Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent

21 June – 17 September 2017
£11; £9 concessions
East Wing Galleries, Somerset House

Somerset House showcases contemporary cult perfumes that are shaking up scent culture

  • Multi-sensory exhibition
  • Exhibits include ‘bad taste’ perfumes, stirring up smells such as smoke, sweat and semen; landmark and landscape scents, recreating the likes of a Texan desert town; and innovative fragrances including one which reputedly enhances one’s own skin scent
  • Introductory section on historical innovators of the industry
  • Working laboratory to see up close the skill and science of scent-making and learn the art of perfumery

This summer, Somerset House is proud to host Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent, a major new exhibition which invites visitors to discover a vibrant new scent scene.  The multi-sensory show presents ten extraordinary perfumes – and the pioneering perfumers who created them – from the past two decades, which are changing perceptions of scent today. 

From Antoine Lie’s Sécretions Magnifiques for État Libre D’Orange to Geza Schoen’s Molecule 01 for Escentric Molecules, an emerging group of creatives are pushing perfumes into more daring olfactory and cultural directions, challenging the classic definitions of fragrance. 

The ten pivotal perfumes challenge the long-held conventions of perfume – from creation and communication, to gender and good taste – and are leading changes into the mainstream market.  Self-taught perfumers are building independent brands and classically trained ones are coming to the fore from corporate anonymity to work on more creative commissions or launch their own labels.  They are reworking their palette of ingredients to construct original and outrageous signatures, which assault all of the senses – the visceral in surprising, sometimes unattractive and unsavoury, smells such as mould, sweat or semen, the cognitive in evoking unexpected landscapes or landmarks in time and place, and the aesthetic.  The alternative scents are designed in disregard of gender.  They are intended for introspective enjoyment and exploration, rather than to attract others or mask our own odour.  The perfume provocateurs are also leaving behind the glossy advertisements and instead opening up to a global online community, allowing them to provide insights into perfume processes, celebrate their craft and engage in dialogue or even take inspiration from their customers.  It offers a much more accessible approach to and understanding of perfumery, unlike anything seen before.

The exhibition will begin with a brief overview of the origins of modern perfumery and an introduction to the historical innovators of the industry, from Chypre de Coty (1917) – often cited as a first of its kind and the reference point for numerous 20th-century perfumes – to CK One (1994), the original shared fragrance that led the ‘clean’ scent trend.  The exhibition will then explore the modern movement and focus on the ten trailblazers which are inspiring and influencing the perfume industry today.

Each perfume and its perfumer will have a dedicated space in the galleries so visitors can truly immerse themselves into the stories of the scents and have the freedom to contribute their personal interpretation.

It will also feature a fully functioning and open perfume laboratory, where visitors can interact with and get instruction from professional perfumers, seeing up close the skill and science of the perfumer and even trying to turn their own hand to it.

Conceived and curated by Claire Catterall, Senior Curator at Somerset House, and co-curated by Lizzie Ostrom, aka Odette Toilette, the perfumes and perfumers spotlighted in the show include:

Sécretions Magnifiques by Antoine Lie for État Libre D’Orange (2007)
One of the most notorious scents of the 21st century, Sécretions Magnifiques was created to provoke “the pinnacle of sexual pleasure” with smells of semen, sweat, pumping blood and saliva – notes never seen before in fragrances – and intentionally designed to be divisive.

Molecule 01 by Geza Schoen for Escentric Molecules (2005)
Molecule 01 made synthetic molecules desirable and sexy rather than an industry dirty secret.  Schoen presents a ‘single aroma chemical’ – Iso E Super – which fans believe enhances their own skin scent.  It is adored and addictive to those that can smell the aroma; many are unable to detect it at all and think it is all a myth.

Purple Rain by Daniela Andrier for Prada Olfactories (2015)
While Purple Rain was purposefully not given a familiar flower name and Andrier remains evasive about the full fragrance notes, it is an iris-based scent - a recurring theme in Andrier’s work.  The sumptuous scent of iris was popular in early to mid-20th century perfumes and Andrier has led a modern renaissance of the flower in fragrances, with a twist on the traditional.  By defying the traditions of names and notes, it is hoped that it will spark free associations of the subconscious mind, with the individual wearer deciding on its inclusions and the memories it triggers.

El Cosmico by David Seth Moltz for D.S. & Durga (2015)
David Seth Moltz is a Brooklyn-based perfumer, who is known for drawing upon American history and geography in his liquid language.  His unusual methodology includes investigating and interpreting a landscape in minute detail, much like a topographer, to serve up a striking representation of a scene.  El Cosmico is an olfactory representation of the cult campground of the same name, situated in the tiny Texan town of Marfa, described as “the biggest little art town”.

