“Like the odor of brine from the oceans comes the thought of other years.” – Longfellow
When I was a child, I wanted to be an artist or perhaps a scientist. Instead I am a perfumer – this is perhaps a bit of both. I’ve been described as one of the most innovative perfumers of the 21st Century. I’ve won awards, my work is in museums and countless people in all civilized parts of the globe enjoy the unique scents I create. Much to my surprise, at least in a small way I have changed how people think of perfume: what it is & how it’s used. This is a brief history of how that happened…
I grew up in a tiny town in the country – many of my favorite scents are based on memories of my childhood there: dirt & dandelions, vegetable gardens, walks in the fall woods, snow (which meant school was cancelled), wet rocks from the river and cookies made by my mother and favorite aunt. I spent a lot of time making things – Lego blocks & cardboard were my favorite mediums. I imagined when I grew up I would continue to make things. I didn’t yet know what exactly but I dreamed of a small shop where I would sell the marvelous things I made! I also spent a great deal of time reading. I began to collect books at a very early age & I still do.
Chemistry Class was a thorn in my side – I didn’t care about it at ALL. However, Mr Horne was a marvelous teacher & a monument of patience. He impressed upon me the importance of precision in weighing, measuring & exact notation. Little did I know then how useful this discipline would be later on…
I had an excellent & brilliantly talented art teacher who began giving me private lessons in painting. Although I loved painting and have a very good “eye”, being a starving artist didn’t appeal to me. I did want a “career” in a creative field however so I decided to study Architecture. I began to study architecture when still in high school. I did a special program at Carnegie Mellon but decided after graduation to attend Columbia University instead. While at Columbia I did a lot of set & costume design but decided neither building nor the theater were really right for me.
Sometimes now I regret not pursuing theater design – I really did love doing that and was rather good at it!
I suppose this is my defining decade. Music, Style, Fashion, Films, Clubs, Magazines & most especially People all seemed so new. As my friend Dianne Brill said to me recently, “Individuality was celebrated then.”
I couldn’t have put it better.
I worked at a great many odd jobs during the 80′s but driving a cab was perhaps the oddest. People are generally shocked when they find I did this. Still I drove for a brief period and this was when I discovered that I Hated Perfume. Women would get into my car in the evening wearing some horrible scent that made me sick. 12 hours later in the cold freezing dawn, my eyes would still be watering & my stomach churning!
In 1987 I decided a career making clothes might be the way to go. I’d been drawing them for years & couture fascinated me. So I began to take classes at Parsons. I quickly came to realize that 7th Avenue and I would not be friends and I suppose I was too frightened to pack up and move to Paris. (I didn’t speak French.) And I realized that I am not really interested in fashion – only clothes!
In order to pay for school, I took a job in the cosmetics department at Barney’s. This was NOT a nice place to work – everything you’ve heard about that store is absolutely true. Still, as ridiculous as it was, I’m glad to have been there because it ultimately led to my job at Kiehl’s.
Kiehl’s in those days was fabulous. Jami Morse, who had just taken over the company from her father, is the most brilliant person I’ve ever worked for. She had crystal clear vision and boundless determination. Although she was certainly one tough cookie, I have absolute respect for her and what she accomplished. Everything I know about running a business in a different way I learned from her. And Kiehl’s is where I began to make perfume. At that time, the company had an incredible range of scents (about 128). Part of my job was to dram out scents that customers ordered. I quickly became familiar with them, recognized my favorites, and in the six spare minutes I had now and then, I began to do very simple blends for myself. It turned out I was good at it and I soon began to do blends for some of Kiehl’s special clients as well.
In 1992, I had to leave New York – I simply couldn’t live here any longer. I became very tired of the noise, the crowd & the lack of green growing things. In January of that year, I moved out to my family’s farm in Pennsylvania and began to figure out what to do next. I decided once again to pursue my childhood dream of making things – it was simply a matter of deciding just what things… Later that spring, a friend suggested that I read “A Natural History of the Senses”. I found Ms. Ackerman’s first chapter on the Sense of Smell so profoundly magical that I began to think seriously about making scent.
I drew up a plan, set up a company, began to design the package and of course worked on creating my very first perfume. This took a while but by the fall of 1993 everything was ready. My first scent was one that I’d actually made for myself – it was blended entirely of natural essential oils. Whenever I wore it, people told me how good I smelled and asked what it was. I thought that boded well. It was first sold at Henri Bendel in the spring of 1994 and new scents quickly followed. The company grew rapidly and we moved from the kitchen table to a workshop in the barn to a small factory in a nearby town.
I have always loved the smell of things – particularly growing things. I decided to try to capture some of these smells & my first real breakthrough was Dirt. One of my greatest pleasures was digging among the vegetables, herbs & flowers in my small garden on the farm. I loved the smell of the fresh clean earth and decided to bottle it. It was a far greater success than I’d ever dreamed & I suppose the rest is History.
Over the next few years, I developed an astonishing range of scents – possibly one of the most unusual in the world. There was no smell however strange that I didn’t try to capture – as long as it gave someone a deep and abiding pleasure it was on my list.
I think Snow was my greatest achievement for that company. I worked YEARS on that scent but finally completed it in 1999. The following spring, on what was definitely the most stunning night of my life, it won 2 Fragrance Foundation awards.
In the spring of 2003, 70 of my scents were included in the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum’s Triennial exhibition. This is the first time in history that a major art museum recognized that scent is DESIGNED. Although I still feel deeply honored to be the first perfumer to break through this wall, I can’t help but think that there are so many other perfumers who should have been recognized first & a good deal sooner. Still the way has been cleared.
It was this exhibition that also made me begin to think about perfume as art…
Although there were many good things that happened during my years with my old company, my own personal relationship with it was almost always deeply & extremely painful. That I won’t talk about now or ever – the details aren’t important. But this is why, in 2004, I severed my connection with the company I began 12 years before. I’d had Enough & Enough Said. The point is that I survived, learned a great deal from the good & the terrible, gained a lot of valuable experience & simply moved on. It was time to get back to what was important to me – making perfume.
In the spring of 2003 I moved my studio from the East Village just across the river to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This is a wonderful neighborhood full of creative people of all sorts. Just the place for me…
In July 2004 I first opened my CB I Hate Perfume Gallery to the public. Based on the seeds planted in my head during the Cooper Hewitt Triennial, I decided to begin exploring perfume as Art. Since I began in 2004, I have refined my collection of accords & expanded it to include many new scents and a great many more natural materials. Part of my mission is still to capture every possible pleasant scent.
I’ve returned to my original love of making actual PERFUME – those that tell stories and capture exact experiences. I began my own collection of CB perfumes and add to it each season. And I am back to making custom scents as well. The whole process is ever changing & expanding. This is marvelous to me and I’m happier than I’ve been in a decade.
And I’m a long way from done.
I’ve been exploring perfume as art for some time now. In the spring of 2006, I did a piece called “Everything Here is False” for a group show on the Lower East Side.
In May of 2006 I opened my first solo exhibition at the University Science Center’s Esther Klein Gallery in Philadelphia. This show was sponsored in part by the Monell Chemical Senses Center – an institution I’ve long admired and it was an honor to work with them.
The exhibition was entitled “Scent is Life” and explored various aspects of individual olfactory perception as well as the deep autobiographical connection between scent and memory. The show was very well received and I’ve had a few inquiries to “take it on the road”…
Of course I’ll continue to make new perfumes and to expand my collection of accords. I also plan to keep exploring new ways to use perfume.
I continue to explore other ideas & projects that don’t have anything to do with perfume – still they are about making things!
And quite possibly at some point in the future, I will actually take a vacation.