I spent a solid 30 minutes last Friday night attempting to figure out what exactly was “old lady” smell, sniffing through several bottles trying to find a version of it, before I finally gave up — but not without learning a thing or two about scents.

If that doesn't strike you as an evening of enchantment, you've probably never been to Scent Bar in West Hollywood, a boutique perfume retailer specializing in indie and hard-to-find scents. Sipping on some champagne, munching on a delicate selection of crackers, salami and cookies amidst a bouquet of festive sweaters, my olfactory senses were awakened to a world of perfume that exists outside of the typical “My dear God get me out of here” trek through the entrance of any given Macy's.

The modest gathering was a feast for the senses, and an excellent teaser for the up-and-coming Institute for Art and Olfaction. Founded earlier this year by native Angeleno Saskia Wilson-Brown, the organization is set to officially launch with its first project at Lincoln Center in New York in January, and is expected to open its doors in downtown Los Angeles at L.A. Mart in March. With Scent Bar co-founder Franco Wright and manager Steven Gontarski sitting on the Institute for Art and Olfaction's board of advisors, the cozy retail space served as a perfect host for IAO's impending brick-and-mortar location, and provided an essential introduction to the wide world of smells.

“The Institute for Art and Olfaction aims to instigate greater engagement with the art and science of scent.” So says its mission statement. With a background in fine art and film production, Wilson-Brown received the book Emperor of Scent, about the perfume scientist Luca Turin, as a gift during her time working at Current TV. She was hooked, and began to look for outlets to learn about her new passion for scent and perfumery — but found very few.

“When I started to learn about perfumes is when I got really pissed off. It's very hard to get an education in perfumery,” she shares over the phone just prior to the Institute's teaser event last week.

Scent Bar co-founder and IAO advisor Franco Wright in front of Scent Bar's, well, bar of scents; Credit: The Institute for Art and Olfaction

Scent Bar co-founder and IAO advisor Franco Wright in front of Scent Bar's, well, bar of scents; Credit: The Institute for Art and Olfaction

Not only are there very few places to learn about perfumery, but even in many of the places that teach the chemistry behind it you have to already be associated with the company sponsoring the school in order to be admitted. Plus, specific scents are being patented and so the processes leading up to their creation are extremely secretive. Wilson-Brown says “only a few secret multinationals run by an army of chemists create most of the perfumes we see, as well as the scent for things like Dove soap and dishwashing liquids.”

As a result, the world of perfumery has merged with the DIY ethos. Olfactory rookies turn to internet resources like the online forum basenotes.

“To a certain degree that freedom has been an advantage because these new perfumers are not being forced into one way of approaching perfumery,” Wilson-Brown explains. “The lack of access has created a renaissance.”

And Scent Bar is one of the places where the renaissance is visible. The walls of the intimate space are lined with bottles of all sizes and colors, and any of Scent Bar's delightful staff are happy to help you find the fragrance you're looking for. Even if that happens to be “old lady.” As co-founder Franco Wright explains at the event, “Fragrance is built around an idea — it's an abstract concept.” How do you describe the smell of old lady? The smell of home? Or Wilson-Brown's current obsession, the scent of loneliness? These abstract concepts provide fodder for IAO's exploration of scent as an art form.

Indeed, during our phone conversation, Wilson-Brown noted that when you take perfume at face value as a sensorial medium, and not a commodifiable product, “There is so much beyond just smelling nice. The uncomfortable places in art are the interesting places.” And while she creates these uncomfortable places in her work, including helping to produce art projects like Tranimal and programming films as a founder of Cinema Speakeasy, the general trend has been that there is not much precedence for the strange or uncomfortable when it comes to considering art through scents.

Perhaps that's because, as Wright points out, “We all have different tastes. In food we don't have to inflict it on one another. Fragrance is more invasive, it's a sensory moment that we're all subjected to.”

Enter IAO. The Institute's first special project, Cult, is a partnership between filmmaker Mark Harris and perfumer Josh Meyer. Cult will premiere as part of a transmedia campaign that Harris designed alongside his upcoming film, The Lost Children, culminating in a live immersive experience on Jan. 22 at Lincoln Center in New York.

The collaboration between Harris and Meyer revolved around the themes of cultism, brainwashing, obedience and initiation — concepts that are explored through the film's depiction of Evelyn Harrison, a New York City socialite who turns to The Lost Children — a cult whose members believe they are aliens from another world, stranded on Earth and awaiting rescue by their mother ship. Meyer rolled with these themes to inform the construction of IAO's first scent. Secret Editions [01] Cult will have an extremely limited run of twenty-four 15 mL bottles that will be provided to the participants in the Lost Children premiere experience, in the hopes that it will cement their new allegiance to the film. If you're curious as to how one would smell of cultism, brainwashing, obedience and initiation, it may be in your interest to book your ticket to New York.

IAO's first LA-based project will coincide with its brick-and-mortar opening in March.

Institute for Art and Olfaction founder Saskia Wilson-Brown, Scent Bar manager and IAO advisor Steven Gontarski and IAO creative director Micah Hahn; Credit: The Institute for Art and Olfaction

Institute for Art and Olfaction founder Saskia Wilson-Brown, Scent Bar manager and IAO advisor Steven Gontarski and IAO creative director Micah Hahn; Credit: The Institute for Art and Olfaction

When asked, “Why L.A.?” Wilson-Brown says, “In the scent world, New York and Europe act as major centers. The fact that L.A. is an outsider is one of our assets.”

And I'm guessing that since she's built it, they will come. With places like Scent Bar and a handful of boutique outlets in Venice, IAO situates itself as an anchor within this constellation of innovative olfactory taste-makers.

Addressing the education currently available in the scent scene, Wilson-Brown says, “We're hoping to rectify the holes by presenting different aspects through not just workshops but projects people can get behind.” Projects like, say, mapping the molecule for old lady smell.

The Institute for Art and Olfaction is currently accepting project submissions for its 2013 programming cycle. More information on The Institute for Art and Olfaction at artandolfaction.com.

Scent Bar is located at 7405 Beverly Blvd, Fairfax District. (323) 782-8300; luckyscent.com/scentbar.

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