Carlos Huber is for sure the most interesting new player in the industry of perfumery. As an architect his creations are based in historical and local events. He’s earned a Master’s degree in Historic Preservation from Columbia University and worked for Ralph Lauren in some commercial projects. He founded his own company in New York: Arquiste. In this interview he talks about his love for fragrances and architecture and how these two worlds share a common ground.
Hugo Oliveira – As an architect how did you get seduced by the art of creating fragrances?
Carlos Huber – I’ve always been very connected to my nose, and every time I would do research on a building or city for work, I would come across an anecdote or a part of the story that led me to think “What did it smell like?” I’ve also always been a perfume, cologne, and grooming aficionado, so I came into this as a very passionate customer. I realized that my passion for scent and the culture around it was just as strong as my love of architectural history. Perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux was mentoring and teaching me and I became more and more fascinated with the world of scent.
For the Arquiste fragrances, the approach is also similar to a restoration project: you start by looking at a particular site, then read and research everything about it. You choose a direction and put your 21st-century hands on it, interpreting the past and bringing it to the present. The research to create a perfume and actually base it on a real story is as thorough as the research behind an old building’s restoration. You need to find clues to justify the structure that you are building.
So architecture is a very inspiring area for you.
Very much! The experience of working closely to building materials and in historic spaces is what inspired this. The idea that you can’t separate the smell of the space from the patina it has acquired, the personality it has. Arquiste was born out of the experiment to restore a moment long gone or a past experience to give it new life. It’s a bit like Frankenstein: reanimating matter through the spark of a scent.
This idea is one of the contemporary arguments in experimental preservation: exploring new ways of interpreting the past and launching it towards the future. In essence, restoring a building or a work of art is very radical in itself. Jorge Otero-Pailos, New York based architect and artist, has been a great influence and support in my career. I had the chance to work with him on two different art installations: one for the Venice Biennial in 2010 and one for the Manifesta European Biennial in 2009. Both dealt with preservation as a practice that creates alternative futures for our world heritage.
So really, Arquiste results as the interdisciplinary collaboration of Art, History, Architecture and Perfumery.
Although very disciplined , your work must result from a certain intuition.
When you are developing a fragrance it sometimes happens that there is a magic where something suddenly works…you can’t really analyze it too much, but it’s the result of a certain intuitive or serendipitous turn. It’s what makes perfumery an art, and something more than “chemistry”.
Yes. However, in architecture – but also in perfumery – there’s also the need to sometimes “hide” a component in order to create the final result. We see this happening in architecture very often. A wall is much more than what you can see. There are many hidden layers that are not visible to the person experiencing the space.
Of course, it’s quite fascinating. Sometimes a hyper-realistic gardenia fragrance is the result of a composition of different natural ingredients where each one plays a part to boiser the overall effect. Like a philharmonic orchestra….they all have to play in unison. And some other times ingredients that are more aggressive or pungent will be used for contrast. It’s not unlike architecture, where sometimes the effect is to produce monumentality by altering the proportions, or by contrasting different scales or volumes.
As architects or as perfumers we deal with a vast catalog of materials, and those materials can put together in different ways and in different quantities.
Good quality raw ‘materials’ are essential for a good composition: you have a foundation (base notes), a structure (heart notes), and the ornament or decoration (top notes). This also carries on to the production of the bottle, the packaging, and the coordination of all the different stages to get it ready to sell. An architect needs to coordinate all stages of the building phase to make sure it comes out as he intended.
When you mention the production of the bottle or the packaging, I immediately think about how frequent it is for architects to be obsessed by the building’s exterior, whatever happens inside the building is secondary. Does this also exist in perfumery? Perfumes where the intrinsic quality is not that remarkable, but the first smell impact or even the package, or the bottle, or even the brand name, cause that fascination.
Well yes, sometimes form, fashion and a vulgar type of luxury goes above content. Also some perfumes are sometimes “top-heavy” which mean they rely mostly on the opening notes and then disappear into nothingness. What I like are perfumes that have long, evolving relationship with our skin…that give us opening, climax and dry-down.
Scale is something that you have mentioned awhile ago. Scale of intervention is something that as architects we hear a lot and I believe also perfumers. The correct scent choice for a particular space – be it a store, a hotel, etc. – is becoming very important for its global “validation” by customers and user.
I think hotels, stores, restaurants, spas of course and truly all sorts of buildings now take advantage of marketing a certain ‘smell’ about them. I believe that if you are sensitive to it, then what you smell and feel is just as important as what you see. And it reverberates in us when we buy a candle to give our home its own ‘signature’.
Do you understand fragrances like books or music, in the sense that they can be seen as “immobile intensities”? All of them do create strong emotions that sometimes takes you to another place.
I do understanding that way. Scent is very closely tied to memory, they take you to a particular place you’ve been, or a specific time or anecdote in your life. Because I love reading about history, I find myself always looking into a specific era or period and digging in to ‘travel’ there and understand it better; What clothing were the characters wearing and what foods were they eating? What was the building they were in made of? What was the vegetation around them? The answers to all of these questions help me identify the authentic scents and notes of that particular time, and we then use those in the perfume formula. I want to try and “restore” that olfactive experience, to take you to the referenced time and place.
How essential is a “good client” for the outcome of a good perfume?
Every work of art ultimately will have its function in the hands of the client. A building, a house, a piece of clothing, and also a perfume will ultimately resonate more or less depending on how it is handled by the client. In perfume, the client can be the brand or the designer working with the perfumer, but ultimately, the person buying and wearing it is the one that will ‘create’ and profit from the effect. It will become part of them.
And how important is narrative in perfumery?
For me, fragrance is both for others and for ourselves, so yes, its important to ask someone close if it smells good on us…but above everything, to ask ourselves if we like the story that that perfume is telling us…what is says about itself, and also what is says about us… It may suit us because of the way certain notes blend well with our own skin, or it may suit us because it matches our mood or connects us to a specific time and place that we are attracted to. The important thing is to fall in love with it.
In Nature, fragrance is created as a message: a signal between animals, plants and flowers to call each other. It tells when it wants to attract you or repel you for defensive reasons. So the words are there, it’s just they implicitly unspoken. The art of perfume is born out of storytelling, and with Arquiste I wanted to highlight that; I want to tell you a story that inspires you, and that speaks of your taste, your own background and interests. It tells you the story of the place and time it is based on because they are hyper-realistic.
But, can a fragrance be self-evaluated in the sense that, there’s no need to communicate what the creation and creator intends to bring on to its user?
I believe that we can appreciate truly masterful works of art on the ‘shock’ or ‘effect’ they cause in our senses. But for example, when you learn the references and the meaning behind the work of a complex architect like for example, Carlos Scarpa, it enriches its experience so much more, wouldn’t you agree?
Same in perfume…the masterpieces stand alone for the unspoken strength of their message, but when you learn the background or references in them the experience is even more enjoyable…in the end, communicating becomes a joy for you as well.
(Article originally published in Umbigo Magazine October 2012 issue)