As the pandemic continues to keep us confined indoors, even the subtlest elements of the home environment take on a new importance. It’s vital to engage all the senses in interior design, but we tend to privilege sight (color, form) and touch (textiles, soft furnishings) while neglecting smell.
Yet, scent’s potential to reduce stress, increase focus, enhance memory, and uplift our mood—benefits we could all use right now—are powerful. A Nobel Prize–winning study found that the average person has around 1,000 olfactory genes in their body, and can recall around 10,000 different smells. Further research suggests that 75% of our daily emotions are influenced by smell, while our mood may improve by 40% after smelling a pleasant fragrance.
So how to make the most of this extraordinary sensibility? Three experts in the field share the role of scent in their lives, offering ideas for incorporating fragrance into our domestic spaces for a more relaxed and pleasurable everyday.
The Olfactory Designers: AOIRO
For Shizuko Yoshikuni and Manuel Kuschnig, the Japanese-Austrian couple behind AOIRO, the role of scent in a room isn’t to draw attention to itself, but rather to subtly enhance the overall mood, while gently elevating the other senses. A fragrance should be not so much smelled as felt. "When you come into the space, you [want to] feel it, breathe deep, and experience it without pinpointing the smell," Yoshikuni says.
From their Berlin studio, AOIRO apply their backgrounds in aromatherapy, anthropology, and design to tailor scent-based experiences and installations for clients ranging from car brands to opera houses. Their own signature scent, Hakudo Rain, distills the essence of the forest floor on Japan’s Awaji Island after a fresh rainfall.
In their personal lives, scent is a vehicle for presence. The pair draw on simple and mindful rituals, starting the day with a drop of essence in a diffuser to set the mood, and returning to it to reground themselves during breaks as the day unfolds. Yoshikuni compares the effect to the peaceful effect of a gong: "It clears the moment so you can reset, put certain things aside, and experience a different feeling."
In our distracted and increasingly digital world, physical engagement with scent—the simple act of dripping oil into a cork or ceramic diffuser, or lighting incense—offers a powerful way to bring us back to our bodies, and into the present moment. "You see how it drips, and you can watch the essential oil disappear, then the smell arises when the visual is gone," muses Kuschnig.
When it comes to scents for relaxation, AOIRO encourages going beyond the classics to explore subtler essences with more complexity. "For winding down, wood essences are really effective," notes Yoshikuni. "We love the Japanese wood hiba, an earthy, powerful, deep wood that’s extremely grounding, and hinoki, which is lighter and more gentle, airy." Frankincense is another favorite—"really purifying and soothing, but with a nice energy and a good tension to it"—as is petitgrain, extracted from the leaves of bitter orange, a vibrant green scent that both calms and uplifts.
Whichever scent profile resonates, it’s worth knowing how to tell a pure essence from a synthetic one. Good quality essential oils list the country of origin, the botanical name, and the part of the plant it was distilled from, explains Yoshikuni. Price, too, comes into play—pure oils aren’t cheap, but a little goes a long way.
The Architect: Suchi Reddy, Reddymade
"What I love about scent is the particularity of its bonding to a person—that it depends on your own chemistry, because I think architecture is the same way," says Suchi Reddy of Reddymade Architecture and Design. "It needs to be tailored to a person’s being, their needs, their feelings. The design of a scent and the design of a space are somewhat the same."
Growing up in Chennai, South India, scent was integral to Reddy’s life. She recalls the daily rituals of gathering flowers from her mother’s garden to weave into garlands and place at the altar—an offering to the divine—or braiding jasmine into her hair. "This relationship between flowers and fragrance and incense, also the spiritual aspect of it, translated to a sensitivity toward the nature of my house, and how it made me feel," Reddy says.
When she moved to the United States, the relative lack of smell in everyday life—even in flowers—presented a striking cultural shift. Today, the award-winning architect remains highly attuned to scent as part of the overall emotional landscape of spaces. For Salone del Mobile 2019, Reddymade Architecture worked with Ivy Ross of Google’s Design Studio, Susan Magsamen of the International Arts + Minds Lab, and the Scandinavian furniture brand Muuto to explore the field of neuroaesthetics, a strand of science concerned with physiological responses to art and beauty.
Their collaboration, "A Space for Being," led them to create a set of spaces designed to evoke specific feelings through color, texture, light, sound, smell, and feeling. Reflecting on visitors’ reactions, Reddy says, "It was revelatory to people that a space affected their body, that they respond to things differently than what their intellectual brain tells them they are predisposed to. Perhaps there is a different truth that your body can reveal to you about the nature of you as a human being in an environment."
This year, the quality of our domestic environments has come into sharp focus as the pandemic has kept us cooped up at home. "Scent is a great way to change something, with a very subtle kind of intervention that doesn’t necessarily require more square feet, or a huge investment of money," Reddy says, citing a fascination with essential oils and their role in Ayurveda. Her personal choice? The architect starts the day with Indian brand Forest Essentials’ sandalwood and vetiver oil, both of which are local to the region where she grew up.
In the middle of the day—"by the time my cortisol needs to come down"—Reddy will refresh her mask by lightly misting it with an essential oil spray that combines beeswax oil, mint, and lavender, which has the added benefit of antiviral properties. And as the day winds down, incense—particularly the milder Japanese variety—is her atmosphere-setter of choice. "There’s also something very sexy about the smoke," she smiles.
The Fragrance Futurist: Olivia Jezler, Future of Smell
As soon as she settled on a career in fragrance, Olivia Jezler knew her niche was innovation—"scented experiences and products, not the typical scent-in-a-bottle." After graduating from Parsons School of Design and working her way through labs, she found that niche didn’t yet exist. So she created it herself with Future of Smell, a fragrance foresight consultancy dedicated to helping clients leverage emerging trends in experiential and product fragrance design.
Though her work is grounded in science, Jezler is still entranced by the magic of scent, a passion which stems from her childhood, much of which was spent in Thailand. (Jezler has Swiss-Brazilian-Thai roots.) "The connection to scent in the Thai language is very strong. There's a huge vocabulary for describing smell, in the way you describe objects and food," she says. Like Reddy, her disappointment at the lack of sensuality in the United States’s design culture when she first began her studies led her to realize that "design has to be with and for the senses."
During the current shutdown, Jezler finds herself craving strong sensorial moments in her daily routines, from enhanced fragrance during the shower experience to more flavorful food. Fragrance is present while she works, diffused through a cartridge-based device, or dabbed on her skin in perfume form. Or, she’ll combine essential oils of rosemary, lemongrass, and ginger for a mood boost. During breaks, she reminds herself to go outside for fresh air, and encourages others to do the same: "What nature smells are you missing? You might feel more comfort if you can smell grass and earth and herbs."
In using different smells to evoke various states of mind, Jezler sees scent not only as an atmosphere enhancer, but as an invisible marker of time, lending structure and rhythm to a concept that feels blurred at best at the moment. Referencing how incense was used to distinguish times in ancient Chinese culture, she encourages establishing a shifting smell landscape to accompany different stages of the day. This can equally expand our perception of the rooms we move through, she says: "Scent is a very emotional way to separate our spaces, and to create more space than we actually have."
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