How best to exhibit smells in a museum setting? The answer to that question is almost as interesting as the 12 fragrances on display in the Museum of Arts and Design's "The Art of Scent 1889-2012," curated by former New York Times perfume critic Chandler Burr. The exhibition design, by the New York architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is a study in elegant, practical minimalism: You enter a white box that contains nothing more than a dozen niches in the walls next to projected explanations of the fragrances inside. Lean in to inhale a motion-activated jet of perfumed air.
A dispenser of scented cards that explain the creation of the fragrance Trésor, part of Diller Scofidio + Renfro's exhibition design.
The scents on display include legends like Chanel No. 5 and Givenchy L'Interdit, as well as slightly less exalted concoctions (I'm sniffing at you, Drakkar Noir!), but each was chosen for its contributions to the olfactory arts. MAD is eager to advance the idea of scent as an art form, hoping to legitimize fragrances as a creative medium the way museums did for photography over a generation ago. It's hard to dispute that assessment after breathing in the final scent, "Untitled," designed two years ago by Daniela Andrier for Maison Martin Margiela. It's my wife's fragrance, so I'm biased, but it's an extraordinary sensory experience: big, clean, and airy, like "abstracted nature," as Burr puts it.
An ancillary room illustrating the process of chemical innovation by which the perfumer Sophia Grojsman created Trésor for Lancome in 1990 demonstrates that olfaction is a science as much as it is an art. Go through the show as slowly as possible to savor the complexity of each of these "masterworks," as the museum calls them. This will also help keep you from getting lightheaded.
—Jesse Ashlock, Deputy Editor at Details