What does the interior of Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre smell like? A mix of Subway sandwich, various perfumes and an undertone of human sweat, according to scent designer Olivia Clemence. London’s South Bank? Damp concrete, Thames water, baked goods and fresh paint.
Armed with a self-devised steam distillation kit, recent Goldsmiths graduate Clemence bottles scents by gathering condensation from raw materials or cloth swabs imbued with a particular smell. With her library of fragrances, she is able to recreate environments, telling the story behind a space by appealing to our olfactory systems.
As part of the Designersblock exhibition at this year's show, Clemence captured the essence of the NEC trade hall – a mix of Subway, mingling perfumes and a hint of human sweat. Traces, an immersive collaborative exhibition which saw a dilapidated East London building temporarily restored to its Victorian glory as a pub and prostitute’s boudoir, called for damp, musky smoke and gin.
Some smells capture better than others; the Subway smell, for example, came as a surprise. “It’s such a distinctive smell,” Clemence says. “I didn’t expect to get it that easily, but it worked really well.”
The upsurge of interest in smell as an essential part of creating experience is a relatively new one. "Scent has definitely been overlooked until now,” says Clemence. “We still don’t know much about it.” Scientists, she says, still argue over whether smell depends on vibrational frequency or a molecule’s shape. But the importance of smell in evoking emotion and creating ambience is now an essential part of retail environments, for example, and branding – some of the world’s biggest brands incorporate subtle scents into their retail spaces, creating a distinctive mood and encouraging visitors to spend more time in-store.
Next for Clemence is a second Traces exhibition recreating the 1960s, at an as yet undecided location in London. She has also been commissioned by a private members’ club to create a scent for them, evoking the lime and mint that go into a mojito.
An ongoing project with London’s Southbank sees her and collaborator Kate McLean looking at how indoor and outdoor smells interact and affect people’s experience. She also hopes to bring her skills to the world of retail – having worked on the visual aspects of shop windows for the likes of Louis Vuitton, she now plans to bring an olfactory element into the traditional window display. Whatever the project, it’s always about getting to the essence of what makes a place, or what makes a memory – through the sense of smell.
This story was produced by DX-London.com