Charcoal by Lyn Harris for Perfumer H (2016)
Founder of Perfumer H, Harris has brought a new edge to British perfume, pioneering the use of naturals back into perfumery.  Charcoal marks Harris’ talent for finding beauty in the raw elements of life and nature.  Deeply engrained in her sense of nostalgia, Charcoal is an interpretation of her childhood in Yorkshire and reminiscent of time spent with her grandfather on his smallholding in the Scottish highlands, the fragrant aromas of the damp outdoors and a house filled with the scent of smoky fires.  The perfume provides a simulation of charcoal through a meticulous balance of wood, resins and balms – including cade, cistus abs, juniper, cedar, patchouli and frankincense – creating something familiar, yet unexpected with this olfactory combination.

The further five perfumes and perfumers featured in the exhibition will be announced later in the spring.

There will be an extensive events programme in accompaniment to the exhibition (details announced in the spring), as well as exclusive exhibition tours which can be arranged in addition to any private event hosted within Somerset House.

Global beauty leader Coty and Peroni Nastro Azzurro will be principal partners of the exhibition, with additional support from fragrance house Givaudan.

21 June – 17 September 2017
Times: Monday, Tuesday, Saturday & Sundays 10.00-18.00 (last admission 17.00), Wednesdays, Thursdays & Fridays 11.00-20.00 (last admission 19.00)
Due to early closure of the courtyard for programmed events, the galleries will be open 10.00-18.00 on the 6th, 7th, 12th, 13th & 14th July and the 10th, 11th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 23rd August
Tickets: £11/£9 (concessions), available at
Address:  East Wing Galleries, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 1LA
Transport:  Underground: Temple, Embankment / Rail:  Charing Cross, Waterloo, Blackfriars
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Hashtag: #PerfumePioneers

About Somerset House
A unique part of the London cultural scene, Somerset House is an historic building where surprising and original work comes to life. From its 18th-century origins, Somerset House has been a centre for debate and discussion – an intellectual powerhouse for the nation. Somerset House is today a key cultural destination in London in which to experience a broad range of artistic activity, engage with artists, designers and makers and be a part of a major creative forum – an environment that is relaxed, welcoming, and inspirational to visit while providing a stimulating workplace for the cultural and creative industries. 

Since its opening in 2000, Somerset House has built up a distinctive outdoor public programme including Skate, concerts, an open-air film season and a diverse range of temporary exhibitions throughout the site focusing on contemporary culture, with an extensive learning programme attached. In October 2016, Somerset House launched Somerset House Studios, a new experimental workspace connecting artists, makers and thinkers with audiences. The Studios provide a platform for new creative projects and collaboration, promoting work that pushes bold ideas, engages with urgent issues and pioneers new technologies. Somerset House is also one of the biggest community of creative organisations in London including The Courtauld Gallery and Institute of Art, King’s College London Cultural Institute and over 100 other creative businesses. It currently attracts approximately 3.4 million visitors every year. 

About Coty Inc.
Coty is one of the world’s largest beauty companies with approximately $9 billion in revenue, with a purpose to celebrate and liberate the diversity of consumers’ beauty. Its strong entrepreneurial heritage has created an iconic portfolio of leading beauty brands.  Coty is the global leader in fragrance, a strong number two in professional salon hair color & styling, and number three in color cosmetics.  Coty operates three divisions – Coty Consumer Beauty, which is focused on color cosmetics, retail hair coloring and styling products, body care and mass fragrances sold primarily in the mass retail channels with brands such as COVERGIRL, Max Factor and Rimmel; Coty Luxury, which is focused on prestige fragrances and skincare with brands such as Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, Hugo Boss, Gucci and philosophy; and Coty Professional Beauty, which is focused on servicing salon owners and professionals in both hair and nail, with brands such as Wella Professionals, Sebastian Professional and OPI.  Coty has approximately 20,000 colleagues globally and its products are sold in over 130 countries. Coty and its brands are committed to a range of social causes as well as seeking to minimize its impact on the environment.
For additional information about Coty Inc., please visit

About Peroni Nastro Azzurro
Peroni Nastro Azzurro has been brewed in Italy since 1963 from one of three breweries across Italy; Padova, Rome and Bari. The unique recipe created by Carlo Peroni contains the addition of one-quarter Italian maize giving Peroni Nastro Azzurro a delicate balance of bitterness and citrus aromatic notes with a surprisingly quick and dry finish.  Considered the ‘most stylish’* beer brand in the UK Peroni Nastro Azzurro continues to be imported from Italy to this day.

About Givaudan Fragrances
Givaudan is passionate about perfumery and is dedicated to combining creativity and innovation to design beautiful fragrances. With the industry’s largest perfumery team, Givaudan contributes to making life delightful and memorable through unique scent experiences for customers around the world. Currently present in all major markets, Givaudan strives to deliver fragrances for personal, home and laundry care, as well as prestige perfumes. Our customers benefit from Givaudan’s expertise in three business areas: Fine Fragrances, Consumer Products, and Fragrance and Cosmetics Ingredients. We invite you to ‘engage your senses’ and learn more about Fragrances at