Design Smells: Criticism in an Olfactory World
Scent is powerful because of its unique ability to craft feeling and memory in the human mind.
As humans we breathe 86,400 times a day; in fact the human nose never stops smelling. And each time we inhale, we ingest essential information about our environment, and the people and things in it, affecting our emotional and memory experience on an intrinsic level. Yet, since the rise of scientific understanding during the Enlightenment, we’ve lost almost all vocabulary through which to articulate the subtlety of smell’s meaning. Our lack of cultural awareness has left us as a society ignorant of the way scent affects our experience and the largely untapped communicative power of smell as a medium in design. “Design Smells” aims to make the case for why we should all care about smell, the limitations of the smell dialogue today, and how the conceptual vocabulary of a small community of practitioners is helping to shape the future conversation of this essential part of our human experience. As smell-enabled bodies, we are all poised to be active critics of smell in experience design at large.
Upon entering a museum, besides the smell of Windex and floor cleaning solution, a viewer doesn’t typically expect to experience smell—or at least this was the thinking behind the National Historic Trust’s decision to completely deodorize the Philip Johnson Glass House when it came under its jurisdiction in 2005. It was a decision that has been countered by the architect and experimental preservationist Jorge Otero-Pailos, a Columbia professor who felt that in removing the building’ s smell, the Trust effectively wiped away one of the keys for visitors to more fully appreciate the house as it was during its occupation by its architect, Philip Johnson and his partner, David Whitney. To Professor Otero-Pailos, that “lived-in” smell is an integral element to the House Museum experience. Smells are attached to memory. The olfactory bulb that processes odor is located along side the hippocampus section of the brain, the part that plays a role in memory and spatial navigation. As the first Modern House Museum, The Glass House is attached to memories and the cultural history of not just its occupants, but also of the elite art and architecture figures who spent time there. As a consultant brought in to consider how to best preserve the fullness of the house’ s history, Professor Otero-Pailos proposed to the Trust the use of crafted fragrance as a means to remember its inhabitants, and bring alive what it must have been like to be a guest at the Glass House. Working with the Spanish perfumer Rosendo Mateu, Professor Otero-Pailos captured the essence of each of the three decades since 1949 during which the home was inhabited. Reconstructing the scent of each of the building’s materials—from the freshly painted steel to the new plaster ceiling and the leather of Johnson’s legendary Barcelona chairs—the first ten years in liquid form represent the building in its new state, “convey(ing) a sensation of humidity, notes of mould and wet earth.” The second scent captures the social scene of Whitney and Johnson’s friends in the form of a cross-analysis of the colognes popular amongst their social circle of gay men, including their most frequent guest, the artist Andy Warhol. This fragrance represents the human presence of American men in the late 1950s, built on the still recognizable notes of Old Spice, Canoe, English Lavender and Acqua Velva. And finally, Professor Otero-Pailos chose to represent Johnson and Whitey’s odor experience in the Glass House from 1959 to 1969 with the miasma of stale cigarettes; probably the original reason for the Trust’ s desire to deodorize the estate. Scent is powerful because of its unique ability to craft feeling and memory in the human mind, and Professor Otero-Pailos’ preservation attempts are an example of how scent can be used as a design tool to construct a sense of empathy for an architectural space and museum environment. These perfumes were never made a part of The Glass House tour experience, however; they were rejected by the Trust who felt they smelled too much “like a trailer park.” By recreating the smells of The Glass House, Professor Otero-Pailos sought to preserve the aura of the space and the time in which it was used. The smell of time captured through the hierarchy of the prevailing elements present in the rooms in these moments, whether they be building materials, famous patrons, or a cumulative residue of life in the house. The Olfactory Reconstruction of The Glass House is an act of design preservation, isolating and preserving the effects of the design decisions made by Johnson while also capturing the moment in time when the design (or in this case the house) was used; subconsciously we learn a lot about a space, time, culture through our experience of smell. From this standpoint, it seems wrong for the Trust to have deodorized the house with the cleansers that infuse the architecture with the associated smells of “clean” as defined by society’s current aesthetic standards. Instead of looking to add new scents to spaces, how can we reexamine or magnify the scents that already exist to give ourselves a fuller understanding of the time and space itself? Thousands of dollars are spent in the crafting of museum experiences and the addition of entertaining features to engage visitors, and yet the inherent odors of things and places offer a direct means of unlocking the underlying essential qualities of these artifacts that already make them meaningful to the individual. In the nineteenth century museums evolved into public spaces, important sites for the testing and presenting of scientific visual paradigms for cultural acceptance. In the twenty-first century the museum has become a site of multi-modal experience and entertainment. The expanded interest in museums in the 1800s subsequently changed the visitor’s experience from one of hands-on learning to a new role of pure viewership. “In the new era of heightened visualism touch was no longer generally believed to furnished