Sniffing at Sensorium ~ out of the bottle

Sephora Sensorium

I'll be honest. I didn't expect much from Sensorium. The promotional materials announced that the exhibit was "presented by" Sephora with "magic by" flavor and fragrance company Firmenich. That info, and the tagline "lucid dreams from the sensory world" suggested a barrage of the usual perfume PR nonsense. When I arrived at the small storefront in Manhattan's Meatpacking District, I nearly balked at paying the $15 entrance fee, but what I saw inside was a fascinating range of efforts to inspire and educate potential consumers and an excellent snapshot of the mainstream perfume industry's challenges and internal divisions.1

The exhibit was divided into six small galleries. The first was a long narrow hallway. One wall featured a well-researched timeline of perfume history highlights. On the other wall was an interesting mix of tradition and technology. Raw materials like vetiver and pink pepper were on hand to see and smell, but there was also a video about the use of molecular compounds ("How do we use molecules to make a fragrance?" asks a husky-voiced female narrator. "It's like a dance.") and vitrines featuring fake and real diamond necklaces ("Can you tell the difference?") and fake and real sugar ("Which do you prefer?") intended to help viewers ponder the nature of synthetics. The two definitions of "perfumer" on display didn't shy away from science: 1) "A modern-day wizard who conjures emotions with molecules," 2) "A hybrid bio-chemist and fine artist trained in the esoteric knowledge of crafting a perfume."

In the second gallery I donned headphones in a dark, padded room (they call it a "sensory deprivation booth") and listened to anosmics talk about how losing their sense of smell has diminished their lives. Freshly aware of the importance of smell, I entered a darkened third gallery featuring perfumers' first scent memories (for example, bacon in the morning) delivered through puffs of air from gorgeous glass sculptures while related video images played on the wall. The fourth gallery, also darkened, offered a chance to sample fragrances on the skin as they dripped from dispensers labeled not by traditional notes, the wall text informed me, but by mood. The fifth gallery, still dark, held a series of floor-to-ceiling video screens. Walking along footsteps drawn on the floor caused a series of hallucinogenic images to appear on the screen — the "lucid dreams" — while an abstract "flower" in front of the screen emitted puffs of scent.

I emerged back into the light of day at the Fragrance Bar — exactly what it sounds like, a row of stools bellied up to a plexiglass bar with a truly spectacular display of factices lined up where bottles of alcohol would normally be. Trays full of unlabeled "flights" of upside-down glasses holding perfume-soaked cloth were on offer. Each tray was coded by color and some of the same "mood" vocabulary offered back in gallery four: playful, polished, casual, addictive. A pamphlet offered other descriptive language including "tonality" (fresh, refined, petally, warm) and "composition," a mix of notes (raspberry, lychee) and words (dewy, modern) familiar from the kind of baffling press releases we see regularly here on Now Smell This. The pamphlet invited me to take notes on each perfume I sniffed, using the prompt, "This makes me feel..."  Attendants behind the bar provided the names of the perfumes on request. My date for the day, the lovely beauty blogger, Joey, inquired after several and all were mainstream commercial perfumes (presumably from Firmenich, though I'm not certain).

I had mixed reactions to the displays. I admired the effort to tackle the natural/synthetic question, but questioned some of the tactics. The poignancy of the anosmic testimony was diminished by the loud male robot-god voice that gave us instructions at the end of the looped tape. I liked the idea of a perfumer's first scent memory, but the puffs of scent emitted were of varying quality and some were difficult to smell at all. Since nothing was provided to remove the scent from my skin in gallery four, I ended up dripping it onto paper from my notebook, and I wondered how I would have smelled anything at all in the "lucid dreams" gallery (which I found a little hokey) if I hadn't. I loved the way the Fragrance Bar encouraged people to analyze smells and record their reactions. But I wanted to quarrel with the descriptive vocabulary on offer, especially the "mood" labels: I don't like being told how a scent should affect me and I didn't agree with the categories. (Apparently when I'm "playful" I should smell like a patisserie.)

