Friday, 4 May 2012

Garbage Niche And Terrific Commercial - An Interview With Chandler Burr

There's a new kid on the social networking block... and it wants your money. It's called OpenSky and as 1.5 million people have reportedly signed up to its services, I assume that some of you have already heard of it. Essentially, it functions like a cyberspace equivalent of a personal shopping adviser: you open an account, enter some information about tastes and areas of interest, and then you wait for various industry experts (or 'curators') to present you with an array of products which, they feel, are worthy of your cash.

The interface looks like a cross between Facebook and Pinterest, which will no doubt cause some people to apply for a higher credit card limit, and others to proclaim that all human interaction is now as dead as Diorissimo. It also seems to be geared heavily towards the north American market, but I expect it'll expand if enough people start parting with pennies.

So far, the system has operated without fragrance recommendations, but this changed yesterday when the 'Beauty' department opened. One of its curators is none other than Chandler Burr, he of The Perfect Scent and the endearing knee-smelling episode from part 1 of Ian Denyer's Perfume documentary. In order to mark OpenSky's entry into the scented world, Mr Burr kindly agreed to answer some questions, so of course I had to start by asking him why people currently feel the need to seek expert advice when shopping for scent. Could this be a reflection on the current number of perfume releases?

Chandler Burr: There is so much on the market and it ranges so greatly, from truly bad to extraordinarily good, that if you don’t already have some sort of GPS system to get through it, you’re dead in the water. There is Luca and Tania’s guide, there are some excellent blogs, but unless people know one or the other I pity the newbie. The time and legwork it would take to start from zero is daunting to put it mildly.

P: Why do you think people have particularly responded to the approach adopted by OpenSky?

CB: OpenSky allows you to find things you love, or can come to love, or need, with a visceral efficiency, if that doesn’t sound too harsh. We’ve always shopped, usually to a huge degree, according to the lives and lifestyles of other people we admire, people we want to be like. This applies to the 1700s just as much as the 21st century. There are very specific things I like about the OpenSky curators I follow. And I don’t buy everything they propose, but that’s not the point; I’m interested in what my curators are proposing because I’m interested in them. People respond to OpenSky’s approach because it’s the only model I know of that lets me find people whose styles I like that can offer me things to consider in those styles. It’s getting expertise, effortlessly, well-presented.

P: How will you take cultural differences into account when recommending scents?

CB: I won’t. The works I consider great I consider great for everyone, and it’s my responsibility to communicate the scents so that people following me will have what they need to work with, to sense if the scent will speak to them. Age, culture, race, gender - I’m not interested. What interests me are terrific works of olfactory art, which are appropriate for everyone.

P: Does recommending a perfume to a potential shopper cause you to see it in a different light from, say, a scenario in which you might be considering including it in a museum exhibition? In other words, is there an inherent conflict between seeing perfume as a commercial commodity and a work of art?

CB: It’s the opposite. All my after-tax profits from OpenSky go to the budget of my department at the Museum, the Department Of Olfactory Art, which is appropriate because the art I curate at the museum is axiomatically the art I would recommend to a collector. A collector is a consumer, be it painting, sculpture, literature, music, architecture. We default to painting, and while this is silly, fine, let’s use that as our analogy. Collect paintings, and you do it - if you’re serious about loving them - to consume them, to look at them, to live with them and have them change your life. Collecting olfactory art is identical in every way; merely the medium is different. Quality, beauty, brilliance are what I curate at the museum, and these are the criteria for recommendations to individuals.

Another thing: We (rather idiotically) forget that all art is created to be sold, to make money, and to be consumed: eaten, taken in visually, taken in aurally, lived or worked in, read. “None but a fool ever wrote but for money.” Samuel Johnson. I’m paraphrasing.

P: Are you hoping that OpenSky might persuade more people to see perfume as a legitimate art form?

CB: Absolutely, and it follows directly from what I said to the previous question: If you are seeking to collect great scents, the best way to understand them is as works of art. What I exhibit at the Museum I’ll gladly sell on OpenSky - and, not incidentally, in the Museum Of Arts And Design’s Store - and what I sell, I’ll exhibit. Michaelangelo didn’t paint the Sistine Chapel out of the goodness of his little heart. His patron, Pope Julius II, paid him. Artists are working people.

P: Do you think it's useful or desirable for consumers to be aware of the 'nose' behind a fragrance or is this an irrelevance for most people?

CB: It’s utterly crucial. Anything else means the marketers have control over these works of art.

