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Automotive Scent Design


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Cover: FEAR 21/21 Beijing Olympics, Tsinghua University 2008 Photo Š Tolaas



What first triggered your interest in odours? I trained in chemistry before moving on to languages and visual arts. And when you’re in the lab there are a lot of chemical components, and very often there’s a smell present too. Actions and reactions, explosions and so on. And I slowly became aware that I had a nose which could do more than just breathe. It was similar to Newton’s apple falling on his head but this involved the smells of the laboratory. I was like ‘wow’, this is amazing! I saw something out there that maybe I could catch and analyse more seriously than had been done previously.  Is that when you began to build your archive of smells? Yes, I began at the start of the ’90s to collect smells from reality. Instead of writing a diary or taking photos I started collecting smells from sites and situations. 

SmellScape Detroit Research 2007-2012 Photo © Megan Mantia

SmellScape KCK/KCMO Research 2007-2011 Photos Š Megan Mantia

And since then you’ve been traveling the world, cataloguing its scent? It’s like if you go with a camera and take a picture. I make an invisible image, but it’s always going to be my take on that situation. That’s why I prefer to be in the creative world rather than the world of science where it’s all about objectivity, writing papers and hoping someone reviews and publishes them ... and then that someone actually reads them!

How big is the archive now?

You have a point there

The Smell Archive has around seven thousand smells captured from reality and Smell Lab has something like five thousand chemical components.

Every breath you take, you inhale smell molecules. We breathe up to 24,000 times per day and move 12.7 cubic metres of air, every day. 

You really live and breathe your work, don’t you?

And with every breath you inhale, smell molecules enter your subconscious and are stored there for ever. Some of these smells are identifiable from early life, and if you perceive one of them subsequently, you see a corresponding image immediately. This smell memory is a big issue.

I smell every morning, just as you read your newspaper. I added another ritual to my daily life. The consequence is that I’ve improved my sense of smell. And in general I have become a much happier human being, much more fulfilled. After all, we can live without looking and hearing but the moment we stop breathing we are dead!


Right: Tolaas working in the lab Photo © Daisy Ginsberg

Did you always want to be a scientist? I wanted to become an astronaut! But in those days, it wasn’t so easy to get into space. So I decided to get as close as I could by working with the air that surrounds us and, along the way, potentially have the same kind of excitement. So that’s my position at the moment: Astronaut on planet Earth ...

SmellScape KCK/KCMO Final presentation 2012 Photos © Megan Mantia

When you started collecting smells did you have any idea what you would do with them? No, I was just interested to see what happened if I started to use my nose for the things for which I had primarily been using my eyes. Everything is done by looking, everything. I wanted to see, if I changed the balance of the senses, if my nose would maybe become as efficient, or perhaps more efficient than my eyes and ears. Would I see different? Would I feel different? Would I understand reality better? Would I be mentally better equipped to deal with a situation or ready to act in accord with it if I used a different tool to understand?

Did these questions lead you in a particular direction? Well, after seven years of study I was starting to find my way towards a direction. The aim at the end of the day was simple though: I was ready to become a missionary of the nose! I dedicated myself to the nose. And since then, that’s all I’ve been doing, in all aspects of life. South Africa, Tokyo, Germany, Mexico, you get around a lot I try to be everywhere: There’s a whole world to smell and a whole world to educate how to smell. 

We need educating how to smell? We are all born with the hardware and software, but sadly, we are not training all of our senses in a balanced way. I was faced with a mass of fundamental questions about smell, but the first challenge I set myself, was to see if I could deprogram myself. Could I start to think in smell? Can I relate to smell intellectually, rationally? Can I get rid of prejudices? Can I become neutral? So there are no objectively ‘bad’ smells? If there is a situation where there’s poison and danger, a particular smell molecule is involved – that’s a different reaction. That’s not what I’m talking

about. You would withdraw from that as a natural effect. What I’m talking about is all the other stuff. The smell of your neighbour, your neighbourhood, the other. You name it. You want me to smell my neighbour?  Okay, my take is this: I don’t want all the garbage back in the city or that we should all smell terrible. But there’s plenty of ways in between that and the Granny Smith’s Apple odour of detergent.  So what I’m trying to do is replicate smells from reality, decontextualise them and train awareness. That’s one aspect of my work. 

Do you ever manufacture your own smells? Once – when I was commissioned to do the smell of the battlefield for the German Army History Museum. It was a tough job because I usually collect smells from the real world. That’s how I work. And in this case though, I had nothing. I had to rely completely on my own knowledge, and history books which described the situation very precisely. Fortunately, my sponsor, IFF was able to deliver the chemicals to make the smell.


