A love letter to NYC’s Museum of Art and Design (and sniffing out the bizarre “Art of Scent” exhibit)


When I read about an “Art of Scent” exhibit in which museumgoers get a whiff of various perfumes back in November, I wasn’t sure whether I should be intrigued by the concept or be wary of gimmicks.

But then I learned that the exhibit would be housed in the Museum of Art and Design. And then it all made sense.

Among New York City’s cultural giants, MAD is very modest in size, sitting humbly at the bottom of Columbus Circle between Eighth Avenue and Broadway. But this museum is probably my one of my favorites in all of Manhattan. There, the six floors are all manageable in one afternoon, between two and three hours if you count a thorough examination of the well-curated gift store. There, each exhibit always offer a masterpiece that I love, even if I’m not inherently interested in the theme. And there, most of all, you’ll find the quirkiest, most radical, most bewitching collections of art.

Like an exhibit of necklaces, made from such curious materials as gun triggers and LED lights and pig intestines.

Or an exhibit on special effects manipulation in film and photography, showcasing 3D dioramas and the surreal images and animations created from them.


Needless to say, an exhibit with perfume spritzers in the walls is right up MAD’s alley.

Stepping off the elevator onto the fourth floor was somewhat disorienting. Unlike what you’d expect of a museum exhibit, the hardwood floors were starkly and completely empty, save a square of scrolling, glowing text projected from the ceiling. Along three walls, a row of twelve cavities sank into the wall, almost like pods in a science fiction vignette come to life. I watched two women hesitantly walk up to the first wall, exchanging glances before gingerly lowering their heads into a cavity.

When my turn came, I’d leaned in just as carefully, made wary by memories of cloyingly scented department store ground floors. But all I felt was the light breeze of a spray–some sort of new technology that released the fragrances for four short seconds, I later learned. It was simply a whiff, enough for you to breathe in, not enough to stay with you beyond a few ephemeral seconds.

I’m no stranger to the concept that smell evokes moods, memories, even images in one’s mind, so that wasn’t what caught my attention. Nor were all the projected descriptions that appeared and disappeared next to the cavities, detailing the innovative extraction methods of the day. Rather, what impressed me was that the catchphrases in those descriptions–the hallmarks of marketing-speak like “pure” or “aggressive” or “diffusive”–actually became tangible with each whiff.

Anyone who’s ever shopped for perfume probably has a general idea of what’s considered a floral or clean or citrusy scent. For us girls, most of us probably know that Issey Miyake’s fragrances are inspired by water. But the experience of smelling that  manmade, recreated smell of “water” is so much more heightened next to the contrasts of other manmade, recreated smells like “sweetness” or “rawness.” You’re much more aware of the nuances that make the scents so distinct. And the deliberation, the (dare I say it?) art behind every scent becomes so much more apparent.

There’s only so much one can say about this particular exhibit in words. There’s a reason, after all, that the man who heads up the museum’s “department of olfactory art” has presented the exhibit in such a peculiar form.

But that’s the kind of brilliance that I always find myself energized by every time I walk out of the museum. That’s why, as much as I love the Guggenheim and the Met and all of the city’s other cultural greats, I’m so often tempted to knight MAD as my favorite.

That and the fact that art really becomes accessible to everyone here. As I trailed from one spritz to the next in the Art of Scent exhibit, I’d noticed one pair of visitors constantly talking behind me. Not obnoxiously, not loudly. But certainly very descriptively, summarizing each description and sharing their responses. Curiosity got the better of me, and I finally sneaked a stealthy peek at the two of them. The man a step ahead turned out to be the speaker, leading his friend along the wall. His friend was wearing dark shades and clutching a cane. And he seemed to be loving all of it.

Getting There

“Art of the Scent” is on view for another two weeks, through March 3, 2013. Take the A, C, B, D, and 1 trains to 2 Columbus Circle. madmuseum.org

Photo credits

Museum of Art and Design exterior — Hélène Binet / Museum of Art and Design
Optical Delusions — Matthew Albanese /matthewalbanese.com
Art of the Scent — Brad Farwell / Museum of Art and Design

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