Odour city

What does Cape Town really smell like? An expert nose is on the job.

‘Smells of nature and people’s living spaces,” Norwegian-Icelandic smell expert Sissel Tolaas describes the aroma of the Company Gardens in Cape Town. We’re sniffing our way down towards Adderley Street, with Tolaas sticking her nose in everywhere – the gutter, tree, flower, rubbish bin, security guard, road sign, public telephone, walls and fences. I’m smiling apologetically at the stares we’re attracting.

Tolaas is in South Africa to do a portrait of Cape Town from the perspective of the nose.

“We are living in a world where vision and the look of things is primarily dominant,” she says. “What about the other senses? Especially the nose. We can go without vision or audio, but the moment we stop breathing, we are dead. The nose not only keeps you alive, it also inhales a lot of information through molecules in our surroundings.”

With a doctorate in chemistry, as well as degrees in languages and visual art, Tolaas has been exploring her olfactory surroundings since 1990. For six years, she trained herself to smell intellectually, so as to be able to systematise and analyse different smells.

Nonetheless, like many groundbreakers, Tolaas resists labels and defies the term “smell designer”. In our artificially deodorised world where everything smells nice, we have lost the ability to distinguish and appreciate smells. Instead of creating abstracts such as perfumes, Tolaas is far more interested in the challenge of replicating reality. She is adamant: “What I try to do is to really rediscover my surroundings using my nose for that purpose.”

Her nose’s findings have manifested in numerous ways: There are her scent logos for Adidas, Ikea, fashion label Maison Martin Margiela and a credit-card company that wanted their cards to smell like money.

She has also recreated her own body smell, turning it into a bespoke perfume. Another project saw her capturing and replicating the sweat of men with severe phobias to synthesise the smell of fear. Yet another saw her dissecting the smell of a pile of coats volunteered for the experiment – “12% Chanel No 5, 2% German shepherd dog pooh, 5% soy sauce” was the result.

Cape Town is the 15th city she has visited in her cityscape series, which includes Mexico City, Paris, Vienna and Kansas City. Her Berlin smellscape is showing in the Talk To Me communication design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

She explains that the power of these smellscapes are in the decontextualisation: “If you put the smell of a homeless person in a beautiful bottle, first you might be repelled by the smell, then find it not that bad and then interesting. The reproduction of reality can help us get over prejudices.”

Armed with nose, notebook, test tubes and smell-capturing device, Tolaas visited key locations in Cape Town including Table Mountain, city centre, Seapoint promenade, BoKaap and Kirstenbosch Gardens. After a week, she returned to her Berlin research laboratory to analyse and synthesise her findings using her library of 2 500 smells.

How Tolaas’s Cape Town will be represented remains to be seen at the Design Indaba Conference from February 29 to March 2, where she will reveal her work.

She says she hopes to make three or four smells and/or an olfactory map of Cape Town. “Hopefully people will use it to discover a different dimension of Cape Town,” she concludes.

Sunday Times, 12 February 2012

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