Sweet Stank of Innovation Wafts Across Parsons’ Scent Symposium

Panelists from IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances Inc.), product designers, researchers, neurobiologists, architects, and design critics discuss scent as a design tool–and get the full olfactory array, from “partnership” to “sexy time,” “birth” to “death,” and more.

sexy time


Black balloons, filled with the scent of “Sexy Time,” a potent mix of chocolate, condoms, candles, post-coital bed sheets, sweat, nail polish, and lipstick–in short, the smell of a college student’s dorm room–filled the lobby of a Parsons auditorium on Friday, sending conference attendees off with a smelly jolt to their own weekends.

It was the climax (sorry) of an extraordinary day in which an international array of speakers gathered in a very fragrant auditorium at Parsons The New School for Design to explore the idea of using scent as a medium for design.

sexy time

Organized by Paola Antonelli, senior design curator at MOMA, Jamer Hunt, chair of Urban and Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons, and Laetitia Wolff, founder of future flair, the symposium, called “Headspace, on Scent as Design,” brought together panelists from IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances Inc.), product designers, researchers, neurobiologists, architects, and design critics for a day-long investigation of how the science of smell might play out as a design tool.

Scent has been under-utilized, conference organized maintained, largely because we have trouble expressing ourselves in olefactory language. “Where’s the dictionary of scent?” asked Wolff. “Should we have a scratch and sniff encyclopedia? We all agree that red is about energy, passion and love, but what are the building blocks of scent?”



Donna Karan, for example, struggled to describe the kind of fragrance she wanted to create,” Carlos Benaim, VP, Perfumer at IFF, creator of Ralph Lauren Polo and Armani Code Donna, said. “Finally, she took out a bolt of red suede and said, ‘This is what I want my fragrance to smell like.’ We don’t have a perfume vocabulary, so we have to borrow from other senses. Color, temperature, texture, etc.”

Plus, he said, there are cultural differences that need to be taken into account. “For American women, the smell of ‘sexy’ is clean, like after a shower. In France, it’s very difference,” he noted slyly.

The conference revolved around a group of “accidental perfumers”–designers who worked with professional perfumers from IFF to create scents that facilitated their designs.

With the smell of “birth,” infusing the auditorium, “Accidental perfumer” Ayse Birsel, product designer with Birsel + Seck, said she had wanted to create pebbles infused with the scent of major life passages: birth, babies, puberty, sex, partnership, empty nest, and death. The idea was to create an object that would link fragrance and memory. Birth, Birsel said, should smell like oxygen and cold, as a newborn comes into the world; death like wet leaves and earth. Puberty should be all unbalanced and hormoney, while sex should be a musky mix of yin and yang. “I wanted a pebble that I could smell in 20 years and it would bring back memories,” Birsel said.

Benaim recalled trying to create a scent that captured the idea “gigabyte” for a special issue of Visionaire magazine. “What came to mind was the color blue,” he said. A certain ingredient, Musk Z4, has an incredible feeling of blue, he said, and he was struck when he went into the Apple store by the musky plasticky odor of the store. By analyzing a photographer’s favorite scent, he came upon the ingredient orris, an extract of the iris root, which has a “fantastic cold feeling.” The combination was perfect for a techie concept like gigabyte.

A device that would allow the combination of technology and scent could be very powerful, he said. “Imagine the library of music in your ipod, cross fertilized with scent. It would be fantastic.” “One Toke Over the Line,” with the smell of weed? The Marcy Playground hit “Sex and Candy” with musk? “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” with the aching, pimply smell of puberty?


Scent, Benaim noted, lives both in time and space. Perfume, he says, radiates 3-4 feet, and the scent evolves on the skin over the course of a few hours. “It’s all about how fast the molecules grow in the air,” he said. “Some are sprinters and others long distance runners. The combination of the two create a fragrance.”

Accidental Perfumer Toshiko Mori, architecture professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, wanted to create a scent that embodied the idea of anti-gravity. “I wanted to take somebody out of reality, like when they’re flying” she said. Her partner in creation, IFF perfumer Yves Cassar, said he was tried to create a scent that had the same level of abstraction as mathematics or string theory.

The New York Times Perfume Critic Chandler Burr took one whiff of the scent suffusing the room and pronounced it “The smell of communism. It’s like getting hit with a blunt instrument. You could make this a market product,” he said. “It’s smells like a nuclear meltdown.” Ouch. “It’s a combination of something pleasurable and something that makes you think, ‘Oh, Christ! I’ve gotta run!'”

Scent researcher Anna Barbara said she’s been using scent as a space-creating device, much as a lighting designer would do with lamps and light fixtures. “I don’t think scent should just be part of the decoration, sprayed on at the last minute,” she said. “It should be in the DNA of a product.”

Artist and researcher Sissel Tolaas focuses on the relationship between smell and language–and not just words. “What if you could embed the smell of money into the wallpaper–then when you scratch the wall, you’d feel rich?” she asked. Don’t laugh. Tolaas did something similar for the private lounge at UBS. What if you could capture the sweat of phobic men at the moment of a panic attack — and then flood the ducts of a building with the scent as an evacuation system? Tolaas tried that too. “What if you could get a scent of Haiti? You’d understand what it’s like to live there now,” she said. “It would be far more powerful than words.”

After a day of exploring scent’s possibilities, Birsel summed up the feelings of most of participants: “When you bring scent into design, it adds a whole new dimension. It’s like doing a silent film, and now there’s sound.”


Top photo by Chris Choi.

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.