Ultimately, though I was impressed by the effort and creativity on display, I couldn't stop thinking about the way the exhibit captured a perfume industry struggling to present a more truthful portrait of what it does while trying to hold on to the manipulative (if not always successfully so) blend of memory, emotion and fantasy that has been its bread and butter for so many years. And I had to wonder what an ideal Sensorium would look like, unconstrained by the need to sell anything. An exhibit say, designed by perfume fans to convert their most skeptical friends and family. What say you?    

Note: You Tube has a series of Sensorium videos made by the designers who did the installation. I recommend starting with this one.

 1. You do get a $15 Sephora gift card in exchange for the $15 ticket price.

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  1. Thanks for the virtual tour, Alyssa. Despite the clumsy execution of some of the “rides”, I am glad that there’s such a thing as a smell exhibition. I like the idea of opening up our esoteric perfume world to “civilians” and sparking olfactory connections where none previously existed.

    • Alyssa says:

      Hi Katie, thanks for stopping by! I totally agree with you about the need for such exhibitions, and I hope I made it clear that I applaud the effort they made toward presenting a more honest picture of the process. I just wish that they had trusted their audience just a tiny bit more. Why not teach us to identify some of the major aromatic compounds in use alongside those raw materials? Why not invite us to say how smells make us feel without the prescriptive language?

      I suppose I find perfume so magical all by itself that I don’t need to be dazzled by video screens. I may be alone in that. And I am aware that I’m hardly the average consumer. But I was once, pre-NST, and I’ve had to convince all my very skeptical friends to come on board. I find it’s the smells that do it, and an awareness of perfume as an art with history and things to say about its current moment.

  2. Erin says:

    The first sentence of your last paragraph really captured my impressions of what you described, too: “struggling to present a more truthful portrait of what it does while trying to hold on to the manipulative (if not always successfully so) blend of memory, emotion and fantasy that has been its bread and butter for so many years”… so true!

    I think there are people in the frangrance marketing industry who would insist that all the smoke-and-mirrors PR gobbledygook about feelings and desires is necessary to sell perfume to the average joe or jane – that the general public is not interested in the science or the truth – but blog writers like yourself are proof that precise, evocative descriptions of scent are possible and don’t have to sound like bad high school poetry.

    • Alyssa says:

      Erin, you raise a very interesting point regarding those “feelings and desires.” One of the things that makes perfume important to me is the way it crystallizes my emotions and captures my imagination. I think it’s precisely because I’m passionate about that aspect of perfume that I get very tetchy when someone tries to tell me how to feel. I do think the exhibit tried to make room for visitor response–surely the perfumer’s first scent memories and those “lucid dreams” were meant to cue visitors to think about their own scent memories and dreams. It is possible I’m a little too old to be inspired rather than overwhelmed by such immersive experiences.

  3. Apparently says:

    I’m so glad to see was underwhelmed by the exhibit itself — the isolation booth wasn’t really scent-free, for instance; and I never smelled any breakfast at all despite hanging out under those glass sausages for several cycles — but I really enjoyed the scent bar. An older woman sitting next to me was able to identify nearly every scent. If she didn’t know the exact name, she could describe the bottle perfectly. It was uncanny!

    Oh, and the chandeliers made out of perfume bottles got my DIY juices going — those were really lovely.

    • Alyssa says:

      There was much loveliness!

      Your experience at the Scent Bar sounds fantastic, and clearly that woman was enjoying herself very much.

  4. Marjorie Rose says:

    Well, I can’t decide if I’m bummed I missed this, or not! I do wish that there were a place I could send my scent-ignorant (sounds more judgmental than I mean it to. . .scent-uninitiated?) friends and family. I want them to develop enough familiarity to at least not assume they know what “perfume” is and what it will smell like.

