Behind a red door in a very old building works Olivia Alice Clemence, our BA Design graduate whose work has made it to the pages of Wired recently. She shares a small and cozy studio with two other creative people, where she was kind to invite me for hot tea (in a Michael Jackson-printed cup) and a chat, on a rainy evening – because we can’t leave all the good stories to Wired, can we?
I had barely stepped inside and Olivia was already showing me the tools and ingredients of her craft: the distilling kit (custom-made for her) that she uses to capture scents, and her cabinet of around 60 wonderful and unusual smells bottled in small glass containers. The principle and instruments of the steam-distilling process are very old discoveries, but to untrained eyes like mine it looks as if I’m taking a peek at a bit of magic and alchemy. She allowed me to get a whiff of one of her recent works, a perfume designed for the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. “What’s in it?” I ask, unable to pin down the unusual tones hidden under the pleasant surface. She tells me: the combined smells of beer, coffee, peanuts, carpet, wood, Subway sandwiches…the essence of the Centre itself in a nutshell (or, a glass vial).
Olivia isn’t a perfumer, exactly, like those who create the glamorous products we see advertised in glossy magazines, nor does she want to be one- that would require a Chemistry degree and a more scientific approach to the process. What she wants is to be an experience designer, using smells to enhance a variety of experiences from immersive theatre to shopping. In fact, retailers are apparently already taking advantage of the ways we are simultaneously oblivious and vulnerable to scents- supermarkets place samples of their tempting baked goods close to the entrance, while the actual product is only available after you’ve travelled past (and presumably bought) many other things; clothes retailers get us into the adequate mood by pumping summery sea and sunscreen smells through the air conditioning. „People take smell for granted”, says Olivia. And indeed, it such an underrated sense, that perhaps we only appreciate it when it’s gone: Olivia has been reading a book about a man who commits suicide after losing his sense of smell, and she finds the idea intriguing – to perceive the loss of smell as a tragic occurence to such a degree that the joy of living is completely gone.
We don’t really ponder much the ways scent enriches our lives, but what can be asked of us ordinary mortals when the more enlightened minds of scientists still haven’t figured out how our sense of smell happens to exist in the first place? „There are two theories”, explains Olivia: „the shape theory and the vibration theory”. The former claims that a spectroscope inside our noses reads the shapes of molecules, the latter argues that different vibrations inside molecules of identical shapes result in different smells. The debate is yet to be settled! Smell is also an emotional experience, as our noses are directly connected to our limbic systems where all our memories lie. For her first scent-centered work, the final project for the BA Design course at Goldsmiths, Olivia collected clothing items belonging to people who had passed away and captured their scent, colour and DNA in an attempt to bottle the memories that these items could recall to those who loved the owners of the garments. This project (symbolically titled „Grandma’s Jumper”) put her on the path she is now, made her more aware of her surroundings and refined her nose. Since her 2012 graduation, she’s trapped the smells of the Southbank for a collaborative project with sensory maps designer Kate McLean and put together the scented environment of a Victorian pub for an exhibition called „Traces”, amongst other things. Overall it sounds like a pretty niche endeavour, but Olivia sees potential to making it a part of our technologically enhanced world of today. „Imagine talking on the phone and being able to smell your friend at the other end of the line!” she says. (Well, rather than the actual smell of the person, it could be an olfactive signature that you’d be able to design.)
It’s probably the first time I remember thinking so much about the sense of smell, and I start bombarding Olivia with a multitude of scent –related questions. What’s the smell of…
…Olivia’s studio? She remarks that it smells a bit damp, and a bit of plastic and metal burning, thanks to the heater.
...Olivia’s best memories? Home baking, and also, since she grew up by the seaside: the sea, the wind blowing through her hair and bringing a bit of sea sand, the smell of a playful wet dog.
…Something Olivia hates and avoids? „I don’t really hate any smells”, she replies, „I find them all intriguing. Oh wait, I’m lying”, she corrects herself immediately as she remembers the story of the smelliest socks she ever encountered, which were kindly donated to her from a friend’s father. The socks in question were so remarkable, their scent was unbearable even when they were wrapped in numerous bags. Sadly, Olivia was still at the beginning of her craft then and the smell was not properly preserved in alcohol, and as a result, it faded away. Thus was lost the unique fragrance of the most incredibly smelly socks possible, and only a pale shadow of it is remains in the small bottle that was supposed to keep it. Olivia really enjoys unusual smells most of the time, though- like the scent of Subway sandwiches that she had initially thought impossible to capture.
…Something she wanted to capture very badly, but couldn’t? Roses smell different when they’re distilled from the way we perceive them, but that holds true to any scent. „I’ve accepted it now”, she tells me. I insist :”what I meant is if you came across a smell that you wanted to bottle, but didn’t know how, what to grab at and put in your distilling kit”. But Olivia replies that if you think about it well enough, it’s almost always possible to capture the scent. She didn’t think she’d be able to bottle the Subway smell in the beginning, for example, but then
…People’s clothes, from what she noticed in her „Grandma’s Jumper” project? Most people and their clothes smell of washing powder, Olivia tells me, and this is especially true for items that get washed a lot. Something you wear for a longer time, such as a scarf, is much more likely to keep your personal scent. Then there are also fabrics like wool, who have a pretty strong smell of their own.
…Goldsmiths College? The surrounding area smells of trains, oils and pollution, but then we also have the smell of grass on the College Green, paint, fumes and freshly cut wood in the workshops inside, metal pouring down the foundry, and the scent of paper with ink, which happens to be one of Olivia’s favourite smells.
Well, I certainly went home with a whole new understanding of the olfactory sense after this conversation. Find out more about Olivia’s interesting work from her website.
Photos courtesy of Olivia Clemence