Exclusive: Perfume Critic Chandler Burr On His Collaboration With LuckyScent

Would your favorite fragrance still be your favorite if it came in a totally plain bottle?
Publish date:
June 24, 2014
perfume, fragrance, chandler burr, luckyscent

Scent is a subjective experience; we might have a basic, universal understanding of what “rose” or “vanilla” smell like, but the way a fragrance develops, its interactions with individual body chemistry, and its connections to unique and deep memories is quite personal.

In today’s vast world of perfume, we mainly decide which samples to spritz based on cold and impersonal lists of notes, reviews and recommendations from so-called experts, designer names, packaging design, marketing, and whichever celebrity holds the bottle in the advertisements. Opinions begin to take shape before that first molecule hits our noses.

When I read about Chandler Burr’s Untitled Series at LuckyScent, I was instantly intrigued. Through this project, Burr, who was the perfume critic at The New York Times, which is where I became a fan of his work, exposes you to the artistry and intricacies of a scent--free from the cultural, visual, and descriptive elements that might otherwise influence your experience. In other words, without the packaging.

Driven by a cryptic snippet from the description--“Wait (people think, transfixed on the sidewalk), what is this? Did an island just materialize around the corner?”--I crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t end up with a piña colada-type fragrance, and ordered my very own 30 ml sample for $40.

I recognized the fragrance immediately. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first, I asked Burr about the project, what he calls "olfactory art," and learned a few surprising things. Spoiler alert: Britney Spears and Tide detergent are involved.

For those of us who are a little late to the party, can you tell us the inspiration behind the Untitled Series? 

Chandler Burr: It comes directly and purely from my experience as The New York Times scent critic. I had assistants who arrived everyone Monday morning and unpacked all the scent that had arrived during the week, and set them out in order. I’d come in, [my assistant] would dip or spray two blotters with them, and we’d sit and smell and look at each other poker-faced and smell and finally one of us would start to speak. We’d discuss it.

I wouldn’t know its artist or what brand it was and I sure as hell wouldn’t see any of the visual marketing presentation. It profoundly, completely alters your perception of each perfume, strips away all this stuff. It was terrific.

The Untitled Series is my way of making that available to people. It’s something that’s virtually impossible to experience--perfumes as they actually are, their beauty and strangeness, their aesthetics, their technical feats, without all the distorting visual framing devices.

Most consumers see perfume as a beauty product. How did you arrive at your conclusion that fragrance is a work of art?

CB: It always seemed blindingly obvious to me. A perfume has to be considered a work of art, no more and no less than a work of music, painting, or writing (and a work of design as well). The medium of scent is a great artistic medium; scent raw materials, the absolutes and essences, are equal to paints and clays and metals. Perfume is the art that speaks to the human sense of smell, just as painting speaks to the sense of sight, and music to the sense of hearing.

Like clay, paint, steel, plastic, and so on, scent materials are artificial, and all art mediums must be artificial in the best sense of the word--all art is artificial by definition because the artist’s job is to create lies and fictions, to manipulate their viewers or listeners. The more successfully they manipulate us, the more successful the work of art.

Frédéric Malle Dans Tes Bras, Mugler Cologne (everyone, both men and women, should own a bottle), Esteé Lauder Pleasures (a great, great scent unfairly overlooked due to its Gwenyth-with-puppies ads), Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue for women (not the one marketed to men, and again, forget the stupid gendering. If anything it’s better on guys), the original Narciso Rodriguez. Hell, I could go on and on. All of these change our perception of reality and have an immense impact on us.

Olfactory art is so far completely overlooked, but its position today among art historians, museum curators, and even the general public is essentially equivalent to that of photography thirty years ago, when photographs were virtually unrecognized as art, and this is about to change completely in the next decade.

On that note, what makes a fragrance Impressionistic, Realistic, and so on?

