The Daily Heller: Clearing the Air on Scent

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Those who practice the sensory arts are designers, every bit as much as those who practice the plastic and concrete arts. Designing scents, mixing the aromas and odors into functional composites to elicit various emotions, from desire to disgust, is a segment of design that was, is and always will be essential to the fine and applied arts.

In Jude Stewart’s latest book, Revelations in Air: A Guidebook to Smell (Penguin), the author opens a window onto the sweet and savory, sharp and pungent, and dozens of other alluring triggers for human olfaction. Her writing is an alluring blend that covers everything you need to explain smells and smelling. Nonetheless, I sniffed out a few ideas that are not in the book—or obviously so – and asked Stewart to further explain.

What inspired you to write Revelations in the Air? Scents and odors are all around us, but how much they influence our lives is taken for granted.
As you know, I’ve written about graphic design and visual culture for a long time. But I found my enthusiasm for the topic flagging and wasn’t sure why. The ubiquity of super-perfect images—on Instagram, all over the internet and our phones—suddenly struck me as suspect. I wondered what all these beautiful images papered over. What else wasn’t I noticing?

Smeller 2.0 © Mathias_Voelzke

The answer came in a chance encounter with a smell exhibit in Berlin, during summer 2016. It was called Smeller 2.0, and I describe it more in the book’s introduction. But in a nutshell, picture a hermetically sealed room, dimly lit, with one wall dominated by a concatenation of pipes like a musical organ. Smells were emitted via these pipes into the room, and then a few seconds later sucked out of the air again. That prevented the smells from piling up into strange amalgams. I found the exhibit almost upsettingly intimate: so many smells blaring past, each with its detailed specificity. Yet I often couldn’t put a name to a smell until it was already gone. It really got me wondering about how smell works, how much it shapes our perception of reality. I’m really interested in any subject that leaves me tongue-tied, where there’s a sense of touching on something both vital and awkward. Smell became that topic for me.

You obviously began working on this before COVID, but since one of the symptoms of the virus is the loss of taste and smell, was there any washback on your approach?
Totally, but in an indirect way. 

Writing this book during last year was oddly comforting—and not just because I knew my smeller was in good enough shape to assuage my COVID anxiety. None of us could experience the world or travel as fully as we might ordinarily have done. Writing a book about smell was the perfect kind of armchair adventure, the only kind available to me during the pandemic. Every day the post brought new things to smell: lumps of ambergris from New Zealand, essential oils, Tahitian vanilla beans. It lent vividness and a sensory richness to ordinary life.

But as to how COVID influenced the book’s contents—it didn’t infiltrate the book’s pages directly. I didn’t want to stamp the book with COVID everywhere. But at the same time, I was increasingly aware that millions of people worldwide had lost their sense of smell or taste and suffered to a surprising degree by that loss. Suddenly my private revelation that smell is interesting was no longer private at all. So I kept that in mind throughout. The book includes various smell exercises to help you improve your smelling skills, whether you’ve lost your sense of smell or simply want to get better at it.

We know that scent has natural and “para-” natural powers on human and animal experience. What were the surprises you discovered as you went through your long list of fragrances?
So many surprises! So many. The chapter on skin discusses all the information our bodies are radiating constantly into the air as smells. Your bodily smell reveals info about your immune system, whether you’re getting sick (and with what disease), your age, your diet, your sexuality, your mood. Differing bodily smells between ethnic groups have been exaggerated and weaponized as justification for a lot of oppression. That’s just one of many examples.

But I guess the biggest surprise was that you can get better at smelling over time. All it takes is practice, patience and talking. When you smell something new and are asked to describe it, the urge to blurt out “IT SMELLS LIKE PEPPERMINT” or whatever is enormous. You gotta push yourself to notice more, and when you do it’s surprising how much detail you can find. Smelling is a great social activity, actually.

When I was a kid I learned that in Times Square, one of the major coffee brands (A&P) ran a sign that blew coffee scent into the street. I believe they were ordered by the City to stop. My dad told me that the Planters Peanuts store always wafted with peanut smells. What scents are the most powerful for altering behavior—good and bad?
Love that! My dad ran a chain of stuffed-toy stores in shopping malls across the Northeast. He swore the cookie shops in the food court pumped out artificial scents to amplify their natural baking smells and drive sales. 

But back to your question. Bodily smells are probably the most most influential in terms of altering our behavior, for good and for ill. On the flip side, lots of greetings exist across cultures that call for you to smell the person you’re greeting. Arabs engage in “nose kisses,” for instance, in which two men press the bridges of their noses together and inhale each other’s scent. 

