PRINT September 2011


Chandler Burr

Curator of the newly established Department of Olfactory Art at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, Chandler Burr is the author of the novel You or Someone Like You (Ecco, 2009) and the former scent critic for the New York Times.


    I love cities—the asphalt and towers and vibration. I also have an obsession with the whole primordial lush emerald-green nature-on-steroids Avatar planet thing. (Apparently, as Avatar proved, a few billion other people do too.) But why not create an urban-jungle “Avatar” atop New York City’s roofs (NYC lagging tragically behind in green roofing)? Plant grasses and meadow flowers and trees, reduce heating and cooling costs, filter pollution out of the air and water, dissolve urban “heat islands,” control storm-water runoff, use supermaterials to build buildings that create corridors for wildlife to reinhabit our cities?

    *Green roof of city hall, Chicago, 2009.* Photo: Jennifer Roberts. Green roof of city hall, Chicago, 2009. Photo: Jennifer Roberts.
  2. THE 787

    Can’t wait, can’t wait, can’t wait. Yes, I realize they’re not going to make them as terrific as they could or should, but hopefully at least one airline will get the interior right, will go for the radically redesigned seats, will leave that massive space in the middle, will pour in as much of the magic as financial constraints will allow, and, in turn, will give me that exhilarating taste of the wonder that I used to get boarding a jet as a kid.


    I am well aware of the danger. “Millions fuse the real lives and the screen lives of movie actors, assign the combination an importance greater than any they concede to the real human beings whom they know, and then suffer the melancholy consequences.” I used this quote (I can’t remember who said it) in my novel. But the fact is, Cate’s astonishing. And if the movie version of my novel does get made, I want her for the lead—a character I created named Anne Rosenbaum. Cate would be perfect.

    *Cate Blanchett signing autographs during the Berlin International Film Festival, 2005.* Cate Blanchett signing autographs during the Berlin International Film Festival, 2005.

    I totally buy the LA dream. The “wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,” the soul-destroying system. I don’t care. I love exiting Terminal 4 in the evening, seeing LAX’s vast and trunkless pillars of glass in the desert, smelling the dry oceanic air mixed with sand and the exhaust of a Mercedes SLK and then the plastic scent of my rental car. Right on Airport, left on Century, left at La Cienega. Cross Slauson into that utterly bizarre Spielbergian land of oil derricks till you emerge, across Jefferson, among industrial cinder-block buildings, weathered movie posters stamped on these lifeless things. Under the 10. The film industry’s giant billboards above gas stations announcing the new releases. This is about where you start to see the hills. Dark green. Cross Pico. Suddenly, money all around you. Olympic. The hills shift against La Cienega like a CGI backdrop. Cross Wilshire, Beverly, Melrose. By now you can make out individual mansions with their landscaped palms saying, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Five days later, at 6:30 AM, I will drive at 70 mph back to LAX through the empty lunar terrain.

    *View up La Cienega Boulevard toward the Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, 2011.* Photo: Eduard Bähler. View up La Cienega Boulevard toward the Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, 2011. Photo: Eduard Bähler.

    Setting the carbon footprint aside, a long international flight (for example, NYC–Tokyo) in a really good business class offers an extraordinary feeling of safety and warmth and comfort. BA: excellent. Virgin: terrific. Jet Airways (an Indian airline): paradise in 180-degree flat beds. I’m never hot, never cold, though there’s often a delightful chill through the cabin. I unfold the comforter. I like to ride backward on BA. I eat the whole time. I’m like a fetus. I watch movies. I read books that I don’t get to in the real world. I can work. I’m alone. I don’t have to talk. I’m a blob of goo.


    I meet a biophysicist and perfume genius in the Gare du Nord, talk to him all the way to London, write a book on him—which my editor sends to the New Yorker—and suddenly I’m at Hermès writing an article on the making of a perfume. Hermès’s perfumer is Jean-Claude Ellena. From his first sketches at the first meeting, I watch Un Jardin sur le Nil take shape. For a year I smell it evolving. And it is utterly, ethereally beautiful. Wearing it is like stepping through a door into Java in a planting of mango trees, the mangos unripe, their peels emitting a fragrance tart, sunlit, green, tropical. It’s radiant, you melt. You want to inject it.

    *Product shot of _Un Jardin sur le Nil_ by Hermès, 2005.* Photo: Hermès. Product shot of Un Jardin sur le Nil by Hermès, 2005. Photo: Hermès.

    A 1.5-liter bottle of Listerine is a start. Other moving parts include good dental floss, a soft-bristled toothbrush, toothpaste, and baking soda, and I have them all at my desk. To be used after lunch and before leaving work. I’ve been to business cocktails, dinners, parties, and these people just show up with Orc breath. You want to lop their heads off. And smoking is like defecating in public. Talk like Michele Bachmann, and you can still, in theory, be liked, but you live or die on your breath.


    I started buying reproductions of Buddha heads—new metal aged to look antique, beautifully done—in Bangkok twenty-five years ago; I remember at age twenty-three being thrilled with my discovery (also the black-market Lacoste shirts). And every time I return, I bring back more. It’s completely illegal to export Buddha images from Thailand, even reproductions. Happily, I’ve never been stopped, Thailand, more wonderful than wonderful, being the place where everything works out. Buddhism is as close to religion as I’ll ever get, and thank God it’s not a religion.

    *Buddhas for sale at a stall in the night market, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2010.* Photo: Grant Rooney/Super Stock. Buddhas for sale at a stall in the night market, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2010. Photo: Grant Rooney/Super Stock.

    Followed closely by “Nimrod” from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending.” Late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century orchestral romanticism, baby. I don’t know much about serious music, and perhaps that accounts for my astonishment at the impact these pieces have had on me. I remember with crystal clarity my first experience of hearing Pavane. I was around eleven, in a concert hall at Lincoln Center, and I was transfixed. I remember my body, slightly crouched over and frozen. Frowning, furious and indignant that no one had exposed me to this inexplicable beauty before, I thought, “Goddamnit, I didn’t know they had stuff this beautiful.”

    *Portrait of Maurice Ravel at the piano, France, 1912. * Portrait of Maurice Ravel at the piano, France, 1912.

    In particular the moment (maybe two seconds of screen time) where Ben Affleck pumps his fist, like a little boy, and promises his wife, “This job is mine.” Innocence, bravado, American hope and determination.