Hyper-Natural Scent from Design to Art by Chandler Burr

Hyper-Natural wrapped up late November – and I loved every bit of the experience and the exhibition.

I think Hyper-Natural is important for me personally. If I had to thank one individual in the fragrance world, it would immediately be Chandler Burr. Looking back, I can thank Chandler for many of my experiences thus resulting in my successes. When I look back at my experience with Chandler when he was in Melbourne, and all relevant sequences of events, it appears somewhat uncanny and frankly too good to be true. I thank Chandler most importantly for his generosity.

I’m a naturally timid person, and meeting an idol only makes things worse! When I entered the foyer at the National Gallery of Victoria to hear Chandler speak for an hour, I was shocked to see Chandler himself greeting others. Typical me, I bypassed straight out of sight immediately due to nervousness, however I was pushed back into the foyer on account of my Aunt and coaxed on to introduce myself. I am glad I did.

What’s immediately noticeable when speaking to Chandler is his strong accent. I bet he would say the same about Australians! During our discourse, he often paused and then laughed as at times we found it difficult to understand each other. Despite this minor difficulty in communication, Chandler was very kind in offering me a private invitation to meet up with him at a later date for a private tour of his exhibition. I jumped at this opportunity immediately.

Credit to the lovely Ainslie Walker from APJ.


Keynote Address: Hyper-Natural, Scent from Art to Design

Speaker: Chandler Burr, Curator, Department of scent art and design, New York

The night and address served as the hors d’oeuvres for the exhibition. Many bloggers and fragrance fans alike filled the wonderful hall all wanting to hear from Chandler and then pick at his brain. You could separate the enthusiasts from the die hard fans of perfume too – as there was a scattering of people furiously writing down notes and laughing at the esoteric jokes. I recall one lady wrote so much that I doubt she even looked up for at least a minute!

Burr cycled through the exhibition with a human touch –  sharing anecdotes and some topics slightly off tangent.  Burr loves to draw comparisons to visual art, a feature I have now adapted in my writing. Words like surreal, naturalistic, impressionism, industrialism, and realism all were apart of Burr’s vernacular, and were supported with actual fragrant examples. At Burr’s request NGV staff and volunteers handed out pre-soaked blotters scented with the fragrances and raw materials on display at the exhibition [I will go into these later on]. Burr engaged with the audience too by asking them what they thought they were smelling or asking questions along the lines of “Does this smell real, or synthetic?” This was then followed by the audience’s response which was either bizzaro or well-researched and in most cases polarising. For the record, I was able to identify most fragrances and some of the single scent molecules.

This lasted for a little over an hour, and I enjoyed the wildly varying stories Burr shared; some regarding Maurice Roucel and my favourite fragrance from the Malle line, Dans Tes Bras, celebrity fragrances, and perfume-y things such as IFF, Givaudan, and Thierry Wasser creating Kylie Minogue’s Darling. Questions could then be asked, and despite there being one ignominious comment about ‘perfume trends’ – which was something Burr contended clearly against – some great questions were asked. I particularly loved a snappy question about why Burr hadn’t put Mitsouko in the exhibition – the very famous chypre. The question made many people chuckle, or oppositely gasp at the question-giver’s courage. In retrospect, Chandler could have easily talked about aldehydes and the use of Aldehyde C-14 giving a sparkling peach opening to a fragrance and pairing it with Mitsouko. We shall not question the master.

Cis 3 Hexenol Chandler

Credit to the lovely Melita of https://perfumepolytechnic.wordpress.com


Private Tour & Exhibition: Hyper-Natural, Scent from Art to Design

“A maze of clustered clouds will offer a sensory exploration of scent design when an installation and exhibition by New York curator of olfactory art Chandler Burr opens in the back garden of the NGV this Spring.”

“Hyper-Natural: Scent from Design to Art will present seven small scent stations shrouded in man-made clouds and scattered throughout the NGV’s garden. Each station will house one of seven specially selected synthetic scent molecules and be paired with a major olfactory work of design, or perfume, in which that molecule is a vital design element.”

