At the IAO, You’ll Learn All About the Fine Art of Smelling and Perfumery

Written By: Melissa Mitchell LA’s Newest Scent-sation is the Institute for Art and Olfaction
Photography By: Olivia Bush

The Expert: Saskia Wilson-Brown
Credentials: Founder of the Institute for Art and Olfaction.
Currently: In a punk rock perfume club called Smelly Vials

Everything’s coming up roses at the Institute for Art and Olfaction. If you haven’t caught wind of this fresh smelling establishment, we’re here to tell you everything you need to know about this scent-sational organization. From perfume making to aroma education to thinking outside the artistic box, the IAO embraces the senses and shares its vision with the masses. Artist and founder of the IAO, Saskia Wilson-Brown, fine tunes her sense of smell on the daily by spearheading a plethora of aromatic endeavors and projects. Whether perfume class is in session or scent pairing production is underway, you can be certain that there’s always something fresh on the IAO’s agenda. When it comes to the perfume industry, there’s a lot more than meets the nose when it comes to the IAO. Wondering what movies, UFOs, ghost hauntings and perfumes have in common? Keep reading to inhale the answer!

Q: Can you provide some background into what’s actually done inside the Institute for Art and Olfaction?

Saskia Wilson-Brown: The Institute is comprised of three prongs. The primary point of engagement is education, offering classes that are affordable and casual. The idea behind this is to make the atmosphere as comfortable as possible so people can learn in a no pressure environment. The second prong is art, more specifically incorporating scent into art practices as well as housing fine art and hosting artist exhibitions. The third prong of the IAO is the art and olfaction awards, which is becoming an increasingly larger event. The next round of awards is scheduled for May 7 at the Hammer Museum.

Q: As founder of the IAO, what was your inspiration to create this establishment?

SWB: I wanted to learn about perfume. Plain and simple. I’m an artist, primarily, who developed an interest in perfume and I wanted to explore that interest in a space that was casual and comfortable.

Q: What led you down this path? Can you expound on your background and the road to this exciting venture?

SWB: After obtaining my master’s degree in art, I moved to LA and fell into the film industry. While I still have a hand in film, I knew I wanted to pursue multiple art forms and was interested in doing something more hybrid. I practice painting and conceptual works, and utilize whatever medium makes sense for the process at hand. Ultimately, I read a book about perfume that piqued my interest and prompted me to further explore that modality.

Q: What is the overarching mission of this aromatic institute?

SWB: Bring scent to the masses! There is a lot of exclusivity and strong marketing language out there in the perfume industry and I wondered, “Why shouldn’t anyone be afforded the option to learn about perfume?” The history of perfume is beautifully far reaching and diverse, and there is no inherent reason why it needs to be exclusive. We embrace the notion of making this medium more accessible.

Q: What is it that our readers need to know about the IAO?

SWB: We run many fun and unique clubs, one being the Smelly Vials Perfume Club (SVPC). The SVPC is a punk rock perfume club that generates projects with scents that could be described as a bit out of the norm or disruptive.

Q: What’s new this season at the IAO?

SWB: Our big event launching May 6-8 is the AIX Scent Fair at the Hammer Museum. This is going to be a huge fair with an emphasis on perfume. We’re also excited about some upcoming collaborations! For example, we’re collaborating with the Pulitzer Center for the Arts in St. Louis in June.

Q: What are you and the IAO team excited to unveil this year?

SWB: The most exciting event for me is our yearly awards ceremony. Each year we have a new crop of perfumers who take part in this event from all over the globe. Perfumers are granted awards in three categories: Best Independent Perfume, Best Artisan Perfume and Best Experimental Perfume.

Q: What’s trendy right now in the fragrance world?

SWB: Yuzu is the material I’m seeing a lot of this year. It’s a citrusy material from a fruit originating in East Asia, and it seems to be popping up in a lot of perfumers’ blends. Now there is a big move towards postmodern exoticism, with nature and natural products being at the forefront. Perfumers are utilizing natural, accessible materials from all over the world to create the latest scents.

Q: Can you share some secrets about the scent creation process?