important aesthetic or intellectual insights,” says Constance Classen, a sensory anthropologist. “The restriction of touch in the museum was not considered to be any great loss. The important thing was to see.”Touching pieces of a museum collection was deemed “uncivilized” and damaging to the artifacts; prior to this change, however, there had been little emphasis on conservation. As more and more people gained access to museums during the nineteenth century, the potential damage to collections through handling became more apparent. Yet today, items in museum collections, especially design acquisitions, are more often objects of mass consumption than limited-edition relics, and visitors to museums expect to engage in the gallery space on more than just a visual level. Think of the little girl at the Walker Arts Center who, in a moment of pure inquisitiveness, decided to lick a painting only to know how a stroke of color tasted.Audiences are hungry for a multi-sensory experience, and more and more appearances are not enough to delight them. (…) Capable of detecting thousands of scent molecules, the human sense of smell is supported in our culture by a shockingly small vocabulary. Unlike the senses of sight or sound, the English language allows few means of communicating the nuances of scent. The words that do exist are specific to commercial enterprises and do not touch on the subtleties of the humble but meaningful odors that shape the ways in which we interact with each other and the objects and spaces around us. This lack of ability to relate the fine distinctions of odor means that it is difficult to cognitively access the depth and dimensionality of aromatic experience or to come to a common point of reference. Not being able to communicate the subtlety of smell denies a person access to the fullness of their emotional and memorial experience in the same way not finding the words to communicate emotion can be hobbling to one’ s ability to express oneself. This difficulty spreads outward in every direction and can reveal itself in cultural or racial intoleranceand a distrust of any odor that exists outside of our extremely limited spectrum of accepted smell classification. The limits of smell-related language are easily illustrated by the perfume industry, which seems stuck within the constraints of “floral,” “fresh,” “woody,” and “oriental” notes in its work. While it is commonly understood that the human eye perceives visible color through the use of three types of cone photoreceptors, research in the field of olfaction has recently shown that the human sense of smell is made up of over three hundred and fifty types of olfactory receptors—meaning that the basic smells we can detect far outnumber the colors we can see. This discovery of how we smell has allowed chemists to create captive scent molecules that the human nose has never smelled before, creating experiences that we could never before have thought possible. While we cannot learn to see new colors, we can learn to experience new scents. This knowledge offers exciting possibilities within contemporary culture, wherein our vision and hearing are overextended and exhausted conduits of information transmission. Video gamers in immersive environments already heavily rely on the input they absorb through their eyes and ears; the use of smell could relieve some of this burden while concurrently drawing on the inherently emotional and psychological meaning unique to smells, lending the game experience a more authentic vapor of reality. Designers, already using ergonomics to bring value to the function of objects, could imagine the potential to add the texture of feeling to the sensed ambience of their designs. Some of the first to embrace the opportunity of odors are in the marketing community. In the mid-1990s, casinos began employing subliminal scents to increase the time their clientele spent gambling. Retail companies have utilized fragrance to mark architectural space with their “branded” scent, while products for the home, office and car are doused with additive perfumes in an effort to create market appeal. Yet these initial efforts in smell and design fall short of really harnessing the innate value of smell to the human users. We already design for a user built of bones and muscles, but the considered application of smell in the design process offers the potential of designing for their emotional psyche. It is a radical shift in the conception of both the consumer and the user: it means that a T-shirt does not just fit seamlessly onto the physical body, but that it might also fit the emotional profile of that individual as well. Just as the way body odors reflect the genetic composition of a person and fit them, the smell of a thing can add another level of accordance to a design, connecting with the emotional and psychological dimensions of individuality in the way only smell can. Developed as an evolutionary tool, the human sense of smell tells us what to eat (or not eat), who to mate with, and what spaces we should inhabit. In elemental terms, smell is the sense that allows us to tell the “good” from the “bad” within the intimacy of our personal space. Yet since the Enlightenment and the consequent elevation of sight and sound to the “higher” senses, our more carnal sense of smell has been downgraded to the point of almost complete obscurity and insignificance in Western European culture. After the Industrial Revolution and during the rise of Modernism in design, Western society developed an obsession with the aseptic space and the deodorized body. Odors were no longer recognized as tools to communicate with, but as aspects of ourselves and our environments that ought to be eradicated. New nonporous materials such as plastics and metal were introduced under what we might think of as a culturally induced anosmia, which was teaching us to ignore the inherent smells of matter. Fixing our attention on the synthetic scents, we instead cloaked our world with aromas we deemed more socially acceptable—and yet, did we as a culture really become smell blind to the ordinary odor of reality?