Design Deconstructed: Pentagram’s Natasha Jen On The Ephemeral Brilliance Of Perfume

Follow your nose.


A partner at Pentagram, Natasha Jen relies on her eye to create inventive graphic projects, from museum catalogs and brand identities to marketing campaigns. But the thing that’s preoccupying her now relates less to the eye and more to the nose: perfume and its ephemeral nature.


Co.Design: Can you tell us about the perfume that caught your attention?
Natasha Jen: The brand is called Maison Louis Marie. It’s been around for a long time. They started out in 1792 and make these wonderfully light perfumes.

What about it fascinates you?
Why I find perfume a really great design object is that you don’t see it, but it’s so complex and it’s so visceral. It creates an emotional reaction and good design should provide an emotional response. As a layman you can’t always understand why.

As a designed object, perfume is so complex; to translate flowers and plants into a liquified form and to translate that into scent. The ultimate product itself is not so easy to understand. When you smell a nice scent you can’t tell what it’s made from. There are so many layers. As a graphic designer, I talk about a form factor that can be analyzed by our eyes. Scent is a different faculty that we can’t intellectualize.


What was it like when you first came across this brand?
I walked into a store and I didn’t have any knowledge of this brand—I’m not a perfume freak I don’t collect it. The design of the bottle is super minimal: it’s a rectangular bottle with a white label and the name of the brand and the fragrance spelled out in serif typography. The smell is so subtle and so complex.

The fragrance name is called Cassis. I’m reading it now: “This fruity fragrance begins with a black-pepper note enhanced by bergamot and cassis.” It sounds amazing, but I still have no idea what this means!

What initially drew you to the bottle?
They’re doing the opposite of what every other perfume company is doing. The bottle design is so minimal, so unnoticeable, it makes them stand out from these über-designed perfume bottles.


How does an fleeting quality, like scent, relate to your work as a graphic designer, which is inherently visual?
Perfume is not something you can analyze visually. When you look at an object you can try to dissect it, you can look at materials and proportion and remake it hypothetically. But with scent, we’re unable to do that because there’s no visual layer to help you navigate.

We’re sort of in an age now where design was previously a mysterious profession. Industrial design, interface design, information design, and branding is codified, and becomes a curriculum that can be understood and accessed by the public. For example, the cover story of Harvard Business Review this month is about design thinking. But what we still have very little knowledge about is the intuitive part of design–the artistic factor that makes it an excellent design. The process, the message, and the technique needs to be there, but the mysterious artistic aspect we can’t codify isn’t known.

Perfume is all mystery, but it provokes strong emotional responses; either we love it or don’t like it. It’s an interesting thing to think about in this period of time.


Can you tell us bit about your process and how you apply artistry to your work?
We always start out with a very analytical and intellectual process. We look at the parameters of design and how we can solve a problem. But once we get through the foundational analysis, we begin to question how we can bring in unexpected or different elements that can solve the problem and that can cause surprise. That’s our goal with every single process. And that relates to the artistic aspect of things.

So did you end up buying the perfume?
Of course!


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.