Designed Experience: The Subliminal Effects of Scent

Designed Experience: The Subliminal Effects of Scent
Neural progenitors in an olfactory bulb overlaid on fragrant peonies
Photo
Point Editorial

There is a department store in central London with an entrance canopied by hydrangeas. Enter and ascend the wooden staircase to floor three. Find haberdashery, kitchenware, and a bathshop, inside of which there is a Tuscan vineyard — sunny and ancient and sultry, in the middle of London’s West End. You will have been transplanted to another country and another time, all in a matter of seconds — reminded of a postmodern state wherein aspects of one place (and one time) can reside within another. 

It is a diffuser that brought you to Tuscany, though you wouldn’t know it unless you investigated beyond first impressions. What is this smell, amidst so many others, that stands out? It is nuanced and immersive; enchanting rather than overwhelming. You do not need to have visited a vineyard to understand that this is a side of its scent: the distilled quintessence of sangiovese grape.

Upon experiencing something as special as this, you realize you must have whatever this is — especially if it is bottled and available for purchase. Take it home, allow it to lightly perfume the living room, and watch as time embeds its particles and connotations into your physical space. 

A pavlovian association will develop: scent is home; home is scent. 

Aura feels incomplete without scent, but in the personalization of our spaces it is usually an afterthought — a non-deliberate candle on non-regular occasions. For most people, its bespoke potential has yet to be unearthed on a grand scale.

And there comes a time — like on a random afternoon on the third floor of a Tudor revival department store — that you realize leaving olfactory nuances completely up to chance is a wasted opportunity. On a very basic level, scent closely resembles visual and auditory stimuli, and just as visual art-making, writing, and music-making are seen as creative endeavors — and their products seen as objects worthy of hanging on our walls, placing on our coffee tables, and playing on our bluetooth speakers — scent concoction is an artistic practice: its products decorative and aesthetic, bemusing and catalytic. 

Part of the reason “manufactured” scent is rarely positioned on the same level as other artforms is that many perceive it as a one-dimensional attempt at representation or recreation. Why seek out a concocted scent when you can have the “real” thing: crushed grapes, sunlight, and bottles of burgundy. In a similar vein, Plato famously argued that art is dangerous, as its representations of reality draw us away from our actual reality. In a 21st century world of digital reproductions, Instagram face, and deep fakes, Plato’s argument and the ramifications of recreations feel more immediate. But even today, this esteemed philosopher is still wrong — even when it comes to smells. 

A scent and whatever it claims to draw inspiration from — peonies, tobacco, cupcakes — are distinct experiential entities, just as Monet’s water lilies are distinct from biological water lilies and Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” is distinct from actual moonlight. 

The magic of manufactured scent is not so much in its ability to reproduce an experience; it is, in and of itself, its own experience — a sui generis production rather than simulacra in the pejorative sense. The supposed smell of a Florentine vineyard is not the actual experience of a Florentine vineyard, nor does it need or pretend to be. But it can, for reasons both logical and not, take someone’s imagination to a vineyard, to past memories — or to an ephemeral, future-forward daydream. It is not a single-faceted and purely sensory experience. An expertly crafted scent relies on life’s nuances — and seemingly disparate elements — to elevate or enrich our interactions with this planet and its residents.  

The breadth of human experience perfectly positions our species to produce multifaceted scents with the potential to become standalone phenomena that serve as cultural signifiers in their own right. Chanel n.5 is an iconic example; on the other end of the spectrum, we have anything casually labeled “pumpkin spice.” 

Taste in scent is variable: both a $300 diffuser and $20 Yankee Candle constitute an experience and contribute to a mood. What matters is what you choose and why — what kind of experiences you want to create, not only for yourself but for guests, lovers, and the strangers you bump into on the subway. 

The reason being: good and bad scents are unforgettable — even from a scientific standpoint. The olfactory bulb, where scent is processed, is closely connected to the brain’s regions responsible for storing memories and emotions. It makes sense that they leave impressions — subtle and not; impressions that produce actions and feelings, movements and opinions. Even representations of scents have the same effect. The opening line of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera, for example, famously relies on olfactory imagery, setting the stage for a 20th century literary masterpiece: 

“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” 

French surrealists were some of the first to harness the emotional power of scent by pairing it with the presentation of experimental art. As part of the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in 1939, they roasted coffee in specific rooms in efforts to create a totally immersive experience for the exhibition’s patrons. More recently, parfumier Christophe Laudamiel’s Green Aria: A Scent Opera, presented at the Guggenheim in 2009, incorporated over two dozen fragrances. Pumped through special “scent microphones” to an audience of 148 people, these fragrances — named things like “Industrial,”  “Absolute Zero,” and “Funky Green Imposter” — gave new depth to a familiar musical genre. 

Exit the Guggenheim and it’s possible to give this sort of new and deliberate depth to familiar spaces and “genres” of our own. 

Bathrooms, kitchens, bedrooms, bodies; vehicles, offices, patios, and handbags. Better to do so subtly, slowly, and methodically — in order to avoid sensory overload. It’s not the sort of thing that can or should happen overnight, especially since whatever scents we surround ourselves with should complement each other and shift depending on how we want them to affect us. Aroma aficionados have tips, but in all likelihood, we may not know how to describe scents, or to describe what we want in terms of effect. This is in part due to the fact that there is no common vocabulary surrounding the topic, and this — according to experts — holds true to differing extents across all major languages.  

It is possible to learn how to speak and observe like a master parfumier, but few have time to do this. Simplify things a bit, and we’re left with our evolutionary instinct and intuition — both amazing tools, especially when we’re mindful of them. Perhaps in the future we’ll have an olfactory version of Oda (in the form of an immersive scent “performance”), or diffusers that detect moods and/or use technology to try and complement them. But would we actually need these things? We’d have to ask ourselves: Are we trying too hard? 

Because at the end of the day, it’s not really about using the logical side of our brains (or even artificial intelligence) to make scent more special, “effective,” or powerful. Seeking to better harness or appreciate the effects of scent is really a matter of reviving and exercising our own imaginations. It’s about being receptive to scents, and then allowing them to tell stories that evoke scenes and feelings and potentialities. 

The rapidity with which an odor — good or bad — opens up our senses and takes us to another place is proof that scents augment our ability to perceive beyond what is right in front of us. Excuse the imagery, but they open up our nostrils and our brains. To consciously embrace the mystery of this experience is a gateway to a more imaginative existence, with positive consequences for our lives, habits, and creative practices.  

The crux, then, is not so much in detailing what a scent is, but to be aware of where it takes us and why. Rather than pushing these associations to the side or ignoring the stories they evoke, leaning into them — and perhaps even bringing some version of them to life — re-energizes routine. It has the potential to introduce more spontaneity, creativity, and romanticism into any human life. 

It’s a lovely practice, and for many, an entirely fresh avenue for experience by design. 

Image Credits:

Olfactory Bulb Texture: Wikimedia Commons
Peonies Image: Vera Sh

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