SmellScape KCK/KCMO Final presentation 2012 Photo © Megan Mantia

It’s not a particularly cheerful subject, the battlefield At the end of the day I made a very hardcore smell that really represents disgust. When they smell it, a lot of people just throw up immediately! Did that go down well with the museum curators? It was hard. In the beginning the people involved were very skeptical, they said it could not be too disgusting. But I said either we do it right or not at all. It’s not a rose garden on the battle field. The point is to inform people, to get some idea of the situation. We should go as far to the extreme as we can! And make people throw up? Was there a bucket handy? Yes! In the beginning they didn’t have one and people had to run to the toilet. They didn’t always make it, so now they do. But you don’t have the smell all the time; you open the door and press a button if you want to experience the smell.


FEAR 21/21 Beijing Olympics, Tsinghua University 2008 Photos Š Tolaas


SmellScape KCK/KCMO Final presentation 2012 Photo © Megan Mantia

Maybe we should move on, you mentioned other aspects of your work? Another is to see how I can use existing knowledge about smell for other purposes. At the moment there are five big companies which own the rights to tastes and smells just about everywhere. What they do is amazing, but I think there’s a lot more that can be done. The question is, how can I use this amazing knowledge for another purpose? How can we direct awareness and understanding so that maybe one day we will ask more questions before putting deodorant under our arms or washing our floors with water that smells like apples.  I mean, the fact that we do that says something about how perverse reality is. In many parts of the world people would love to eat that apple! We’ve airbrushed smell out of history, is that what you’re saying? There’s a whole world that hasn’t had a chance to be as it should be. We learn early that deodorant is the solution. But after Wash ’n’ Go the world just got sicklier. We are more unhealthy, there are many more allergies and diseases. We are removing too many natural bacteria, from our skin, our guts etcetera.  And if you look at science you’ll see that the big issue is bacteria. It was genes, now it’s bacteria. If nothing

else, maybe my work will become more important because of these things. So sanitisation isn’t necessarily good? Sanitisation is just one aspect of smell. We live in a world which, as commercial interests took over, was deodorised, sanitised and covered up for your protection. It’s a shame because you are removing so much information. If we did the same with all the bad looking buildings, and all noise in a city, how would you navigate? It sounds like things have just gone too far? I was visiting a big company HQ in the US recently and there was one of these hand sanitising dispensers at the door to the place. It was as big as my body! I had to wonder, am I to shower before I can come in? This tells you how afraid we have become of each other. In these circumstances how can we shake each other’s hands, or hug? These are the consequences.  Is there hope for our neglected nostrils? If there’s no education and awareness that can train you to become neutral towards these kinds of smells, or at least have them as part of your daily discourse then there’s no chance that things will change. That’s why I try to do so much education, to be in schools so much. As soon as possible, primary or kindergarten. 

To influence children to integrate their nose as soon as possible. To get beyond the hedonic response, you know, ‘is it bad or good?’ To get to the point that a smell is interesting. If you get there, then there is hope. Prejudices just build up in the subconscious and they spring out like a shot. It’s very efficient. But that’s more a negative than a positive. It could be used for good though, that efficiency? Sure, take someone with post traumatic stress or addiction. What if smell replicated from a situation could function as a tool for healing psychiatric cases? Smell gives us a simple treatment with a fundamental and very serious consequence.  Decontextualisation of a situation lets the patient, or person train her awareness toward a particular smell in a different context, removed from the traumatic visual stimulus. Repeat that till the tolerance is there, then you go back to the situation and the reaction is completely different.  So with my projects, be they in art or design, this is the goal – re-contextualisation of certain facts: smells.  You did a similar experiment with Reuters For that I used a coding system. It was just a game to explore how to use a system of communication with smell.  There was the news

coming in. Then software condensed the news to codes relating to the content. Then the code activated a smell molecule. And these are abstract smells. They have no reference in the real world. The end result is that when you hear similar news contents you will remember that specific smell. I was giving meaning to abstract molecules.  It’s a powerful tool, why don’t we use it more? It has been used occasionally. Household gas, for example, has no smell. So at some point they added a couple of molecules to make it perceivable, so you’d be aware that the gas is leaking. Since then, those two smell molecules mean ‘gas leak!’ The same knowledge has also been used to mix chemical components to make things that smell nice. But what is nice? What smells good in India is different to what smells good in my home country, Norway. Maybe it’s time to redefine what is good and bad. It’s time for a change, to see what else could happen. Is the world of science opening up to smell? We have more knowledge now than we had twenty years ago. And through the internet, science is more transparent than it was, so different questions are being asked.

