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Seeing scents

Exploring Sensing Spaces with Jo Malone

Published 3 March 2014

Fragrance designer Jo Malone has a nose for architecture as well as scent, as we discovered on a visit Kengo Kuma’s aromatic installation in our ‘Sensing Spaces’ exhibition.

  • From the Spring 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    ‘I just fell in love with it the minute I walked through those curtains,’ says a wide-eyed Jo Malone. Minutes after leaving the installation by Kengo Kuma in the Academy’s ‘Sensing Spaces’ show, the British fragrance designer is still buzzing. In darkened spaces lit by spotlights on the floor, the Japanese architect has entwined ultra-thin lines of bamboo into two ephemeral structures, which, thanks to capillary action, emit scents of Japanese cypress and rice straw. For someone with such a pronounced olfactory sense as Malone, who has dedicated her life to devising scents, this fragrant architecture made for an overwhelming experience.

    ‘Before I walked through the curtains I could smell something like sandalwood and slight, slight floral notes, so I knew something special was coming,’ she explains. ‘But it was like being a three-year-old child walking in there for the first time, because it wasn’t what I had expected – it was totally unconventional. The darkness gave me a slightly insecure feeling at first, before my eyes became accustomed to the lack of light. But at the same time the sense of smell made me feel secure. It was cradling me in the dark. And as I walked through the rooms, the soaring scented bamboo had almost the feel of a cathedral. It was just magical, absolutely magical.’

    Established 20 years ago, Malone’s self-titled fragrance brand became wildly popular, thanks to its emphasis on scents inspired by natural ingredients over synthetic concoctions. Even if you haven’t heard of the products, it’s likely that you’ve enjoyed smelling them, so commonly have Jo Malone candles been burned in British households, their scents ranging from peony to pomegranate, freesia to fig. Malone sold the brand to beauty giant Estée Lauder in 1999 and left her role as the company’s director in 2006. Her new brand, Jo Loves, was launched two years ago and her most recent project has been its flagship boutique, based in London’s Belgravia.

    As our conversation continues, I soon realise that speaking to Malone about smell is something like having a chat with David Hockney RA about perception, or Wayne Shorter about sound. She discusses aroma with a wonderful richness, opening a window on sensory experience that I had never previously looked through. For Malone, ‘fragrances are people, they’re identities, they’re personalities.’ She describes her work designing fragrances as ‘creating pieces of music’ and says she has the ability to ‘translate everything I see back into a fragrance note’; the way her mind so closely combines sound and sight with smell speaks of synaesthesia, the condition in which senses are unified.

    Kuma’s installation itself unifies smell and sight, examining how both senses can simultaneously affect spatial awareness. The Yokohama-born architect’s work emphasises what he calls ‘the void’ – spaces between materials – and his structures in the exhibition are a case in point. ‘The bamboo is so perfectly formed,’ says Malone. ‘It’s so fragile and so delicate, and yet if you take two steps to your right, your whole picture of it changes. It has this unbelievable, natural, tranquil simplicity – utter simplicity, but utter genius at the same time. One of the things I can’t bear in the cosmetics industry is those awful dipping sticks that smell, yet I would feel quite happy to live with the scented bamboo in this installation. I would love to live in one huge space and separate it by walls of scented bamboo, with scents ranging from a wonderful lemon grass to a white rice oil.’

    Malone also praises the spirit of openendedness in Diébédo Francis Kéré’s installation, in which visitors transform the structures by inserting coloured straws through its fabric during the show. ‘That’s how I create fragrance – I don’t know the end form, as otherwise it becomes predictable and unimaginative.’ Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s massive platform in the Academy’s largest gallery surprised her as she experienced ‘the beautiful spiral staircase, the wonderful feel of that wood as I walked upwards, and then my emotions as I reacted to the light at the top’.

  • Kengo Kuma, Sensing Spaces installation

    Kengo Kuma, Sensing Spaces installation

    Photo © James Harris

  • Indeed, as well as being tuned in to external space, Malone’s senses are closely at one with her emotions. ‘The minute I smell Japanese cypress in future I will be taken back to the way I felt in that installation.’ As someone with a lifelong fear of labyrinths, the maze in the exhibition by Chinese architect Li Xiaodong caused Malone anxiety, before the structure opened up to an airy mirrored space at its end. She explains that she would interpret her experience of Li’s work in the form of ‘a really sharp-edged fragrance, with vetivers, and then cedar, cigar notes and caramels’. Over the past two years, she has drawn inspiration from the kaleidoscopic glass sculptures of American artist Dale Chihuly, ‘looking at a piece of his glass and translating the look of it, and the feel of it, into fragrance’.

    When I suggest that modern society is losing its connection with smell, she vehemently disagrees. ‘We’re becoming more connected to it. Everyone in the world is craving something they can believe and trust in, and smell epitomises that – it’s personal, it’s about passion, it’s about emotion. A fragrance is saying, “Have a relationship with me – let me be a memory in your life.”’

    The aromas in which Kuma immerses visitors correspond to common building materials in his native country: Japanese cypress (hinoki) is the wood often used in teahouses and temples, and rice straw (tatami) is traditionally used as a flooring material. Does Malone love smelling London’s building materials? ‘I love the smell of London’s pavements,’ she concurs, ‘especially after it rains. I love that moment just before the storm. The air gets heavy and, especially in the summer when the pavements are hot, there’s a steaminess when the water suddenly hits. It creates this amazing explosion of smell, which is there for a second and then it’s gone.’

    Malone’s Chelsea home is not decorated with painted walls, patterned wallpaper or choice artworks, but uses aromas instead. ‘I live in a completely white house. It’s very light, with plain wooden floors and a big white spiral staircase. I don’t have any art on the wall – my art is my fragrance, and I look on my little bottle of fragrance as my paintbrush.

    ‘In winter, when it’s cold outside, I have a warm red pine note running through the entrance hall and the dining area. We put green, orange and coriander cologne into the water that we wash the floors with – it is just like a carpet of fragrance as you walk in. If we have a dinner party there’ll be lemon-grass candles burning. The drawing room’s fragrance depends on what flowers we have – if there are white orchids, I don’t want anything too heavy, so maybe a very light spiced lavender note or a bitter, bitter orange. The bedroom area and the bathroom are always lemon grass, and clementines, mandarins and other very calming citrus smells.’

    She stresses the significance of smell for public buildings such as hospitals – ‘Smell is able to calm people going through really tough times, so it might mean they need only one sedation pill instead of two’ – as well as for the individual spaces in which we live, as portable technology develops. ‘Imagine a time when you’ve been at work all day, you’re going home and on the train you can choose how your home will smell the moment you walk through the door.’ After a visit to the Academy’s exhibition, it is easy to imagine a future in which innovative architects employ fragrance designers for their buildings as readily as lighting designers. Jo Malone, no doubt, will be at the top of their list.

    Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is in the Main Galleries at the RA until 6 April 2014.