SWB: Typically, a perfumer will have a creative base or idea (e.g., to make a masculine scent for football players) and then delve deep into that theme and decide what it means. The next step is to select 10-30 materials, then sit in a lab and tinker with bottles, scales and amounts until they get the right mixture. Once the perfumer settles on a formula, they must ensure that its makeup adheres to International Fragrance Association (IFRA) regulations.

Q: Discuss some current projects that you’re over the moon about.

SWB: We’ve got quite a few! One fun ongoing project is a film screening that’s coming up in May. We’ve partnered up with a team of producers from all over the world to recreate the scents for the movie Scent of Mystery, a film about a man in search of a woman whom he knows only by her scent. The screening will take place at the Cinerama Dome in LA with an audience of 500. During the showing, scents will be emitted into the audience throughout different scenes of the movie.

Q: When you’re not making magic in a bottle at IAO, what’s your favorite local spot to unwind?

SWB: My 100 percent favorite place in LA is The Plant Provocateur located in Silver Lake! It’s a hidden, secret garden of amazing plants that are so beautiful! You won’t see it if you’re not looking for it, it’s a hole in the wall but so beautiful inside. It was created by a botanist, Hank Jenkins, and is located right next to a coffee shop. I love to sip coffee and hang out there in the garden.

Q: Hard question: What is your favorite perfume?

SWB: That is difficult, I go through phases! My current favorite is called Fundamental, which was put out by Rubini. Fundamental was created by an Italian perfumer, Cristiano Canali, and it’s got a carrot-cinnamon smell with hints of wood. It’s one of the most beautiful perfumes, I love it!

Q: Perfumes aside, what’s your favorite aroma?

SWB: There’s a material called cashmeran that I love. It’s got a musty, woody smell, and is meant to evoke the fuzzy-mustiness of a cashmere sweater. It’s got a harshness to it but it’s my favorite smell. It reminds me of coziness!

Q: What should a visitor or student expect to experience on their first visit to IAO?

SWB: The open sessions and classes that we have are the most public drop-in experience that we offer. When guests arrive they’ll be given an array of materials after which they can start blending! We also have many scents and materials that are accessible for people to look through and sniff. The IAO also runs monthly art exhibitions and is home to a library of books that patrons may check out and peruse.

Q: What does the future have in store for the IAO?

SWB: Survival! We’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with some large institutions and we hope to continue to form new collaborative partnerships in the future. In addition, we’d like to continue to take on new and exciting projects, both large and small. We enjoy exploring esoteric topics through scent so we’re looking forward to future opportunities in that realm.

Scent-Sational Reading: The book The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr sparked Saskia’s interest in perfumery, thus illuminating the path to the creation of the IAO. Never underestimate the power of a good book … or a good perfume!

UFO Smellings: Sure, we’ve all heard of UFO sightings, but have you ever heard someone describe the scent of a UFO? The IAO has teamed up with artist Joe Merrell in an effort to capture, define and recreate the scent of UFO abductions. Put that one in your bottle and smell it!

Smell of the Scentury: Towards the end of the 18th century, the majority of perfume blends contained floral scents. In the ’90s, the waif heroine aroma was in its prime, and perfumers were rolling out gender-neutral and unisex fragrances. At present, the focus of aromas in perfuming is on natural, earthy scents.

Artful Allies: Saskia and her husband, Micah Hahn, presently run a practice together called Mr. & Mrs. Hahn, as well as a graphic design studio in LA, Allies, which specializes in branding, print work, typography and more. These early waker-uppers and late go-to-bedders epitomize the power couple!

Fear Factor: The Smelly Vials Perfume Club has partnered with Ghost Hunters of Urban Los Angeles to create scents that coincide with all of the LA hauntings! Now that’s a ghost of a different odor!

Waiting Game: From start to finish, perfumes take anywhere from three months to a whole year to complete. Talk about a lingering process.

Institute for Art and Olfaction
932 Chung King Rd
Los Angeles, CA 90012

S M E L L /// Ya Later: Educate Your Nose at DTLA’s Institute for Art and Olfaction.