not what I’m aiming for. You do you.
Breathe in, deeply. Once you’ve successfully neutralized all the undesirable odors, assess the base notes of your space. It might be you have unfinished pine floors, or a very large collection of books, or windowsills full of plants, or leather couches, or a functional wood-burning fireplace (if so, I hate you and am super jealous. That is all.) This is what you’re working with. Keep it in mind when you’re considering where you want to take it.
When I returned from recent travel to the Bahamas, I wanted to recreate the smell of the covered verandah of an acquaintance’s tropical colonial home. I splurged on the same candles that were lit in the foyer, as well as the perfume gun that had been sprayed onto the upholstery (Diptyque’s Baies and Frederic Malle’s Jurassic Flower, respectively –- my bank account does not thank you, new friend) and went to town in my loft.
Sadly, I’d failed to account for the different base notes. The wide-plank wood and salty breeze rolling off the ocean rounded the smells out sunnily, while my concrete walls and ceiling reflected them far more sharply. The compromise, because covering my walls in wood siding wasn’t an option, came out in the wash. Laundering my bed linens and curtains in Caldrea’s Sea Salt Neroli detergent contributed to a beachy base for the space, one that got me much closer to the original blend I’d hoped to recreate.
Each time I came in from outside, the blend of smells transported me to that different time and place. That’s what you’re aiming for -– the mental association with a positive memory, both for yourself and guests to your home.
Real estate agents are notorious for baking cookies for open houses, not only because visitors will stick around to nom, but because the smell sends out a subliminally homey vibe -– like those could be your cookies coming out of the oven of your new home. Ka-ching.
I personally tend to burn a lot of what I bake, but when I want to make my apartment feel extra-comforting, say for cuddly movie nights with a cute boy, or even when my mom or dad come over to check up on me (and I want to fool them into believing I feed myself foods that I make because I am a bonafide adult), I opt for this super-simple olfactory bait-and-switch: Simmer some brown sugar with water in a pan on low. (Want it to smell like the holidays? And cloves, cinnamon and orange rind!)
Voilà: instant homemaking cred. It should be known I also cheated in fashion school. You bet my grandfather’s tailor sewed that shirt. (And I still nearly failed sewing.)
Just like your summery perfume might feel out of place in the dead of winter, or your date-night scent feels way too heady on a Monday morning, it can be fun to develop a library of scents for your home to suit the occasion.
Alternatively, many hotels and boutiques opt for a signature scent, one they recreate across the world, so that guests and customers will make the subliminal mental association –- the olfactory memory is welcoming to repeat visitors. This is as good an argument as any for having a signature in your own space.
If you think about it, you can probably call up the smells of places you spend a lot of time in. My analyst’s office smells like upscale patchouli (more haute Tom Ford than hippie toe jam) and leather, and the scent of it puts my mind at ease when I arrive, and when I smell it elsewhere. It can be fun to think that every time your guests come across the scent you use, they’ll be thinking of your home, and the time they spent there.
Either way, whether you want one signature scent or many, there are plenty of different options: candles*, reed diffusers, room sprays, linen sprays, floral drawer sachets, potpourri, scented detergents and fresh-cut flowers (be sure to change the water daily and bin them as soon as they begin to turn; the smell of wilting flowers reminds me of funeral parlors. Not a smell you want associated with your home.)
Sniff carefully: If there is something inherently cloying or off-putting about the candle or spray, it won’t disappear in the blend. Think of it like spraying air freshener in the toilet -– you’ll still have that poop note, just dressed up in florals. Not good.
When layering, keep in mind concentration and dispersion. Space out the different scent producers so they mingle subtly instead of scent-bombing the room. That means not lighting four different candles on the same night table. Spread them out amply and let their scents meet in the middle naturally –- they will waft together and harmonize better that way. Use a light hand with the sprays -– you can always add more later.
Take a look at the primary notes of each product -– if you can’t make them out with your nose, read the descriptions -– and opt for complementary ones, like florals and citruses, or wood notes and ambers. But mostly, have fun. And if the whole thing is a headache, open the windows and start again in a bit (if it’s cold as balls, maybe wrap yourself in a blanket first).
Smell ya later!
*A tip from the designer candle battle line: If you’re going to blow a chunk of change on a super-fancy one, the last thing you want to do is waste it by having the wax tunnel (when the wick burns straight down, leaving an unused donut of very expensive wax around it). Make sure you always trim your wicks to 1/4”, and when you light the candle, let it burn until the entire surface area is liquid. This means if you’re only wanting to light a candle for an hour or so, you should go for one with a smaller surface circumference.