Revolution No. 5.

Chandler Burr's Passion for Perfumes.

“Fragrance as an art form is utterly artificial,” Chandler Burr told me. “Food, for example, is not art. Not fully art. Art, by definition, is totally artificial. You have to be freed from nature.” I sat with Burr following his presentation at “Common Sense,” in which he walked attendees through the stages of development of his 2017 scent, Or Someone Like You (created with Caroline Sabas). As assistants handed out smelling-samples, he explained the creation of the perfume — named after, and modeled on, his 2009 novel — through its developmental stages, or “mods” as they’re called in the industry. Throughout, the talk was peppered with a few digressions into the colorful molecular level of perfume science, from the specificity of Chanel No. 5 to the perverse brilliance of Drakkar Noir.

“This might be the ultimate work of industrialism,” Burr said during his lecture, brandishing a touche (paper smell strip) dipped in Drakkar Noir. “The artist: Pierre Wargnye. Ten percent of this work of art is dihydromyrcenol” — the synthetic odorant with a metallic citrus-floral character previously most familiar from industrial cleaning detergents. “This is it. I don’t give a damn about installation artists showing found objects they got in a factory. This beats that by a mile. This is extremely difficult to do.”

Burr is the author of The Emperor of Scent, a study of the French-Italian olfactory scientist Luca Turin, whose anatomies of scents and theories of its science were a watershed in the treatment of the form, comparable in stature to Brillat-Savarin’s 1825 Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste). Turin’s vibration theory of olfaction predicted that isotopic variations of the same compound would be perceived differently by the nose; controlled studies later confirmed this.

“Turin did a book called Parfums: Le Guide where he reviewed perfumes as works of art,” Burr explained. “It forced me to work in the way that all writers want to work: which is to expand and deepen and think and rethink and agonize about metaphor and analogy.” The French polymath’s influence even extended to points of style: “A lot of people use adjectives and referential nouns, and so on. ‘Citrus, wood, shoot-me-in-the-fucking-head...’ Turin never did that. He used metaphors and imagery.”

Following the success of The Emperor of Scent, Burr shadowed perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena during the creation of Hermés’ Un Jardin sur le Nil and wrote about it for a March 2005 issue of the New Yorker. (Ellena told Burr: “the perfume is not the result of chance but a reflection of a reasoned process: when you start out, it’s more about your passions. At the end, it’s intellectual.”) This might have described Burr’s trajectory as well. His interest in perfume only began in a chance encounter in an English train car, in 1998. But it set him on a course that, shortly after the publication of the New Yorker article, he was invited to become the first (and as of yet, only) perfume critic for the New York Times.

His own tendency in writing and talking bears out his specific attention to imagery, often focused on comparisons across art forms and mediums. During his lecture he compared one particularly aggressive perfume to Brutalist architecture. “Its beauty is the violence. Like a good Tarantino movie: the splatter of blood is what is beautiful.”

But, I asked, are there clear parallels to other epochs of art, does it map, style by style, onto the world of scent? “No,” Burr said adamantly. “Scent began in 1880. 1882. With Fougère Royale, by Paul Parquet. It’s a young form. Now, it’s true they’re creating new artificial colors all the time. But on the other hand we’ve probably seen every color we’ll ever see in some form or another. But in no way have we smelled every scent we’ll ever smell.”

Burr sometimes describes how, in Paris, parking garages are often populated by the artificial sound of birds chirping. “It’s astonishing, the effect it has. It calms you down. Makes you happy.” Each of the senses seem to possess these unexpectedly disorienting capabilities, in different ways: to Burr, the sense of smell is uniquely intimate, but also exhibitionistic, art literally worn on the sleeve. Burr invoked Thomas Mann: “art is the funnel, as it were, through which spirit is poured into life.”

Text by Zachary Sachs. Images by Gary He.