CB: We have a hugely well-developed, detailed, deep language that we’ve created to deal with art, this most subjective of things. The schools--Impressionism, Classicism, Industrialism--are ways for us to organize our reactions, our values, our perceptions of the works we do or don’t place in them, a way to order things.

It’s ridiculously obvious that Drakkar Noir is one of the greatest and most brilliant works of Industrialism ever produced--its central molecule is dihydromyrcenol, the central scent molecule in the functional perfume created for Tide laundry detergent, and artist Pierre Wargnye’s use of this most industrial of all materials in fine art is exactly what industrialist artists were doing in all the other mediums from music to paint.

Every other art form has a serious criticism applied to it. Critics and journalists write intelligently and thoughtfully about architecture and sculpture. I believe we must apply the same criticism, the same aesthetic language to works of perfume--and to the artists who create them--as well. They merit this in every way.

Speaking of which, let’s cut out this bullshit of referring to scent artists—perfumers, if you want--as “noses.” It’s moronic and patronizing, and Edmond Roudnitska, one of the greatest mid-20th-century artists, hated it as much as I do. “Mozart was not an ear,” Roudnitska observed with appropriate disdain, “Van Gogh was not a hand. I am not a nose.” Goddamn right.

"'Mozart was not an ear,' Edmond Roudnitska observed with appropriate disdain, 'Van Gogh was not a hand. I am not a nose.' Goddamn right."

As you strip away name, packaging, marketing, have you come across any surprising fragrances? Anything we're not "supposed" to like, from say, a celebrity, or something that could be purchased at a drugstore?

CB: Absolutely. There is JLo’s Glow, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Lovely (excellent) [Author’s note: I wore this until one of my students told me that I smelled like his mother], Calvin Klein, this very commercial brand, Midnight Fantasy by Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue Darling, which is just awesome, a perfect work of Pop art.

Lastly, what makes a fragrance memorable or interesting? And how much does packaging play a part in that?

CB: Look, you know my extremist position on the packaging. I’m amazed that people I consider intelligent insist that it’s inextricable from the perfume when no one--as far as I know--has put on Daisy and then walked around with the bottle pinned with some giant brooch to their blouse. Once the stuff comes out of the bottle and onto you, all the rest is gone, baby, gone. It’s just the scent, and it lives and dies by itself and on its own merits.

I guess you can constantly tell people, “Oh, it’s Daisy by Marc Jacobs!” because you have a thing for labels. Sorry, I just don’t think serious people who are serious about perfume and know and understand it care about the bottle and the girl or the boy in the photo, etc.

"I don’t think serious people who are serious about perfume and know and understand it care about the bottle and the girl or the boy in the photo."

I’m not a crazy guy living in some ivory tower; I realize that the presentation of art is important. A painting can be destroyed by an inappropriate frame. But seriously, a person of substance is going to leave the presentation devices behind pretty quickly and evaluate the work of art itself. Because in the end that’s all there is.

S02E02 opens boldly green, with grapefruit and mango, more lush than aqueous. A bitter note sails in over the ripe, grassy, vegetation and takes me to my own garden: tomato. A softer floral, iris maybe, blurs out the edges of the green, and the scent settles into an almost woody lemon incense. It is the smell of bright colors through slight humidity, burning off into a close-hanging mist, more uplifting than oppressive. S02E02 brings to mind Gauguin’s “The Seed of the Areoi,” or perhaps Rousseau’s “The Dream.”

The identity of S02E02 will be revealed, along with a some of Burr's thoughts on the scent, at Noon PST on June 25 at LuckyScent.com. The next Episode will be released in July. I plan to try for one of the exclusive samples (the last Episode sold out in 16 hours) and test my nose again. Burr confirmed that my guess about S02E02’s identity was indeed correct, so I am looking forward to something perhaps more challenging next time.

Any guesses on what S02E02 is? Will anyone else be joining me for the next installment? If your favorite scent were a work of art, what would it be?