Q&A with an Art-Inspired Perfumer & Synesthete

Boulder niche perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz of DSH Perfumes is becoming somewhat of a creative fixture at the Denver Art Museum. She’s taken inspiration from various exhibitions and programs to develop custom-made perfumes that relate to the works of art on view. For Passport to Paris, she crafted nine signature scents based on drawings and paintings from all three exhibitions. I spent some time sniffing my way through each scent in the Court to Café gift shop, and marveled at the variety of aromas that announced themselves to my nose.

I asked Dawn a few questions about her process, inspiration, and collaboration with the DAM. You can learn more about her process and meet her in person at Untitled #63 (Au Naturel). She’ll be on level 6 of the North Building, showing off her new perfume inspired by Eugène Carrière’s Young Girl with Flowers, a painting from the DAM’s permanent collection.

Molly Medakovich: You’ve collaborated with the DAM in the past. What other exhibitions or projects have you worked with here to create custom perfumes?

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz: I have been extremely fortunate to get to collaborate with DAM on a number of exhibits that started back in 2007 with Artisans and Kings. Since then I created work for Color as Field, King Tut, Cities of Splendor, and, of course, YSL. There are some people who feel that I have "found my muse" here at DAM. I think that they may be right.

MM: Which works of art in Passport to Paris grabbed your eye and spoke to your creativity the most?

DSH: You know it was a somewhat difficult task to narrow down which works inspired me the most as the show is quite large and with such diverse and beautiful images. The three that come to mind specifically are: 1) Monet’s The Beach at Trouville, as this image typifies the personas that I imagined that I was designing the perfume for; 2) Village by Hippolyte Petitjean, for the glorious use of color that felt very luminous and allowed me to focus on a famous fragrance note of the time: violet; and lastly 3) the drawing The Dunce's Hat by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. I loved the playful nature of this image and that it gave me license to create a very playful gourmand perfume.

MM: Out of the nine perfumes you created, eight were inspired by nineteenth-century works of art. What inspires you about this period of French art?

DSH: I ended up choosing mostly images from the late nineteenth century since these corresponded with a new era in French perfumery as well as in painting. Many times when I am working with historical works of art as opposed to contemporary art, I feel that speaking to the concurrent trends in perfumery is fascinating for both myself and my audience for the perfumes. This allows me to illustrate historical perfumes and fragrance ingredients popular at different times as well as create in a more modern manner, thus fusing a sense of history and modernity in the work.

MM: How do you know when you’ve hit the right combination of ingredients for a perfume? In other words, how do you know when the scent is just right or “done”?

DSH: This is a fascinating question and one that I try to teach to my students. It is kind of a combination of aspects. One aspect is that the perfume feels coherent and that the transitions from one note of the perfume to the next seems harmonious and fluid, not jarring, abrupt or out of balance. Another is that the perfume tells the "story" or plays the "song" that you have in mind when you are creating it. (I create most of my work in my mind well before I sit in my blending room to formulate it in the bottle.) I know it when I smell in the bottle what I have created in my mind. Lastly, a finished perfume should smell uniquely like itself. It stands on its own and does not feel like the sum of its parts but like a new, specific perfume that is memorable in some way as itself. For anyone who knows the classics Shalimar or Chanel N°5, they smell uniquely of themselves... not so much of the patchouli, vanilla, or aldehydes that make them up.

MM: What will you be up to at this Friday’s French-inspired Untitled?

DSH: I am glad that you asked me that. I have been working on a unique perfume to illustrate or "translate" Young Girl with Flowers by Eugène Carrière. I should mention that I am a synesthete, which means that I smell colors and textures and aromas have colors, shapes and textures that I sense when I am smelling. This sensory experience allows me to interpret and create based on these impressions.

I will be presenting this new perfume (right now it is still Untitled...) that is for me a translation of the painting. I have incorporated a sense of time and place within the perfume (meaning that this perfume design style is within the style of perfumes that would have been worn at the time that the painting was made) and explaining my process for creation and translation in more detail. For anyone who will be there for this month's Untitled, you will be able to sample the perfume as well as some of the key ingredients that went into its design. I will also be touching on some of the other Passport to Paris collection perfumes and speaking about how those came about. It's going to be an amazing evening!

Image Credit: Claude Monet, The Beach at Trouville, 1870 (Wadsworth Atheneum: The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1948.116)