P: Would you say that the general public's perception of perfume has changed over the last decade? If so, what do you think has caused this change?

CB: I think the public has gotten much more cynical in a time in which, if they knew what directions to look in, they would actually be reassured, thrilled, delighted by some of the masterful works being produced.

P: Do you still see a clear divide between niche and mainstream scents? Do you think the terms 'niche' and 'mainstream' are useful?

CB: I think the distinction between 'niche' and 'mainstream commercial' in scent art is just as real as it is in music (Katy Perry and Steve Reich) or literature (David Mitchell and Lauren Weisberger). It doesn’t necessarily mean one isn’t good. It could mean they’re simply different. A Malle and a JLo are different in type, I would personally favor one of the other, yes, I think the Malle is better qualitatively, technically, aesthetically, but there’s garbage niche and terrific commercial. It’s silly to think otherwise.

P: Do you believe the growth of the so-called online perfume community has had a positive effect on the fragrance industry?

CB: Hell, yes! No “so-called” about it, many of these people are astonishingly knowledgeable and utterly committed to scent in the best way. The interest, the knowledge, the discussion - it has done great things.

P: What are your views on why serious perfume criticism continues to be conspicuous by its absence in mainstream media?

CB: It’s the central question my Department Of Olfactory Art is going to raise, insistently and forcefully. Why is scent viewed as a lesser artistic medium than paint? It’s silly. But it’s a question of mindset. We aim to change that mindset. MAD’s Director, Holly Hotchner, expressed it perfectly the day I first met her in the fall of 2010: “This museum is going to do for scent as an artistic medium what has been done for photography over the past forty years during which photography has gone from a disregarded simple recording mechanism to being understood as a full-fledged, fully legitimate art form."

P: What's the most exciting perfume you've smelt so far this year?

CB: Impossible to say. Spicebomb is an extraordinarily well-conceived and well-built scent. It’s marketed as a masculine, but as usual I think that’s silly, it’s as terrific on women as it is on men, and on men it’s truly terrific, a blessed transcendence of the masculine fresh/cologne genre. I shouldn’t say transcendence. It’s simply a different category altogether. Karl and Robert just came out with the Aedes perfume, and it embodies that luxurious, mysterious store of wonders at 9 Christopher Street better than I could have imagined.

P: Are there any new brands whose output we should be watching?

CB: Arquiste.

P: What are your views on this subject of reformulation, IFRA and the anti-allergen lobby?

CB: People need to chill.

P: Are we ever going to see more books from you in the style of The Emperor Of Scent and The Perfect Scent?

CB: I hope so, in a few years, if my sons will stop ambushing each other with plastic swords, after the Department is well established, and if I find a good story.

P: Finally, what are you able to tell us about your work as Curator of the Department Of Olfactory Art at the Museum Of Arts And Design?

CB: The DOA’s mission is to place scent art in the mainstream of art history and to ennoble and elevate scent to its rightful place as a major artistic medium the equal of painting, architecture, music, sculpture. I’ve got website exhibitions planned for the Department’s subsite, DOA lectures, a DOA Artist in Residence Program, and several exhibitions in development for upcoming years.


Chandler Burr is going to be this year's Special Guest at the Fragranze exhibition in Florence. He'll be presenting a career retrospective of a famous olfactory artist, hosting a couple of 'scent dinners' (one of which will be open to the public) and curating an exhibition at the Stazione Leopolda, an old train station that's been transformed into an exhibition space. The exhibition's organisers have come up with a catchy tag line for the event: "Every bottle of perfume contains a world."

To see Mr Burr's OpenSky profile, please click here.


[Apologies to those of you who came here hoping to find the usual Friday review; it'll be published on Monday.]


  1. Great interview! Thank you Persolaise. XO

  2. Ah! I love his "Hell, yes! No 'so-called' about it" answer -- that's what I like to hear.

    For anyone interested, I interviewed Chandler Burr last year and he spoke a little more about his feelings on IFRA, the MAD and other things. You can read it here:

    Thanks, Persolaise!

    1. Elisa, thanks for the link. I'll definitely check out your interview soon.

  3. Chandler Burr always comes off so likeable, as the consummate professional. I appreciate that he appreciates the online perfume community. :)

    1. Susan, yes, I think he rates the blogosphere quite highly.

  4. Mimi Gardenia5 May 2012 at 00:20

    Thanks for a great interview , Persolaise . I like Chandler Burr very much .

    1. Mimi, thanks for taking the time to write.


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