The good thing about interviewing Chandler Burr (bio here, but if you’re reading a fragrance blog you already know who he is) is that he’s very competent and honest. The bad thing is that he’s so honest that, if he thinks a question is stupid, he will say so loud and clear. Thank God I didn’t screw up until the end and, as it was done by email, he didn’t see me smoking my tuscan cigar… This interview was done at the beginning of september, to write this article for Panorama but I could publish only bits of it (and not the last question, as one of the sections of the magazione is called Trend) and, re-reading it, I tought it’s worth sharing with everybody.

Edp: Can you please describe the installation you created for Pitti Fragranze? Why did you choose the subject  of travel and of the places raw materials come from?

Burr: The exhibition is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I’ve traveled all over the world, I’ve flown to Tunisia to see the orange blossom harvest and eaten and talked with the Tunisians harvesting them. I’ve talked to Indonesian farmers who cultivate the patchouli that goes in Coco Mademoiselle and other wonderful perfumes. And what I hate about perfume is, first, that it is usually marketed—and thus perceived—as some cold, luxury product, inhuman and locked inside its bottle. Second, that almost none of us realize that our planet is an astonishing, immense factory that produces mesmerizing, fascinating, beautiful smells and scent raw materials.

The fact is that travel can and should be olfactory. We travel to places for the sense of sight—to see waterfalls or temples or cities—and for the sense of taste—to try wonderful cuisines—or the sense of music: the gamelan in Java, the pan flute in Peru, symphonies and opera in Berlin and Milan, hip hop in New York. We don’t realize that we should also travel for the sense of smell. Java is filled with the most astonishingly wonderful smells, tropical humidity, the scent of water and grass, spices, the kretek. (I hate cigarettes—smoking is like defecating in your own mouth—but the scent of burning clove, nutmeg, cumin, and cinnamon is something you smell throughout Indonesia, like curry in Thailand and peppermint in England, and I have to admit it’s an olfactory marvel.)

Hundreds of thousands of farmers make their livings and feed their families by producing these wonderful scents for us. They harvest osmanthus in China and mimosa in France and mint in the U.S., and we forget that every bottle of perfume contains their lives and their livelihoods. They care for their land and the ecology, and we forget that every bottle of perfume means that at its origin, someone is protecting the environment in order to make these beautiful scents. I asked Alessandro to create for me a giant map of the world, and I asked the people at LMR, who make some of the most exquisite (and exquisitely expensive) raw materials in the world to send us their essences and absolutes from Asia and Africa, Australian sandalwood and Haitian vetiver, and we’re inviting everyone at Fragranze to come and travel olfactorily. To understand that multi-billion euro industries can protect the earth. To remind ourselves that perfumes are filled with the warm, living existence and work of people from every culture and race and corner of our planet.

Edp: The general public seems to see fragrances as cosmetics who make you sexier, not works of art, so, can this perception be changed or will the people who are interested in fragrance as art, worthy of attention from writers and critics, remain a minority?

Burr: This refers to my lecture “The Work of Jean-Claude Ellena 1974-2012, A Retrospective.” I think one of the primary reasons the public hasn’t yet understood that works of olfactory art are in fact art is that till recently they didn’t know any of the artists working in this medium. A central purpose of my lecture on Ellena, one of the most important olfactory artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, is as simple as it can be: to let people know that olfactory artists exist and work just like painters, composers, directors, sculptors. The purpose of my Department of Olfactory Art at the Museum of Arts and Design is to introduce the world to the Paul Klee, the Rembrandt, the Calder, Mies van der Rohe, and the Satie of the medium of scent.

Edp: I think your Untitled Series, already existing and well known fragnaces, sold in anonimous bottles, is an attempt to present fragrance in itself, stripped from bottle design, advertisment and all the imagery marketing campaigns create around it. How is it going? is it successful? How do people react to it? How did industry professionals react to it, seeing most of their marketing work being deleted?

Burr: It has gotten a huge amount of attention, but the attention has been very much divided between pro and con, appreciative and critical. That of itself is, of course, success. The point of The Untitled Series is to create intelligent debate, to focus attention on the work itself stripped—just as you say—of all marketing direction. The lab bottles we use are merely the canvas on which the painting sits, crucial to hold the work together but utterly unimportant to the work of art itself.