An open and free flowing exhibition, one could view children playing around in the grass and elderly couples leisurely strolling around dipping their labelled blotters into little bowls filled with fragrant liquids. It was comforting seeing fragrance so aligned with art, especially at a prestigious gallery. It was as if Chandler’s goal in promoting the fact that fragrance can be an art form is now being readily accepted – and for those who were tentative about that notion could easily and freely visit the exhibition and hopefully be persuaded. To see art that appealed to the nose coexist with art appealing to the sense of vision was both exciting and created a sense of solace.

As expected, the NGV and the garden smelt great. Nestled between the verdant grass and colourful flowers, the sun shone high in the sky – not too hot nor too cold. Tall pods containing bowls of fragrance gave a sleek clinical and industrial feel against the natural garden, whilst mist machines carried the wonderful scents and diffused them into the atmosphere; if only the air always smelt of Shalimar!

The private tour featured a very small group – which was good for me as I could ask more questions. I met some very important people at this tour that have opened many, many doors for me and I am eternally grateful. I walked around with the benevolent and astute Margaret Khoury and Erica Moore of Michael Edwards’ Fragrances of the World, and the hilarious Jill Timms of Peony Hawthorn, with Chandler of course. We all took turns dipping our blotters and discussing the fragrances and scent molecules at each section. Burr acknowledged that the exhibition was somewhat ‘newbie’ friendly, and thus many basic things were already obvious to us on tour. As a result we discussed lots of other things, both related and unrelated to perfumery. There was a great sense of synergy present, especially when a fragrance evaluator, a curator, a niche store owner, the general manager of Fragrances of the World and a blogger (me!) come together and engage in conversation broad enough to encompass topics along the lines of perfumers to perfume advertising, perfume bottles and pet peeves.

Despite my timid nature, I was able to ask Chandler for a photograph and an autograph… He happily obliged.

Meeting Chandler Burr


 The Scents: Hyper-Natural, Scent from Art to Design

There were 7 complete fragrant artworks all from Guerlain (1889 – 2014) on display paired each with a relevant synthetic scent molecules, making for 14 interactive entities in total.

I myself own some of the raw materials in their undiluted state and know how potent they are. Luckily the raw materials in the exhibition were diluted in alcohol. We begin with coumarin:

1. Design Material: Coumarin.

In 1820 a French chemist isolated a single molecule from natural tonka bean that defines the tonka scent. This is known as either 2H-chromen-2-one or coumarin. This smells of marzipan, baked goods, and hay, and was synthesised in 1868.

1. Jicky – Guerlain 1889

This fragrance heralded the beginning of abstract perfumery. As natural ingredients were added to Jicky, for example, orange flower, rosemary, civet, and lavender, individuals could still use a natural reference point to identify this fragrance. However, with the addition of synthetic coumarin, all reference points are blurred; it smells like nothing else in nature. Thus also came modern perfumery. The Jicky of today smells old school, with a strong lavender and civet facet – riddled with traces of warm coumarin.

2. Design Material: Ethyl Vanillin.

This is a magnificent molecule. Synthesised in 1872, this synthetic ‘vanilla’ uses an ethyl group, compared to the natural ‘vanilla’, which uses a methyl group. This is much stronger and much more aromatic in contrast to the naturally obtained vanilla. This smells almost too real in my opinion, but gives amazing depth when used as a part of a whole.

2. Shalimar – Guerlain 1925.

What’s to say about this masterpiece?  I personally find it so comforting I spray it around my room. The Ethyl Vanillin in Shalimar (2%)  makes (as described by Burr) it supernatural. Perfumer Ernest Beaux (No. 5, No. 22, CdR, and BDI) – the Chanel masterpieces basically – said that “When I use vanilla, I make crème anglaise; when Jacques uses vanilla, he makes Shalimar.” That’s an offhand comment if I ever saw one! Ethyl Vanillin used here is crisp, angelic, and less balsamic.

