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Brief Published: 21 Jun 2017

Perfume: Somerset House’s Sensory Exhibit

Ten groundbreaking modern perfumes and their maverick creators are the subject of a new multisensory exhibition at London’s Somerset House – its first foray into fragrance.

Ink-inspired fragrance installation

Co-curated by Somerset House senior curator Claire Catterall and UK fragrance expert Lizzie Ostrum, Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent, explores how cult scents have disrupted the perfume industry and the way people now wear fragrance, challenging traditional perceptions of gender, taste and identity.

“Today, it’s not enough for us to smell sexy and sophisticated. We want to smell different,” said Catterall at the launch event. “Perfume is not about fashion anymore, not about accessorising an outfit. We are now accessing perfume like you would a book or film. We use it to take us somewhere else. It’s more about the experience.”

Each scent is presented in its own numbered room, an installation offering subtle smells and other sensory clues as to the perfume’s identity and creator instead of the usual information panel on the wall. Visitors are invited to make notes on a card as they pass through the exhibition, with the scents and their stories gradually revealed throughout the olfactory journey. Without giving any names away, installations range from Catholic confessional stalls to Texan desert debris and a giant photobooth replete with fragranced soft toy props. 

Dark Ride photo booth
Texan desert debris
The perfumes' identities are revealed
Visitors are invited to make notes on each fragrance

As explored in Elevating Beauty, experiencing product and services through emotional connection and meaningful memories is a burgeoning trend within the luxury beauty category, with Ikea’s forthcoming home fragrance collaboration with niche perfume brand Byredo also highlighting a shift at mass market level. Somerset House’s exhibition offers a glimpse into how consumers could experience scent in the future, with fragrance becoming more experiental and less about simply selling product in a bottle.

The exhibition runs until September 17 2017, and is accompanied by a fully functioning, interactive perfume lab courtesy of Swiss fragrance and flavours giant Givaudan. The lab will host weekly perfume lab residencies and pop-up takeovers from up-and-coming British perfumers, while a programme of panel discussions and workshops will run throughout the summer.

For more on how brands are using sensory cues to connect with consumers, see Selling Sensorial Beauty, and for more on disruptive artisan fragrances, see Esxence: Niche Fragrance Trends and AIX Scent Fair 2016.

Sawn wood and charcoal installation
Iris patterned chaise longues
Saharan Desert sand
Givaudan Perfume Lab
Bed with tousled sheets