Hey, Smell This: Olfactory Art Is Coming to New York

Chandler Burr is an artist. (That's him in the photo above.) A creative specialist, if you will. But you'll never see his work, or hear it on the radio, or read it on your Nook. Burr is the world's only curator of olfactory art, and he has a show(? display? exhibit? Help me out here) coming to the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York.

In The Art of Scent: 1889-2012, Burr will be introducing museum visitors to 12 highpoints in the history of fragrance, thanks to diffusion technology that releases perfume in minute puffs. But it’s still not clear how much of his audience will recognize the art form’s finer points. Holly Hotchner, MAD’s director, heads up a museum devoted to crossovers—to bridging craft and design and fine arts of every kind. But even she sees the show she supports as a gamble: “This is probably as far afield as we’ve gone, in terms of experimentation, because people aren’t used to using their noses.” Burr’s determined to change that, nostril by nostril. (He says we only smell through one at a time.)

If it seems complicated, that's because it is. For most of us, perfume smells like... well, perfume. And while different fragrances vary, there's an inherent "perfuminess" to each of them that tells your brain, "Hey, these aren't flowers." But picking apart those notes and understanding that each nuance of fragrance is a synthetic interpretation of a recognizeable smell is something Burr believes is an art, and that art has a history. He just wants the chance to show you. Er, let you smell it. 

Whether you decide to visit MAD and sniff your way through the Rennaisance, romantic and photorealistic eras of perfumery, Burr's conversation with The Daily Beast's Blake Gopnik is an interesting read, filled with Burr's revelations you'd probably never wonder about otherwise. For instance: “The scent of Coppertone is incredibly well made, is beautifully composed. Call it a work of design—call it what you will—it is a minor work of art.” See? Never crossed my mind. List

Photo: The Museum of Arts and Design

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