But the good news is that there aren’t any smells that magically force anyone to open their wallets. Smells like that coffee scent do prime you at a sensory level that you don’t always notice consciously. A lot of a smell’s impact on you and your behavior is very personal. It depends a lot on what memories, associations, etc., have imprinted in your mind with a given scent. I think people worry about smells controlling their behavior because smell is pre-verbal. There’s even a word for this: the “olfactory verbal gap”—the sensation of recognizing a smell but not being able to name it. It can be unsettling not to have words for such a powerful experience. 

What did you find are the “best” and “worst” smells, given your definition of that spectrum?
Every chapter required me to sit with a different smell every week, sniffing it over and over. So of course you grow tired of most smells. But I couldn’t get enough of the smell of pipe tobacco. It had remarkable nuances and filled the room with a lovely atmosphere. I also learned more about it via my friend Dave, who’s a pipe smoker. So the smell of tobacco evoked friendly socially distanced hangs on our terrace with a dear friend.

Weirdly, my “worst” smells weren’t actually bad smells—they were just ones that I found boring very quickly. I wasn’t wild about the smell of roses for this reason, or jasmine—two important and beautiful perfume ingredients. I’m also a fan of stinks—part of my thesis with this book was that any smell could become interesting if you just commit to learning about it. Durian was a great example of this. It’s a super-stinky fruit from Southeast Asia that reeks of onions but tastes custardy-sweet. (I was lucky enough to be able to buy a fresh one in Uptown, Chicago.) I wanted to get acquainted with durian’s stink and find out why so many people love it. Eventually, I did get there!

Do we all smell a fragrance or odor the same way?
We do not. Humans have 400 different olfactory receptor types, enabling us to distinguish between 80 million to a theoretical 1 trillion different smells. But these 400 receptors aren’t a standard-issue set. About a third of my receptors will differ from yours, and each of us may have specific anosmias—smells we can’t detect—that we may or may not be aware of. Yet most of the time two people will inhale the same rose’s scent and identify it accurately, irrationally confident that they’re both smelling the same thing 

Obviously, many products are designed with smell in the forefront. What have you found is in the forefront of designing scent?
Only 20% of the $30 billion–plus flavors and fragrances industry consists of luxury perfumes. The other 80% consists of “functional perfumes”: smells added to laundry detergents, cleaning products, etc., after removing any unpleasant natural or industrial smells. “Unscented” products are a stage-managed fiction, in other words.

Luxury perfume has trends just like any other area of design. One trend that particularly interests me is perfumes that are barely there, almost non-smells. I wrote about one of these perfumes, Molecule 01 by experimental perfumer Geza Schön. It consists 100% of a lab-synthesized molecule called Iso E Super. This molecule appears as one of many molecules in quite a few iconic perfumes. Wearing Molecule 01 alters your personal scent much like a really good Photoshop’s effect on images: It’s the very slightest tweak or edit to reality, but somehow that tweak elevates everything.

As I said, there is so much to learn and ponder in this book. Where else could you take the subject that did not make it into the book?
As you know, if a topic interests you enough to write a whole book about it, you don’t suddenly lose interest in learning more after the manuscript is complete. I learned lots of things after writing was done that I was bursting to do something with later, and probably will write up now as magazine articles. Due to COVID, I didn’t get to visit a place called the Osmotheque in Paris, but it’s a historical archive of smells. There you can smell Hungary Water, which dates back to the 14th century, or Napoleon’s favorite perfume—in fact, you can actually buy his perfume on the internet. I went down a rabbit hole in learning about how deodorants work. Another rabbit hole: all the tactics to hide the smell of cannabis in a room. Turns out those tactics are all great object lessons in how smells move through air. An interesting smell I didn’t write up in the book was leather. Just-tanned leather gloves are actually very stinky, so medieval leatherworkers scented them regularly with frangipani. This dual profession gave rise to guilds of leatherworker-cum-perfumers, the perfumier-gantiers.

And then there’s the stuff I’m still curious about and haven’t researched about smell. I’d love to dig into the history of perfume ads, how ultra-strange the visuals are and how they clash with the impossible task of conveying a smell. 

You have probably been asked this a million times, but why is there not a scent connected to the book (other than that new book smell when you open the shrinkwrap for the first time)?
Ha! Fair point. I was pushing for scratch-and-sniff printing for a while there, but in fact smells printed that way fade really rapidly. They’re not ideal for a long-lasting object like a book.