    And yet, I think a lot of what you describe would not be the “grounded” or “Mom-friendly” place I have in mind. My mother would be turned off by anything even vaguely hallucinogenic or high brow. I think I’d be happier with just the raw materials, extracts of them, maybe synthetics matched with similar naturals for comparison, synthetics that have no match, and then the scent bar. Basically, a long row of things to sniff and compare, without any evocative language.

    • Alyssa says:

      Well, the beginning and ending of the exhibit aren’t far off from what you’re after, but I hear you on the vaguely hallucinogenic bit. I think I understand what they were trying to do–find a new and dazzling way to connect memory and fantasy up to scent–but it strikes me that, as you say, people like your mom need more grounding, not less. They need to feel like perfume is something tangible, something they can name and learn. NST got me started on perfume precisely because of the relatively straightforward, no-nonsense tone here.

  5. nozknoz says:

    I would love to have seen this – do you know if they are bringing it to any other cities?

    You’re right, it would be great to have a chance to explore more of the raw materials. That might be an expensive proposition, though – probably one reason they did not have more of them.

    I know it doesn’t make sense, but I do appreciate some romance and mystery, as long as there is substance as well. Part of the charm of Jicky, for example, is its insouciant name and aura of history.

    • KateReed says:

      So far, all the Beauty Insider e-mails have indicated that it will only be at the one location in NYC. So (unless that one is a success and they decide to do more,) most of us are just going to miss out.

      I actually was going to unsubscribe from that list when news of the Sensorium came out. I’m not a really dark black person, but finding makeup at a Sephora? I might as well clap my hands and hope for Tinkerbell to fly over and assist me with a selection.

      • Alyssa says:

        Oy, Kate. What a huge omission!

        • KateReed says:

          They have very few darker-hued lipsticks, and what they do have tend to be almost exactly the same three or four colors across all the make-up lines they carry. Even more frustrating is that here in Des Moines, they don’t bother to stock the darker colors in the stores, so you can’t try them on. After getting absolutely screwed on a Make Up For Ever color I had to order online (boy, was the color swatch wrong on that one!) I’ve stopped buying from them completely. I keep a link live in my favorites, because often they’ll get something months before other retailers, like the Living proof. line of hair products (the Restore line is spectacular, by the way,) but that’s about it. I’ll go to the company’s/producer’s website and buy, but I won’t buy from Sephora.

          • Alyssa says:

            They need a little primer on demographic changes in the Midwest, don’t they? But there’s really no excuse.

          • KateReed says:

            I don’t know if it’s really changed all that much all that recently. Rather, it’s always been an underserved market in areas that aren’t Chicago, Kansas City or St.Louis. Even in Minneapolis it was (I haven’t been in a long while) hard to find things of the right color families/depths. MAC used to be okay for cosmetics, but I’m a lipstick chick. If I have on nothing else (including perfume) I have on lipstick! But even they jumped on a sheer/pale/gloss bandwagon, and I can’t wear the same color forever (even though I do still have a tube and a half of Verushka!) My biggest problem is with browns. I don’t want my lips to be the same color as my face. I don’t want my lips to look chalky and ashy. Where are all the nice mahoganys? The darker chocolates? The coffee colors that don’t just look black? Why are my only options grape, grapey wine, a plum that’s not really dark enough to look good, or bright freaking oranges and reds? It’s absolutely maddening, and it’s been that way across most distributors since I was 14! Even the collections that are specifically “for” black people, like the Queen line within the Cover Girl brand, do not have truly proper colors of lipstick (or blush) for darker-toned skins. (It’s like the fat girl fashion rule: just because they make it in your size, doesn’t mean you can or should wear it!) Yes, I can wear a creamy, dusty pink lipstick. If I want to look like I had an accident with a belt sander and have had a month of healing time.



