Liz Cox Barrett: First, when did you have the occasion to smell “a new fur coat that has been rubbed with a very creamy mint toothpaste,” which is how you described Diorella?
Chandler Burr: I’ve never obviously smelled a fur coat with mint toothpaste. You wouldn’t, by definition, smell most of the metaphors I use — well, actually, I shouldn’t say that, some are very, very literal. It all depends. It really is a matter of seeking to communicate in as visceral and effective a way as possible the experience of the work of art. In this case, the work of art happens to be a perfume.
LCB: You’ve written a play and two books - one that is perfume-related and one about the biological origins of homosexuality. You have a Masters in International Economics and Japan Studies, you studied international relations in Paris and Chinese history in Beijing. You’ve covered business, science, food and travel for assorted magazines. Now you’re a perfume columnist. Was this part of the plan?
CB: Absolutely not. Not in any way, shape or form. A complete surprise. It resulted from the Eurostar [train] being 20 minutes late when I was in Paris going to London one day. I started talking to the guy next to me in line. He was a guy named Luca Turin, a biophysicist primarily and a perfume genius and he was researching the sense of smell. [This conversation eventually became a book by Burr called “The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Obsession and Perfume.” Then Burr was asked to write for the New Yorker “a behind-the-scenes account of the creation of a perfume” - “The Scent of the Nile,” published last year. And by then, his perfume-related writing career was off and running.]
LCB: Did you have a particularly acute sense of smell before all of that? Were you unusually interested in or attuned to smells prior to meeting Turin?
CB: No. You don’t have to have an acute sense of smell. You have to have an interest in smell and in perfume and in art and in science. That’s absolutely what I have.
LCB: Are you aware of a precedent anywhere in mainstream journalism — some other perfume critic — or are you the first of your kind?
CB: As far as I know, Luca [Turin] does a [perfume criticism] column in [the German magazine] NZZ, in German. As far as I know I’m the first in the English language.
LCB: What is your mission? What do you hope to bring to your column and your other perfume-related writing for T?
CB: I hope to both inform and entertain — to put it in a very formulaic way. I’d like to order the universe of this very commercial art. In exactly the same way that A.O. Scott at the Times orders movies or Ben Brantley orders plays. It’s a wonderful art, a brilliant art. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun as a commercial product, perfume is, and it’s nice to be able to bring a sense of point du repère — How do you say that? Sorry, I’m really not trying to be a snob. That’s awful. I hate when people do that — you need to have a sense of where you are.
LCB: I confess, I was surprised to find I enjoyed and learned something from your article that accompanied your first “Scent Strip” column (about why people are — but shouldn’t be — snobbish about synthetic scents as opposed to “natural” scents) and the science behind all of that. What do you say to people who might dismiss your job as frivolous?