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After realising the perfume industry was dominated by just six major players, Saskia Wilson-Brown set about creating a non-profit enterprise that would empower everyday people with the ability to learn and create. Welcome to LA’s Institute for Art and Olfaction. By Kate Hennessy.

Scents and sensibilities

The founder of the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles, Saskia Wilson-Brown.
Credit: Institute for Art and Olfaction

“A Catholic funeral.” “Rotting oranges.” “Burnt hair.”

We’re sniffing strips of cardboard freshly dipped in a jar of aldehyde. In 1920, when Coco Chanel was deciding on her signature scent, her perfumer accidentally put 10 times too much aldehyde in his blend. “That’s the one!” Chanel apparently declared.

“Until then women had smelled like vanilla and violets,” says Saskia Wilson-Brown, founder of the Institute for Art and Olfaction. “This was a revolutionary smell and it matched what she wanted to do with her fashion line.” Chanel’s perfumer used jasmine and tuberose too. “These were strong flowers associated with seduction, trickery and witchcraft. Flowers with a lot of indole in them. Shall we smell some?”

I’m at a class called Foundations of Creative Perfumery. Also here is a healer, a jewellery designer, a psychologist, a storyteller and a guy who’d googled “other fun things to do in Los Angeles”. There’s a lady who has chaperoned her teenage grandson. “He has an amazing nose,” she says. “He can smell spoiled broccoli in the refrigerator from the other side of the house.”

Parking wasn’t a problem. Chinatown is tucked between Dodger Stadium and Downtown, and lots of Los Angeles lifers have never even been here. Sun has curled the corners of the souvenir shop postcards and you can photograph the Jackie Chan statue from every angle – no one’s hustling to go next. The Institute for Art and Olfaction is on the pedestrian-only Chung King Road, which was buzzing with galleries until about 10 years ago.

“A few of the key galleries moved and then everyone sort of followed,” Wilson-Brown tells me before the class, as she preps the 12 synthetic base notes we’re going to learn about. “LA’s so big, you know? If people are in Culver City for one opening they won’t drive to Chinatown for another. So all these spaces were empty; that’s how we could afford it.”

Of Cuban and English descent, Wilson-Brown was raised in Paris and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film and TV. YouTube’s ascent in 2006 got her excited about the dawn, as it then seemed, of democratised media, while around the same time, she began reading about perfume.

“I was speaking on panels about DIY distribution and self-empowered filmmaking and I was like, ‘Wow, all these issues in film are exactly the same in perfume,’ ” she says. The film industry’s goliaths were mirrored in “the big six” fragrance houses, and indie filmmakers were paralleled by independent perfumers. And while every culture and religion has a history of scent, from witchcraft to Hinduism, modern perfumery was grounded in a male Eurocentric mythology of “some guy, usually in France, smelling things poetically”.

Wilson-Brown got to work. The more she felt shut out, the more she realised perfume had an access problem. And once she’d seen the industry for what it was – a complex knot of power, control and monopolisation – she couldn’t unsee it. Crucial to her early education was a book by scent critic Chandler Burr titled The Emperor of Scent, about Lebanon-born scientist Luca Turin. “[Turin’s] suspicious of power, like me,” she says. She founded the institute in 2012 as a non-profit devoted to access, experimentation and decentralising power structures. “Smell is a visceral sense that connects to memory and human history,” she says. “If scent-making is an expression of creativity and creativity is a human right, it follows that scent-making should be open to all.”

In class, we learn the big six fragrance houses are Givaudan, Firmenich, IFF, Symrise, Takasago and Mane. These global companies control 99 per cent of fragrance and flavour by employing chemists to isolate aromatic molecules (synthetic smells), which are then patented. “Do you guys know about captive molecules? How somebody can own a smell?” Silence. Clearly we’re about to find out.

But first, more smelling. This time, a molecule called irone, which is the synthesised version of the iris flower root. Popular in the 1950s, it’s experiencing a major comeback. “If you go to Scent Bar in Hollywood and ask for an iris perfume, they’ll give you 20. It has a kind of low-energy sadness for a floral,” Wilson-Brown says. We take stabs at similes. She hears us out then gives us Turin’s description. “Like a funeral cortege of grey horses with purple plumes marching in the fog.”

Even without Turin’s lyricism, the sniffing sessions are humbling. Finding words to express new smells is like fumbling, half asleep, for the light switch in an unfamiliar room. We smell allyl amyl glycolate and I blurt out “dangerous!” but when a woman simultaneously declares “melting plastic” I know her dart found bullseye while mine bounced off the board. Food, emotions and associations are the basis of most people’s scent vocabulary, where perfumers speak in the precise language of chemicals.

Various taxonomies exist. The prettiest is a wheel that maps scents to colours in categories such as “minty”, “herbal”, “animalic” and “marine”. The most aspirational is Henning’s Prism, a model that asserts smell is a 3D mash-up manifesting someplace between “resinous”, “fruity” and “putrid”. Meanwhile in Berlin, a Norwegian artist named Sissel Tolaas – “she’s like the Kim Gordon of perfume”, says Wilson-Brown – has invented a language from scratch called NASALO, without chemical or food terms, that’s “kind of like the Esperanto of scent”.

Indole is the final molecule we smell. It’s what flowers and humans produce when they’re dying. The grandmother insists it smells like mothballs. Someone else says horrible breath. “You may ask why use this in a perfume?” says Wilson-Brown. “Indole adds the oomph that flowers actually have. We’re actually attracted to smells of decay in small amounts. Cultures have different relationships to the body and body odours but in general, humans all have a bit of a thing for funk.”

While overharvesting and climate change have caused well-documented problems in India with sandalwood, in Peru with palo santo and in Madagascar with vanilla, Wilson-Brown still finds herself debunking the myth that natural materials are by default superior. Especially in California. “They have an aversion to synthetics here but our love of naturals is decimating the planet,” she says.

Perfume may be global but the institute is very much of its city. In 2016, Wilson-Brown collaborated with Los Angeles artist Joe Merrell and a University of California LA expert in the smells of reported UFO abductions. The aromas most often described are cinnamon with a distinctly cloying aspect, burning cardboard, dampness, yeast and rotting fruit, Merrell’s website says. He and a perfumer later created a perfume called Abduction, which he sells at UFO conventions. “It’s such a specific audience and he’s the only person hitting it,” says Wilson-Brown. “UFO fans like their perfumes, as it turns out.”

Where else could such a project have been dreamed up? In her founder’s statement, Wilson-Brown writes that Los Angeles is a city that’s long embraced ideas that would feel “strange and audacious” elsewhere. “This city popularised Korean tacos, method acting, Satanism, fad diets, botox, yoga cults, gangster rap, neon, Mickey Mouse, red carpets and reggaeton,” she writes. “Here, you can live and make a living in the most esoteric ways.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2020 as "Scents and sensibilities".

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Kate Hennessy
is a Walkley Award-winning journalist specialising in arts and travel.