Chandler Burr Interview: Untitled + Art Of Scent Exhibition

Hello APJ Friends and Family,

Admission time everyone, I have a crush. Since I found you all on the scentbloggosphere, and started reading the stuff you’d all known for years, I have been hearing and reading about one name consistently. Some people love him, others feel otherwise, but no one can dismiss the changes he has helped bring to the way personal scenting is viewed by the greater public. This man, alongside Luca Turin/Tanya Sanchez, Victoria of Bois de Jasmin, Denyse of Grain de Musc, Robin of Now Smell This, Patty from Perfume Posse, has been a positive voice for change. Educating, expanding the horizons and realigning perfume into the modern consciousness in ways it’s never been before in modern times.

He was the New York Times fragrance reviewer, yes, but have you read his books? The Emperor of Scent, The Perfect Scent? Excellent reads in the perfumed maze of literature but did you also know he wrote a book, A Separate Creation, about how we are biologically pre programmed if we are gay? Or his novel, You or Someone Like You, a story about a gay Jewish young man whose mother was not Jewish? This man is not only sexy, erudite and engaging: he can also write a rollicking tale that is a page turner without being a pot boiler.

You might want to grab a cuppa, or a glass of something, I hope you really enjoy this interview….Please welcome APJs very special guest today

Chandler Burr

Interview: Untitled + Art Of Scent Exhibition

Chandler Burr kris krüg  FlickrPhoto Stolen kris krüg  Flickr

I have a couple of questions firstly about your very interesting “Untitled” series please Chandler. There is so much I love about it, the blind testing and the history of that being the way you measured your frags for the NYTimes reviews, that you have brought all these prominent houses together to do it, the hype and fuss you were able to generate: all these things thrilled me. I’d like to know why you felt the need to send 50ml bottles: surely a 10ml atomiser would have served the purpose as well and been easier to ship?

Actually they’re all 30ml bottles except for E03, which was 15ml. Mailing a 30ml and a 10ml is virtually the same thing logistically, and I very consciously chose to give those who bought each episode a serious amount of the work and not a mere sample.

It was a great shame that it wasn’t open to the world as I’d’ve loved to have been part of the experiment and so would some of the rest of the crew down under?

It’s infuriating and disappointing for us as well. We tried every possible way of getting around it, but it is just flatly illegal to ship alcohol outside the US. That includes 10mls. We talked to people at the US Postal Service, UPS, FedEx, etc. Maybe in the future. People send perfume illicitly all the time—you just write “book” or “sample” or something on the customs form—but if it’s caught the contents are either refused or destroyed and, if it comes from a business like Open Sky, the fact that it’s illegal can lead to serious problems. So there we are, unfortunately.

What were the most important things that the fragrances needed to possess before being put into the series?

One criterion was the inclusion of works that in my opinion are hugely underestimated. The quintessential example is Mugler Cologne, one of the most ingenious works of olfactory art ever created, a masterpiece by Morillas. I have another coming up in the next three episodes. It was and is very important to me in this series that participants re-experience—as pure works in and of themselves with no interference—these pieces. A second criterion was presenting works that I think are the most aesthetically important, that changed the state of the art. Sel de Vetiver by, brilliantly, Celine Ellena. A third: works whose structure and technical performance are landmarks. Epinette’s Rose Noir. A fourth criterion: The introduction of artists whose work is not well-known but which I think will stand the test of time. E10.

I suppose the fundamental criterion is that the Series be utterly unlike anything else in the world or anything anyone’s done before. I’m continually reimagining it.

Are there any in the series that you would prefer not to wear but judge them purely as excellent fragrant pieces that are best enjoyed without their usual accompanying fanfare?

Very interesting question. There are actually two. I included Schwieger’s Vanille Insensee Cologne because it is a fascinating reinvention of the cologne trope in the most unlikely way possible—a structure indelibly (we thought) associated with “fresh,” as in the olfactory concept of fresh, which has nothing to do with a natural-world freshness but is a brilliant aesthetic / social construction, built from a material (we thought) fundamentally contrary to the idea of “fresh,” a material of opaque sensuality.

