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In the Nose: A Q&A With Scent Artist Sherri Sebastian

Is your sense of smell artsy? If you’re not sure, you might want to head to the Hammer Museum, which will be hosting a “scent journey” inspired by a 1902 New York public “scent concert” by visionary art critic, writer, and grand eccentric Sadakichi Hartmann. The modern interpretation is designed to take you out of the city and into the sounds and smells of Japan’s bustling beauty.

The cross-cultural exhibition focuses on six carefully constructed scents, created by classically trained perfumer Sherri Sebastian, who was selected by The Institute for Art and Olfaction (IAO) for her heightened awareness when working with natural ingredients.

Here’s how the journey—essentially an event that functions as performance art—works: a blindfolded audience will be led into a room where they will experience six two-minute vignettes. As the group moves through the vignettes—titled Supershuttle to LAX, Airplane, Narita, Tokyo, Hotel, and Dreamscape— they will be exposed to different scents conveying the olfactory landscape of those particular destinations.

Fascinated by this intersection of perfume and art, I called Sebastian to get more details about the project, from what inspired her selections for the exhibit to what it’s like to why trying on perfume from an indie brand is just well, good scents.

How will your inspiration and process work to recreate an interpretation of Sadakichi Hartman’s original scent journey?
With all fragrances I develop, I strive to create an ambience, feeling, or mood that people can relate to and connect with. It’s exciting for me to imagine what Sadakichi was experiencing during the turn of the century in New York City, especially since I lived there myself for many years. The original scent journey took place in a theater a few blocks from where I used to live! Having the opportunity to revisit Sadakichi’s dream in modern day Los Angeles, where I now reside, is a big inspiration and honor.

How did you select the fragrances that are featured?
The scents were designed to match each step of the journey with different textures, depth, and character. For instance, the scent for Narita is clean and neutral compared to the electric, neon pitch of the scent for Tokyo. The mood changes once again as you “arrive” at the hotel where you’re greeted with and surrounded by rich, elegant notes of orange flower blossoms.

What, if anything, do the selected scents have in common?
Although each scent is a stand alone in terms of composition and character, they work together to create the sense of a moving, changing experience. We move through these mini scent journeys every day when we wake up to the smell of coffee, then jump in the shower where we’re surrounded by the scent of shampoo and soap, and then out into the world where we encounter the smells of our daily commute or work place.

It seems like I’m seeing a huge uptick in perfume launches by new, indie brands. Is scent the next sense for hipsters to master? Will everyone be looking at perfume as art in the future?
To me, every fragrance has an intangible yet obvious character or structure that evokes in us a feeling or emotion, much like art. Even as a little girl I was aware of the difference between Jean Nate and Loves Baby Soft. Today, I think the difference between masstige and indie is primarily in presentation. People tend to feel closer to something they can understand and niche brands offer a tangible, relatable story.

What’s your take on perfume critics?
Since perfume is so personal and subjective, I believe there’s value in everyone’s opinion. That said, it doesn’t affect my own opinion and choices when developing a scent. My goal is to convey a message in the most authentic way through scent based on my own aesthetics and expertise.

You’ve designed mainstream fragrances for brands like Coty, Laura Mercier, Fresh, and Estee Lauder. How is your process for curating an art project like this different?
As a professional perfumer my process continues to evolve as my experience expands. The approach I took 15 years ago might be similar to today, but since then I’ve formulated more than ten thousand experiments. Today I have a deeper understanding of the subtle interplay between ingredients.

What is your favorite thing about creating a new scent?
The feeling of connection I have when conveying a mood, feeling, or message through scent is divine. If a scent I’ve created can enhance someone’s reality, if even for a moment, then even better!

A Trip to Japan in 16 Minutes, Revisited” at the Hammer Museum runs from January 9 – 12, 2014.


A native Angeleno, Navdeep Mundi is a Leo, hates cilantro, and has studied beauty products for more than 18 years. She spends her days directing media and strategy and her nights sniffing out slightly quirky yet impeccably pretty things along with her German Shepherd, Le Tigre.