      • nozknoz says:

        There is such a wide range of lip color, as well as in the combinations of lip versus skin color, among black people. It’s a technical challenge that the major companies have never focused on. In addition to historic marginalization, perhaps it’s part of the whole dumbing down of everything: as in why bother to make an innovative, substantive perfume when you can sell meretricious dreck with a flashy ad campaign, and no one knows the difference any more anyway. This would be a fabulous theme for a new beauty blog, Kate!

        • KateReed says:

          It’s true. I know black people that run the gamut from “Irish Lass” pale (as in blue in the shade) to Sub-Saharan bark (as in purple in the sunshine) and tonality ranges crom very cool undertones, to very warm ones. Blue through olive to red, really, and all the shades in between. Lips are a problem of thier own. I, like many black people, have a top lip that’s an entirely different color than my bottom lip. Sheer lipstick you say? No lipstick, just a liner and a gloss? Just plain not a good idea. Unless I completely color in my top lip with a liner that matches my bottom lip. The amount of products needed to get around that problem alone could be a blog sub-section…

          Oddly enough, I haven’t come across any black makeup blogs. Everyone seems to be more concerned with natural hair or transitioning hair. Hair is a big component of the black beauty market, but there is so much more to feeling presentable than hair (like perfume!)

          • Alyssa says:

            Late to respond, but I applaud Noz’s call for a beauty blog on the subject! So much more than hair…

    • Alyssa says:

      I believe Kate is right–it was a one-off, though I suppose that can always change.

      And I think you are making plenty of sense about the romance and the mystery! Like you, I find it easier to appreciate perfume when I understand it’s history and context. But it’s easy to see why the industry might feel ambivalent about turning to the past for its magic. On the one hand, they do it all the time with the true greats like Chanel No. 5, and of course there are lines like Creed that build their whole brand around that kind of romance. But on the other hand, it’s much easier for them to be able to ignore the past given the new regulations on materials and the emphasis on youth and celebrity. I sometimes wonder if the latter is a mistake, though. Surely there are some young girls left in the world who want to feel like they’re being initiated into a grown up world rather than talked down to?

  6. Thanks so much for this report! I went too, and enjoyed myself. I admired the thought and effort that went into the displays (all the details– the intentionally flavorless lollipop we were offered at the end of the anosmics’ audio recordings, for example).

    I agree completely about the language used to describe the “categories” of scent. I was further frustrated by the fact that all the scents presented were directly off Sephora’s shelves. It would have been so interesting if samples were included of older fragrances, of uncommon fragrances, and of fragrances popular in other cultures. If the scent bar had been less mass-market, I would have appreciated the event far more.

    • KateReed says:

      Even fragrances that they used to carry but that are no longer available (like Versace’s The Dreamer and Cartier’s Le Baiser du Dragon) in thier stores would be a nice touch. I didn’t realise it would just be the stuff they (currently) carry, but as it is a marketing tool, I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised to hear so, really.

      Flavorless lollipop? Was it even sweet?

      • It literally had no taste whatsoever! Which was kind of disgusting.

        • It was red and wrapped in cellophane, and looked just like a “normal” lollipop. Cool idea!

    • Alyssa says:

      Was the lollipop flavorless? Ha! That’s a great detail, but I have so little expectation that a lollipop will taste of anything I didn’t even notice. Oh well. I thought the anosmic testimony was quite moving.

    • Alyssa says:

      Well, that’s the pitfall of having an exhibit-cum-ad rather than a real art installation or educational presentation. Even so, I appreciated the Fragrance Bar. I rarely get out to stores like Sephora so it was kind of nice chance to catch up on the mainstream.

  7. OperaFan says:

    Thanks for the tour, Alyssa. Wish I could have gone as well. Any idea how well-attended the exhibit was over the period of time?

    • Alyssa says:

      That’s a great question. The opening times were varied and odd–maybe they were meant to sync up with Sephora’s busy times? (There was a store right next door.) It did get some press coverage, mostly as a novelty.

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