Studio Visit
Sissel Tolaas, Scent Expert

“I’m a professional provocateur,” Sissel Tolaas says between sniffles, her Norwegian accent blunted by one of the colds the artist and world-renowned scent expert often gets after maxxing out her mucous membranes. Visit her at-home laboratory in Berlin, where she concocts conceptual fragrance studies for museums and for megabrands like Coty, and the provocations begin almost immediately, regardless of her weakened state. You’re asked to identify mystery smells and then feel strange when you not only have no idea what they are, but can’t even find words to describe them. You’re presented with three of the 40 variations on stinky socks in Tolaas’s scent collection, then made to question why they smell any worse to you than, say, fresh strawberries. Suddenly it dawns on you that you know almost nothing about your sense of smell, despite the fact that you breathe in about 27,000 times each day. You feel humbled.

At that point, Tolaas’s job is half done. Though on any given day she might be busy developing an ambient odor for a Margiela exhibition or identifying a prototypical Swedish smell for Ikea, the larger aim of her career, she says, is remediating “the lack of understanding smell has in our society.” The first step is getting people to pay attention, even if it means using unseemly tactics like mixing up a kind of “filth soup” cologne and wearing it to a film festival, or simulating the body odors extracted from men having panic attacks and exhibiting them on scratch-and-sniff walls at MIT. “I have what scientists don’t have—the guts to go out there and try my ideas out in reality,” the 49-year-old says.

Once her art projects get people thinking about smell, Tolaas reasons, they then need a language to talk about — and thus begin to comprehend — what may be our most elusive sense. To that end, she’s developing a lexicon of newly invented smell terms called NASALO, aided in part by the library of nearly 7,000 scent specimens she’s been personally harvesting since 1990. The collection includes everything from 150 variations on dog shit to the lone aroma she’ll admit to favoring above any other: that of her 11-year-old daughter, whose scent she’s been tracking since the day she gave birth. Most of us experience the world predominantly through our eyes, but not Tolaas, which is why she declares her latest cold a vacation, a blessing in disguise. “Sometimes I have to close my nose,” she says. “It’s just too much.”

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Tolaas has degrees in chemistry, art, and language, and her work is precisely a combination of the three. She uses her nose and her intuition to craft complex fragrance formulas using individual scent notes, then strives to present them to the world in ways that can be universally experienced and understood.


One of the projects she recently worked on was using scent to aid in the recollection of traumatic memories in patients undergoing therapy. "Maybe they had an accident with an ashtray," Tolaas explains. "You make 25 versions of an ashtray smell and the right one will trigger the memory. You can also attempt to draw people out of comas with powerful scents from their memory."


Since 2004, Tolaas technically works for the commercial research institution International Fragrances and Flavors. It provides her with access to 2,500 different scent notes — a portion of which are on these shelves — and to Head Space, a machine that breaks down any smell into its molecular components, information that's then used to piece together its synthetic counterpart. Human sweat, she notes, can have anywhere from 10 to 200 elements.


Tolaas's association with I.F.F. also helps because certain scent molecules can be outrageously expensive: 1 kilo (35 ounces) of rose extract, for example, can cost around $15,000. Shown here is Moroccan rose; Tolaas says she can easily distinguish between it and the French version.


As she talks, Tolaas dips paper testers into various scents to help her make certain points. During my visit, she decided to coat half of these with variations on stinky socks, explaining how she trained herself to let go of all her scent prejudices. "I find every scent equally interesting,” she says. “I can go where other people would throw up, and it’s just another smell to me.”


Tolaas's daily to-do list might encompass anything from conceptual experiments with the scent of violence to consulting work for clients like Adidas or Coty, the latter of whom recently came to her looking for a new way of thinking about perfume. She has yet to develop a commercial fragrance, however.


The flat, round flasks in the middle of this shelf are bottles of the conceptual scent NOSOEAWE, which Tolaas presented with perfumer Geza Schoen at the 3rd Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, in 2003. The pair tracked the smells of various geographical areas of Berlin, then blended them in unique sociopolitical and aromatic combinations.


One of Tolaas's custom tools is this scent communication device, for testing scents in outside environments. It blows smells into a given area, helping her determine, for example, the type and concentration of ambient fragrance that works best in a hotel lobby.


Inside these galvanized steel bins are all the formula trials made in the process of developing experiments like her fear exhibition at MIT. "The smells are pretty tough and these boxes keep them from invading the surroundings," she notes.


When Tolaas encounters a specimen in the field that she wants to add to her scent library — which contains 6,730 samples harvested over the past 20 years — she collects an actual piece of the item and seals it in a can for later study.


Each smell in the collection, like this "smoky/fishy" sample from Senegal, is labeled with the date and place it was harvested. "My archive is like my diary," she says.