It smells!

Musings on the olfactory system
A column by Michael Erlhoff

Design involves the composition of various elements in a considered and precise way, but also in a way that is driven by experimentation or merely fantastical association. Consideration is given to the quality of these elements and their linkages, with the deliberate prospect of producing something that somehow makes sense or is usable.

Smelling produces extremely varied results. Sometimes things stink so deplorably and overwhelmingly that you immediately try to hold your nose or to hurry away from the malodorous cloud. At other times an unfathomably pleasing fragrance embraces you. Indeed, smell is something of a mystery.

The olfactory sense is somehow formed deep in our subconscious and from there it intervenes continually in our conscious presence. It may be true that embryos first learn to touch and to hear, and that it’s only after some time that taste and smell come into play, yet after birth the sense of smell becomes fundamental to a baby, because it is only through smell that he or she finds the mother’s nipple, since he/she is entirely unable to see it as such. Hence the sense of smell functions very early on, after just a few hours or days even, as a sort of signpost to contentment and to survival or satiation.

On the other hand, since human beings as a society created a hierarchy of the senses very early on, and it is still this that primarily dictates sensory certainty, the sense of smell has fallen by the wayside somewhat. After all, this hierarchy has always been based on us human being’s remarkable efforts to detach ourselves from the animal kingdom – and animals are known to use their sense of smell very keenly, including to sniff out openly clear sexual interest. Humans are first and foremost self-proclaimed “visual” beings (all our positively loaded categories for understanding are linked with sight, i.e. clarity, insight, enlightenment etc.), whereby the new quality of the upright gait so typical of humans is interpreted as fundamental.  Thereafter we accept acoustic competence, albeit also always with a certain ambivalence: In German, the word “hörig”, relating to “hearing”, also refers to slavery and bondage; those who see faces can be party to great fantasy, whilst anyone who hears voices apparently belongs in the psychiatric ward. The sense of touch is barely addressed except in the areas of design and eroticism. Taste takes on a unique ambiguity because it at the same time describes the penchant of the somehow educated social classes. These manifest themselves both in the perception of art and of beautiful objects in general as well as in the immediate enjoyment of foods, and are, at specific times and partly even today, considered very important.

The discourse around and the explicit perception of smell, however, have for a long time played no role in society; the sense has indeed been suppressed almost as nonsense, as something irrelevant. Here we know from the domain of belles lettres (even before Patrick Süskind’s bestseller about perfume, Marcel Proust’s “hero” of “Remembrance of Things Past”, lying in bed, is reminded of his childhood by the smell of the “Madeleine” cakes) as well as from corresponding scientific studies and from everyday life, just how incisively smell determines our lives. Thus pheromones continually float entirely unprepossessingly through the air and fuel passion or even spark relationships. Entirely inconspicuous in what they do, their result may nevertheless be binding. Smells trigger profound remembrance. After all: Since they do not appear obviously and thus, without fail, elude reflection, they unrestrainedly penetrate the world of our thoughts and bind these to specific phenomena of perception that stir beneath our introspection, which blithely win through and steer our lives and our memories on this side of conscious perception. We shun a specific location where possible, without really knowing why. Here we would simply have to analyze the smell, relate it to our own histories and hence understand it. But that’s not easy, because smells do not always pervade, but rather linger in the background. With foods too, there are certain dishes we like and don’t like without really having an explanation for it, because this can prevail on the level of smell.

Indeed it is now known that those poor people who owing to one medical complication or another lose their sense of smell can barely taste anything. This is obvious with wine, which first has to be “nosed” clearly and at length before it is drunk and then judged based on its taste. Here too, the olfactory sense takes the lead and explains the relevant specific quality, even channeling the taste.

There is a halfway thoughtful awareness of smell and its indicative function at least in the production and the perception of perfume. Here there are specialists who create scents in quite unimaginable diversity and intensity. The most inconceivable components are combined with one another, then tested in the air, placed into various extremely lavish forms of packaging and often sold for a great deal of money.

Surprisingly, but for good reason, this already has a lot to do with design, as one could perhaps grasp what design should be in line with the following description: Design involves the composition of various elements in a considered and precise way, but also in a way that is driven by experimentation or merely fantastical association. Consideration is given to the quality of these elements and their connections, with the deliberate prospect of producing something that somehow makes sense or is usable.

This is something that undoubtedly also applies precisely to perfume. Hence that which makes up perfume and other scents belongs inalienably to the complexity of design and can be discussed from this perspective, whereby the designers likewise irrefutably belong to those who at least play a role in shaping romantic relationships or their endings – entirely plausible in certain circumstances and taking into account the so erotically charged pheromones.

Now this all sounds very attractive and could further the self-awareness of the design profession considerably. Unfortunately though, the design of smells is now applied very differently in this regard. Namely for that which has for some time been known as “corporate smell” and which clouds specific areas of human activity. A number of companies have by now understood how fundamentally attractive smells can be. After all, they form not only repulsive, but also appealing milieus. Hence one need only find out what appeals to a multitude of noses and the associated complexities of passions in as many people as possible. And where possible, apply this knowledge without these people consciously noticing it.

One simple process launched in Cologne a few years ago, for example, was so successful that it was repeated multiple times: With the help of ventilators, a bakery imperceptibly pumped the smell of the kitchen out into an area of around 15 square meters on the street in front of the shop. This way, the people who were actually just passing by had to walk through the scent of baked goods which, where possible, prompted magical flights of childhood fancy beneath the level of reflected perception, just as Marcel Proust describes, so they would enter the shop almost automatically and buy bread rolls or cakes accordingly, entirely without knowing why.

Increasingly, entire department stores or shopping malls and prominent brands’ stores are doing the same thing. A scent which, with the help of design, is very precisely composed, pervades the entire area of the relevant commercial world with the intention of giving visitors an intense feeling of wellbeing and imperceptibly prompting the profound enjoyment that induces them to linger in precisely this commercial area. And what’s more, to motivate them further, as cheerfully as possible and likewise transported on the wings of the scent, to buy something. This works extremely well precisely because the process lies beneath the explicitly perceived perception competence and thus eludes any reflection thereon.

In Asia this began very early on, since there smells play a very substantial and important role, including in religion, and thus there has been an awareness of such perfuming structures for quite some time at the level of commercial offerings. Yet now we find this everywhere, attracting us, making us inclined to like something or even become addicted to it and slyly loading it with eroticism. Suddenly purchasing becomes an erotic act – and this happens without us consciously recognizing it.

By now the world of design is even compelled to shape the olfactory element of the interiors of cars or airplanes, and in this way to design or compose a new form of scent-based beauty. In the business world too, nothing is more successful than that which escapes conscious perception and thus consideration. We are particularly attracted to things we don’t understand. In the context of our sense of smell, all that remains is the perplexing fact that we do not know and are never able to smell how we ourselves smell. We only ever smell other people. This is something that thoroughly unsettles us and drives us all the more to pursue the scents of others or indeed to break away from them.

Michael Erlhoff

He is an author, design theorist, corporate consultant, curator and organizer; he has been, among other things, CEO of the German Design Council, Advisory Council member of documenta 8 and Founding Dean (and until 2013 professor at) of the Köln International School of Design/KISD. Erlhoff was founder of the Raymond Loewy Foundation, is a founding member of the German Society of Design Theory and Research and as a visiting professor heads projects and workshops at universities in Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, New York and Sydney. Since 2016 he teaches as an honorary professor at the Braunschweig University of Fine Arts.