3. Design Material: Sulfox.

This material was discovered in 1969 by two German scientists who isolated a ‘fierce’ molecule from a green, woody plant named buchu and found in southern Africa. p-Mentha-8-thiol-3-one, this stuff is dangerous, and I love it in small concentrations. The description given by Burr is a favourite of mine – “It smells of a nuclear-powered exotic fruit salad: mango, grapefruit and guava fired with plutonium and with a strong sulphur angle like the smell of a pitch-black blackcurrant.” This stuff reeks of urine and is sharp by itself. It is heavenly when blended.

3. Chamade – Guerlain 1969.

“When the latest Guerlain Perfumer Thierry Wasser arrived at Guerlain, Jean-Paul showed him the formula. ‘You’re crazy’ Thierry said to Jean-Paul.” Chamade uses 1% sulfox overall, smelling much like cassis/blackcurrant.  Add galbanum to that and we have an incredibly green, faintly nuclear powered scent. Chamade.

4. Design Material: Polysantol.

“This is wood with cream poured over it.” It is a naturally isolated molecule from sandalwood, which loses the tar and retains (amplifies) the wood and cream notes. “There are a good number of sandalwood synthetics” says Burr, and each highlight a different aspect of natural sandalwood. A great abstract scent molecule, this stuff if thundering and “pottery smashing” says Luca Turin.

4. Samsara – Guerlain 1989.

This story and the idea behind this fragrance is glorious. Both sandalwood and jasmine are revered in Asian spiritual and religious rituals, and Samsara in sanskrit means ‘continuous flow’ – reincarnation. Samsara is comforting, and Polysantol aids in achieving that. This was the then modern oriental, for an oriental crazy market. Rich florals and a great creaminess.

5. Design Material: cis-3-hexenol.

Chandler’s favourite isolated molecule. It is the scent of green – a bombastic scent of cut grass at first and then unripe and green banana skin. “Totally delicious yet inedible”. When diluted this has a fresh aroma, like a gust of wind and a chlorophyll angle. Cis-3-hexenol smells lifelike and somewhat readily available to smell in nature “it allows the scent designer to paint scent portraits that are ultra lifelike.” Otherwise known as hyperrealistic fragrance artworks.

5. Herba Fresca from the Acqua Allegoria line – Guerlain 1999.

This work is astonishing. This is an amazingly picturesque fragrance. Cut grass, lemon and green tea combine to recreate the sensation of walking barefoot in damp grass in the spring time. This has a slight floral touch only enhancing the dreamy realistic nature of the fragrance, ‘as if seen through thick walls of glass’ says Burr. He told the audience at the Keynote to spray this stuff on their pillows. It’s magic.

6. Design Material: Methyl Cyclopentenolone.

“The smell of chewing chocolate and black liquorice, yummy. The molecule is a so-called ‘maple lactone’ due to its sweet caramel maple-syrup smell, like sugary burnt coffee with bready, nutty nuances.” The cousin of ethyl maltol, that is caramel and fairy-floss, this is maple syrup and liquorice. If only this was edible.

6. La Petite Robe Noir – Guerlain 2009.

It’s a shame really – I much prefer the molecule to the scent.

Thierry Wasser (perfumer) wanted to recreate the shade of black, and the scent one would spritz on when wearing a little black dress, hence the name. The use of methyl cyclopentenolone – as discussed – liquorice, adds to the ‘black effect’. Whilst the tactile addition of benzalhyde smells of bitter almonds, a pinch of rectified birch tar (smokey dark leather), and other ingredients both synthetic and natural, made for a young and fruity, yet mildly dark fragrance. Cake!

7. Design Material: Benzaldehyde.

“Benzaldehyde is one of the oldest molecules in the scent designer’s palette (1832), yet is very difficult to use – you have to wrestle it into submission; however used correctly it lets designers crete a fascinating vibration. It is the smell of bitter almonds (abstracted and perfected).”

7. L’Homme Ideal – Guerlain 2014.

I’ve reviewed this, and it doesn’t do much for me. However the story behind this is great. Wasser was in the factory mixing up some fresh Jicky. When they started pouring in the benzaldehyde he was ‘completely intoxicated’. This smell of bitter almond hitting lavender inspired Thierry, thus came the fragrance. For me, it is a fougere clashing with a gourmand, as this also uses ethyl vanillin and coumarin – constant tension.


Chandler Burr – come back anytime!

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