The cologne trope was irrelevant and outmoded; Schwieger did a Modernist version—this is the most trenchant, perfectly-fitted example of Modernism’s mission and definition, “the reinvention of old, traditional art forms with new materials, technologies, and aesthetics so that they speak to the modern person,” that it’s possible to find—and suddenly it became fascinating again. I simply wouldn’t wear it because…I don’t know why, I just wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t watch Midnight Cowboy again and I loved it the first time and it is a masterpiece. Likewise Bal d’Afrique, a 21st century abstract expressionist work that is like being choked to death with a silk rope dipped in mango and passion fruit. A great work.

Currently you have just finished, I think, the first The Art of Scent exhibition. Were you happy with how it went, did you get your desired result?

Yes, absolutely. 150,000 people saw the exhibition, it was a huge success with the public I’m very happy to be able to say, and it established the aesthetic and design premise I will build my curatorial work on.

Chandler Burr Sam Fam FlickrPhoto Stolen Sam Fam Flickr

What will you do differently when you take it on a world tour? (I have no doubt that this will happen)

We’re working on the touring exhibitions, and we’re planning on adding an entry section that will prepare the visitor better for the experience, provide context. Nothing big. The show’s Museum of Arts and Design / New York installation has been retired permanently, and we’ll be looking for new architects and designers with whom to collaborate on the traveling shows, which is going to be fascinating.

Please give me the most important reasons that you think people should treat Perfume as Art, because though it ticks some of my art boxes I still lean towards craft/trade as a whole, especially in these days of fragrant chemistry.

That scent is a major artistic medium, equal to photography, paint, music, and dance is simply incontrovertible in my view. Indeed, it’s grossly obvious. The medium is utterly artificial, which all art mediums must be to allow artists to create fictional works, works of art, which are defined in part by the condition of being artificial things created by human artistic visions. Music is made of tones that exist in the natural world, and it is the most wildly synthetic, artificial, human-manufactured thing there is; when the hell would a group of notes in a man-made key come together to produce “Claire de Lune” or “Beat It”? Answer: never. When would any perfume—any—come together, those materials, all made by people, in those quantities by anything even remotely resembling natural means? Answer, obviously: never.

I’m not sure why there is this ridiculous confusion coming from the fact that some of the materials used by scent artists are “naturals”—very much in quotation marks since there’s nothing natural, at all, about a rose petal whose oil has been extracted in a man-made machine with steam or by a gas at critical phase in yet another man-made machine. Clay is actually natural, or a hell of a lot closer to natural than a vetiver absolute that’s been manufactured with a solvent; sculpture is utterly artificial. Wood is natural; architecture is utterly artificial. All these materials are used to create works that force the public experiencing them to grapple with the artist’s purpose: to change the way we perceive the world, reality, and ourselves. Any work that does that is a work of art. In my view I think it would be impossible to find any logical, intellectually honest way to exclude scent from all the others mediums as an art medium.

Could you tell me about the exhibition catalog that came with the piece and how to get one please?

I’m as proud of The Art of Scent catalog that we put together as I am of the exhibition itself. If that seems strange to you, well, I believe it is arguably a greater achievement than the show. (“We” by the way is our heroic team at MAD, Yasi Ghanbari who oversaw the entire incredibly complex project, the wonderful catalog designers Christian Hansen and Gloria Pak of Hnt Creative, Heather Barrett, Patrick Gosse, Eric Koelmel, James Reardon, Tony Perez, and everyone from The Estée Lauder Companies, Hermes, Guerlain, l’Oreal, IFF, Givaudan—I’d make the list three times this long if I included everyone.) When I arrived at MAD the catalog we created was deemed by everyone flatly and categorically impossible. The brands would never allow their works to be taken out of the packaging. It would be impossible to convince them to allow the works to be treated as true works of art and sold with competitors’ works as a curated art historical collection. And so on.

art-of-scent-catalogue Now smell ThisPhoto Stolen Now Smell This

And we did the impossible. We created a limited 1,000 pieces of this catalog of which only a few hundred remain for sale—a single collector bought 25 copies the first hour it became available—it will never, ever be reproduced, and it is, I think, with all due humility, an object that will multiply in value both monetary and historic as the first and only one of its kind. There will be future catalogs from my future exhibitions. But there will never again be The Art of Scent catalog.

