Sissel Tolaas: The Science of Smell

The Scandinavian Odor Expert Discusses the Future of Sweat Vs. Perfume

Scent curator, researcher and “professional provocateur” Sissel Tolaas is currently exploring the aromatic potential of bacteria in her ongoing investigation into the most mysterious and evocative of our senses. Raised between Iceland and Norway, for a decade Tolaas has called Berlin home, where she has been building an extensive and ever-growing library cataloguing different smells—now over 7000. Tolaas first stepped into the world of scent in the late 80s after studying for degrees in mathematics, chemistry and visual arts in Scandinavia, Poland and Russia. She has worked at institutions such as MIT and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, shown at museums including MoMA New York, Britain’s Tate Liverpool and the National Museum of Beijing and counts among her clients Cartier, Comme des Garçons and DaimlerChrysler. The cross-disciplinary sensory connoisseur discusses the future of her field and our personal perfumes.

Which ingredients do you feel will embody the smell of the future?
I think bacteria on the body is a big issue. Recently products have utlized bacteria for the purpose of producing food, so we made teas from human body sweat, and it got a lot of attention. The body in general is a big subject—what the body can do beyond what we think it can do. Science is so much further along than the commercial world, and our notions of "bad" and "good" have to be re-discussed and re-valued. 

How do you imagine our relationship to scent will evolve?
I think schools should have new disciplines dealing with the amazing software we have on our bodies: our senses. We’re learning how to see and how to hear, but we don’t learn how to taste, how to smell or how to touch. I’ve been doing a lot of workshops with kindergartens and primary schools and I think that kind of experience has a very big future. 

Are we going to start to smell different in the future?
Yes. Today we all smell the same; we communicate through perfume ads and I think that’s a shame. We each have a body smell as unique as our fingerprints and I think we will start to rediscover and appreciate that. I have nothing against cleaning up, it’s just that we do these things without thinking. 

Will we start to find different ways to enhance and personalize our own odors?
Yes!  I think that instead of saying that Chanel No. 5 is a solution, we will start to think, "I need one molecule for leisure, another for business, another for sleep, another for healthcare," and so on. Maybe we should start to be a little bit more honest about each other’s smells, too—otherwise nothing’s going to change. 

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Conversations (3)

  • stephen.hensley
    "Je reviens en trois jours, ne te laves pas."
    • Posted By stephen.hensley
    • January 07, 2013 at 10:05PM
    • Share Comment:
  • Rhada
    Interesting article about perfumery and its future. However, there are many of us who have been practicing natural or "individual" perfumery for years. I, myself have been working with natural perfumery for over 28 years. I learn something new very day. We seem to have gotten away from the natural perfumery way of making perfumes with the popularity of the synthetic perfumes of the 1970' to today. Prior to that perfumery was in many ways based on personal perferrences as the author of this article has stated. In the United States there is a trend back toward natural perfumery through the growing field of aromatherapy. Here is where much experimentation is being done. Aromatherapy in the eyes of many, is still considered a step-child to the perfumery world but is it? Aromatherapy is where people are daring to make a difference and try many new avenues that are blocked to the snythetic perfumer and this area is growing daily.
    • Posted By Rhada
    • January 06, 2013 at 9:12PM
    • Share Comment:
  • Miro Mele
    Agree 1005. We made some initial contact to bioscience researchers and the possibilities are almost borderless. By exploring scents by Parfummel we encontered surprisingly different reactions on same fragrance by different people. And last not least, our sexual communication is very much based on smell perception!

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    Margiela's Heavenly Scent

    Mark Borthwick Discovers the Elysian Fields Within The Maison’s New Perfume

    Renaissance man Mark Borthwick presents a fittingly abstract short to herald the arrival of fashion house Maison Martin Margiela’s second perfume, (Untitled) L'Eau. A self-professed admirer of Margiela’s deconstructivist garments, Borthwick took inspiration from the fragrance’s naturalistic notes of Mandarin orange, curly-leaf mint, Amalfi lemon, buchu essential oil and African orange flower, taking the viewer on a journey through an idyllic spring garden, as seen from the inside of the L’Eau bottle. The London-born, Brooklyn-based director, photographer, artist and musician cut his teeth shooting for the likes of AnOther Magazine and The Face before expanding into art and film; he has since brought his trademark saturated color and blown focus aesthetic to collaborations with Mike Mills, Sonic Youth and Chloë Sevigny, among others. NOWNESS talked to Borthwick about the connection he feels with Maison Martin Margiela, and the importance of being a nonconformist.

    What was the inspiration behind the film?
    I guess there’s an essence, a central sense that inspired me towards the smell. The stepping-stone was trying to immerse myself in the poetry of this collaboration of smells and essences. 

    Was there a story you wanted to tell?
    If anything it was about trying to let go of any kind specific narrative, of anything that was literal or tangible. It was really just about a sense of freedom. There was the direction from the perfume itself though. It has this delightful summer breeze feeling that transpires the various essences and herbs.  

    What interested you about working with Margiela?
    The first Margiela show in 1988 completely blew my mind. From a fashion and styling point of view it was breaking ground. It suggested that you could continually push yourself to see things in a different way and not have to conform in order to participate in the industry.

    Is there a thread that connects your different creative outlets?
    In the end it all comes from you; everything you do is a sense of expression, everything you say, any kind of action you participate in. I would to hate to say that one is more important than the other. I feel like today, especially, I can’t do one without the other because they all thread and weave together.

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    Damien Hirst: On the Spot

    The Industrious Art Star Occupies Gagosian Galleries Worldwide with His Complete Spot Paintings

    A rhinestone-wearing Damien Hirst explains the theory and thought behind his infamous spot paintings in the latest short from filmmaker Matt Black. The legendary British artist, made famous by submerging mammals in formaldehyde and creating jaw-droppingly expensive jewel-encrusted skulls, has become one of the most prolific and lucrative names in contemporary art. The Complete Spot Paintings, 1986-2011, his series of 331 white canvasses imbued with rows of multicolored dots, are currently on display at all 11 of mega-gallerist Larry Gagosian’s sites around the globe. Manufactured largely by Hirst’s army of assistants, the paintings range in size and detail, with the most recent, completed in 2011, containing some 25,781 spots each 1mm in diameter; no single color is ever repeated on a canvas. Black first encountered Hirst’s hyper-symmetrical series in the mid 1990s, and found that his opinion on the works slowly developed from ambivalence to fascination. “When you are in a room full of them, they are overwhelming and disturbing; these dots staring at you creates a real sense of anxiety,” says Black. “His work always has an aggressiveness, and these are no exception.”

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