I’m very happy to say that the industry has been hugely supportive. And I am deeply pleased to be able to recognize Miuccia Prada as having the first and the deepest understanding of this art form. Mrs. Prada is one of the great patrons of the art of our age, but virtually no one—at this point; I intended the Untitled Series to point this out—is conscious of the fact that she is a patron not merely of the media of paint, sculpture, and film but a patron of the artistic medium scent as well. The commissions she has awarded and continues to award in this medium are hugely important, she has become one of the most serious, involved creative directors and supporters of olfactory artists in the world, and the care she gives to her own collection of scent art is extraordinary. Thus far the Fondazione Prada has not exhibited works of scent art. But I am thrilled that I will be exhibiting one of Mrs. Prada’s most beautiful commissions, Prada Amber, a work from 2004 which she awarded to three extremely talented artists, Carlos Benaïm, Clément Gavarry, and Max Gavarry, and I hope that the Fondazione Prada will exhibit works executed in this medium.

Edp: Is there a clear line between niche perfumery and mainstream perfumery?

Burr: No. There is only good and bad olfactory art, innovative and conformist olfactory art.

Edp: What was the reaction of perfume industry professional to you as a critic and to the fact that a writer, with no professional perfumery training evaluated their work?

Burr: I should distinguish between the industry’s marketing and brand people and the actual artists themselves. Among the marketing people, the initial reaction ranged from curious to extremely negative. I heard—while I was at the Times I often heard things people said about me in meetings—that one very powerful woman in the industry was outraged that I would be critiquing scents. She felt they should be free from criticism. A year later she was one of my biggest supporters. She is absolutely delightful, she has come see numerous lectures and scent dinners I’ve given, and now that I’ve left the Times and become the Curator of the DOA @ MAD she is one of my lenders, lending me the works of art that I want to exhibit.

I’ve made some enemies who simply want to stay enemies. That’s their problem. In particular there is a marketer who works on one of the big Italian brands who—again, we hear things about ourselves; I know other people in the company—is still furious at me for giving one of his scents a 1-star review. It was a terrible, meretricious, stultifying scent with no artistic value at all. Sometimes these scents are huge successes but this one failed; if he thinks I was part of the reason it failed, I think he’s wrong—my influence could never tank a major commercial launch—but I suppose my ripping it apart in the Times didn’t help. Anyway, the marketers’ reaction was hugely negative overall and stayed that way.

The artists themselves were curious and nervous at first. After a year, they became quite supportive, although they could never voice this publicly because their patrons, the brands, might not like it. But I got a lot of messages from private email addresses. Generally these emails said, “We love that you are treating perfume as a true artistic medium and taking our work seriously.” I was very happy to get them.

Edp:As a museum curator, do you think artists such as designers, painters, writers, etc, pay more attention to the sense of smell than in the past?

Burr: Yes. Most of them a little. A few—interior designers mostly—a lot. Obviously we’ve only just started. But I expect the consciousness of scent as a component of art and design in all media will explode relatively soon.

Edp:What are, in your opinion, the strongest trends in perfumery at the moment? Do you think that niche and mainstream perfumery follow different trends or they tend to be in the same line?

Burr: I hate the word trend. I never use it. It is categorically the most stupid and the most uninteresting word in the world. I guess there are “trends” in that a lot of people did fig scents, then a lot of people did oud scents, then a lot of people did super sweet scents, and so on.

Infinitely more important is something that’s truly interesting, and that is the evolution of aesthetic schools within the medium of scent just as within paint or music or dance. Surrealism and Hyperrealism are hugely important today, and I think some artists are doing interesting things with Photo Realism, and I’d personally like to see much more work done in this school. The creation of carbon dioxide extractions, which are natural raw materials extracted at room temperature and so, for the first time in the history of the art form, give us raw materials that smell exactly like the materials in nature—narcissus, sandalwood, ginger—means that artists can create astonishing Representational work. I hope the medium’s patrons award commissions for more of it.