Best to you,


Chandler Burr VromansBookStorePhoto Stolen VromansBookStore


Stolen Post Script from The Perfumed Dandy…

To learn more about Chandler and his various projects, including where to buy ‘The Art of Scent’ catalogue and join the ‘Untitled Series’ simply click on any of the links in the article, there’s also that intriguing profile of Chandler by the art critic Blake Gopnik, that’s worth a peek.

My conversation with Chandler is one of a series with a number of bloggers organised by the inimitable Lanier of Scents Memory. Do look out for the others in the project which will be appearing over the weeks ahead at:

Another Perfume Blog:

Australian Perfume Junkies 8/9/13:


Scents Memory 20/8/13:

Smelly Thoughts:

The Fragrant Man:

The Perfumed Dandy 31/8/13:

The Scented Hound:

What Men Should Smell Like:

34 thoughts on “Chandler Burr Interview: Untitled + Art Of Scent Exhibition

    • Thank you Jordan,
      Chandler is a very interesting man. one day I will hopefully get to interview him in the same room.
      Portia xx


  1. Amazing interview. I deeply feel the imbalance of attention and awareness toward certain art forms over others. There are means of transcendence besides movies and music! We are rhapsodic about out favorite perfumes because they are works of Art!


    • Hey there Julie Zamborini,
      You and chandler both make extremely eloquent arguments in favour of scent as art. Is there a particular fragrance that you think is a piece of art?
      Portia xx


  2. Ooooh, so many. Niche-Serge Lutens “Serge Noir,” by Christopher Sheldrake. The smoke! The insence!
    Classic-“Samsara,” Jean Paul Guerlain. Bergamot-rose-sandalwood…
    And mainstream, “Calyx,” by Sophia Grojsman. Delicious sparkly Guava.
    Loved your recent review of that one, by the way!


    • Yes, definitely Samsara, itr will be interesting to see if they use the now available Australian Mysore Sandalwood to put the butter and cream back into Samsara. IMAGINE!!!
      Portia xx
      PS I hope Brie is reading and gets your compliment on the Calyx review, she will be thrilled. I miss her exuberance so much.


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  4. Hello Portia,
    Wow! Chandler Burr! Great interview, Portia! I have to say that I hate/love the work of Chandler Burr. I always feel I’m being manipulated by his references to things one of a kind, historic, this is your last chance, etc. The Open Series, for me, was one of the most creative pieces of marketing so far this century. Why dress it up as anything else? I think his opinions on art are “old hat” but he certainly has an engaging way of pontificating and reframing the obvious. That being said, there is no doubt that the man is brilliant. I love listening to him speak (in any language whether I understand it all or not).


    • Azar,
      You are so elegant with words. Chandler is a powerhouse and a presence. Yes, all your points are completely valid, can I add on top that Chandler made this interview really easy for a novice in the genre and I felt, through his answers, that I’d asked some questions that he really wanted to answer.
      Portia xx


    • Thank you handsome. Reading that from you was an exhale moment for me Freddie.
      You have made my day.
      Portia xx


  5. Chandler Burr is always provocative and since very few people have ever put forward the idea of perfume as art, I don’t see how his views could be considered ‘old hat’ as Azar suggests. True, Edmond Roudnitska defended the rights of perfume creators and asserted that a perfume can be a work of art over 30 years ago but that’s not the general view. Perhaps Azar means Burr’s views on art in general. If Burr reframes the obvious – which I agree he does at times – perhaps it’s because he was the one who made it obvious to begin with given his pioneering role!