SmellScape KCK/KCMO Final presentation 2012 Photos © Megan Mantia

Those people deserve different answers. My position is somewhere between the corporate world and science – I have the knowledge and the guts to ask a lot of questions. A common reaction to your smell experiments is laughter Yes, I think that’s very important. Intelligence and laughter. I’m all about learning in a moment of play. We’ve lost so much of this. We have come to a point where all the fun has gone. It’s why people are partying so much. Daily life has lost its passion. And the fact is when you trigger the nose, people become like children again. If it’s the CEO of Mercedes, or the kids from the kindergarten down the street, they all react the same. That’s what it’s all about for me.  Most other science seems so serious by comparison ... They would love to do what I do but the strict rules of science mean you’re not allowed to be crazy for the sake of being crazy. You’re not allowed to have that kind of fun. Their fun is all behind closed doors. I have fun in public!


Left: FEAR 09/21 MIT 2006 Photos © Tolaas Right: AR 21/21 Beijing Olympics, Tsinghua University 2008 Photo © Tolaas

If it’s so much fun, how did we become so scared of our noses? A prejudice doesn’t have a chance to think about whether it’s a ­prejudice. The first time in life when you smell a smell. Those are the essential moments. That time becomes the source of that smell for the rest of your life. If that moment has a connotation of being positive or negative emotionally, then your relation to those smells will remain like that for the rest of your life.  It’s a very subjective business then, smell? It is the most personal thing ever. We’ve never learned how to depersonalise it. If we had smell as part of the curriculum that would be a start ... Intellectuals have neglected the nose for exactly that reason. The intrinsic personal, emotional nature of smell. If you look into smaller, more primitive cultures, smell is an issue. They have terms around smell used in every day language. They smell each other. It’s more natural.  So you favour a back to nature approach? Sometimes it’s necessary to step up and say I cannot afford this or that but I have a lot for free, I can reprogram  what I have, and see where that takes me.

Left: SmellScape Detroit Research 2007-2012 Photo © Megan Mantia Right / top: SmellScape Liverpool, 2007 Photo © Trevor Morgan Right / bottom: General smelling sessions Photos © Trevor Morgan




01 CHRISTOPH NIEMANN Illustration 2009 02 MICHEL MALLARD Creative Direction 2009 03 FUN FACTORY Product Design 2009 04 ANDREAS UEBELE Signage Design 2010 05 HARRI PECCINOTTI Photography 2010 06 KUSTAA SAKSI Illustration 2010 07 5.5 DESIGNERS Product Design 2011 08 NIKLAUS TROXLER Graphic Design 2011 09 JOACHIM SAUTER Media Design 2011 10 MICHAEL JOHNSON Graphic Design 2011 11 ELVIS POMPILIO Fashion Design 2011 12 STEFAN DIEZ Industrial Design 2012 13 CHRISTIAN SCHNEIDER Sound Design 2012 14 MARIO LOMBARDO Editorial Design 2012 15 SAM HECHT Industrial Design 2012 16 STUMMERER & HABLESREITER Food Design 2012 17 LERNERT & SANDER Art and Design 2013 18 MURAT GÜNAK Automotive Design 2013 19 NICOLAS BOURQUIN Editorial Design 2013

PUBLISHER Design Friends COORDINATION Heike Fries LAYOUT Sebastian Reiter INTERVIEW Mark Penfold PRINT Faber Imprimerie PAPER Scheufelen (Heaven 42 softmatt) PRINT RUN 500 (Limited edition)

with Carrérotondes asbl MAPPING AUGUST. An Infographic Challenge 2010

ISBN 978-99959-807-0-2 PRICE 5 € DESIGN FRIENDS Association sans but lucratif (Luxembourg) BOARDMEMBERS Nadine Clemens (President) Mike Koedinger (Vice-president) Anabel Witry (Secretary) Guido Kröger (Treasurer) COUNSELORS Heike Fries, Mik Muhlen, Stéphanie Rollin and Silvano Vidale



13.06.12 SISSEL TOLAAS_FLYER 148x148.indd 1

04/09/13 11:25

This catalogue is published for Sissel Tolaas´s lecture at ­Mudam Luxembourg on October 16, 2013 organized by Design Friends.

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Sissel Tolaas  

World-renowned scent expert, researcher and “professional inbetweener”, Sissel Tolaas has dedicated her work to the world of smells. Since 1...

Sissel Tolaas  

World-renowned scent expert, researcher and “professional inbetweener”, Sissel Tolaas has dedicated her work to the world of smells. Since 1...