    On another note, let’s look forward to an Art of Scent exhibition in Australia one day in the near future


    • Hey Catherine,
      Funny you should mention that. I’m meeting next Friday with some people……. It could all turn rather fabulous in Sydney soon. Wouldn’t that be something?
      I am not clear in my head about what ART is exactly and that is my downfall in this discussion, what Chandler wrote made perfect sense to me if you accept his first premise. He has me leaning towards art but not yet 100% decided, it will take more questioning on a greater scale for me to cement an opinion.
      So nice to have you drop in Catherine.
      Portia xx


    • Azar and Catherine, Azar is, I’m sure, saying the latter, that my conceptualization of art in The Art of Scent and the Untitled Series is quite traditionalist, aka old hat, and in fact I agree. It is. I made a specific choice to use the accepted categories because I was already challenging the public enough with the proposition that scent is an artistic medium–and I can’t tell you how much people were challenged by it. They didn’t reject it, but it really was surprising, even shocking, to them. You’d have had to have seen the reactions of people I gave tours to. I remember a 50-something man, professional, educated, who was wrapping his mind around it as we went through the works. He found it ‘fascinating,” he said, “but I’ve just never, ever thought about it before–and I’ve never ever thought about perfume or scent before.” That’s the person to whom I wanted to give a traditional art historical, chronological structure, so he has a frame of reference and only has to work on the idea that scent is an artistic medium, which was for most of the 150,000 visitors more than enough.

      You guys, who know and understand perfume, are already there. So what’s left in the exhibition for you? Not a huge amount honestly, and that’s why as Azar says discussion of what Modernism is and why there are Modernist perfumes is as interesting–and it’s only interesting to people who haven’t already discussed this in galleries, museums, art history classes, etc.– as a discussion of what Modernism is and why there is Modernist architecture or literature.

      I’ll be less conservative in the future. This was a conscious decision to start slow.


      • Thank you Chandler for dropping in and clarifying. I am a little with the 50-something guy and though I get your points am still wrapping my head around it. What I am loving is all the conversation generated, alll of it full of interest to me.
        Thank you for getting people, myself included, thinking and discussing.
        Portia xx


  6. I’m very glad Chandler’s a primary participant of the olfactory conversation. He’s provocative and thoughtful, infuriating and comforting to perfumistas, all at once. Great interview!


    • Ha ha ha! He always sparks interesting conversation, doesn’t he Masha7. I am thrilled that I was asked to participate in this series because I knew it would grow the conversation, the most important thing to me.
      Portia xx


  7. What a great interview, Portia. I’ve read The Perfect Scent and I joined Open Sky just to be able to follow the Untitled series. Would have loved to be able to see the exhibition. He has definitely expanded the discussion about perfume.


    • Hey Janice,
      I joined Open Sky too to follow Untitled. What a shame it couldn’t be sent around the world.
      I am very chagrined that I missed the exhibition and I really wanted a catalogue.
      Portia x


  8. ‘there’s nothing natural, at all, about a rose petal whose oil has been extracted in a man-made machine with steam or by a gas at critical phase in yet another man-made machine.’ – interesting take.

    Loved the music analogy too – ‘when the hell would a group of notes in a man-made key come together to produce “Claire de Lune” or “Beat It”? Answer: never.’

    Portia I have had to read this 3 times to absorb your incisive questions and the detailed answers.

    I know that you don’t live for the applause but I have to give you some of Gaga’s ‘I live for the applause-plause plause’ here. I won’t be giving you her perfume though.


    • Jordan,
      You have been a stalwart companion through the whole scentbloggosphere experience.
      As you are/have been a magazine editor and producer your praise is high, and appreciated. Thank you for being my friend,
      Portia xx


  9. Great interview, Portia, really interesting. Like you, I’m still of two minds about whether perfume is art or not, but Chandler makes an interesting case. One thought, though, is whether or not perfume has to be perfectly align with movements in other forms of art ie. Post-Modernist, Baroque, etc. If perfume is an art, I’d like it to eventually come up with its own terms for styles and stages.


    • Yes Dionne,
      Good point. I think though that Chandler had to give correlation so that the regular Jo could see some kind of link.
      Those eras will be called Cologne, Civet, Bombastic, Floriental, Aqua, Sport, Fruitchouli, Oudh and Smoking years. He he hPortia xx


      • Nice categorization Portia Turbo. I prefer perfume specific terminology. Any more up your silken sleeve? I would add Ellena or Ellenesque, Soliflore, The Incense Era and after that I am still thinking. Bombastic is great – you mean this for 80’s Powerhouse?


        • Sure do Jordan, bombastic for the 80’s, yes Ellena family style, they are an era in themselves. Did we have an incense (in particular) era? The next era will be the IFRA era perhaps?
          Portia xx


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