This year, Firmenich’s Olfactive Design program collaborated with world-renowned arts and design college Central Saint Martins in London to reimagine the future of fine fragrance. Central Saint Martins, University of Arts London’s reputation across art, design and performance is demonstrated by alumni who shape the world including Grace Wales Bonner, Jean Jullien, Christopher Kane, Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen. Below, we sat down with three tutors involved in our RE|GENERATION program to discuss teaching the future and the role scent has to play in design.
ON OLFACTION & THIS COLLABORATION: Questions to Bethany Shepherd, course tutor, Master of Arts Narrative Environments. Shepherd is a communication designer and design consultant with an interest in socially engaged design practice.
Firmenich: From your point of view, what makes Central Saint Martins so special? What is the differentiating point of your students?
Bethany Shepherd: Central Saint Martins is known internationally as a place to explore the limits of creative practice and the College tends to attract explorative, self-driven students who go on to be influential in shaping the creative industries. Our Narrative Environments and Material Futures postgraduate students hail from a wide variety of disciplines and are motivated to learn from each other and collaborate to reimagine better futures.
Firmenich: Have you seen an evolution in how students relate to the senses, particularly smell, over the past few years?
Shepherd: Due to the rise in popularity of immersive experiences alongside a focus on fostering meaningful interactions students have become increasingly interested in what sensorial qualities can contribute to an experience. They are excited about design that engages the senses and aspire to create work which does this in new and unusual ways. The collaboration with Firmenich provided an amazing opportunity for them to explore the many and varied roles smell could play in their creative practice.
Firmenich: How did they manage an external collaboration with an international company like Firmenich? Was it easy for them to work on a brief imposed by a partner?
Shepherd: The students get involved in a range of live projects throughout their study, and at MA level, many have had substantial professional experience where they have worked with clients and to a brief. In this case, the brief was created collaboratively between Central Saint Martins and Firmenich so it was tailored to provide an experience that engaged and pushed both partners creatively. An open and exploratory approach underpinned the process which led to compelling and imaginative outcomes.
Firmenich: Do you think that in the future, olfaction will be integrated more and more into design education?
Shepherd: We certainly encourage our students to explore multi-sensory design approaches here at CSM. It is hugely exciting to see our students explore the potential for olfactive design to address issues they are concerned with, such as the climate emergency.
Firmenich: What dimension does this add to the work of your students?
Shepherd: We’ve seen that exploring multi-sensory design approaches has been fruitful for students who are interested in creating inclusive experiences. During the collaborative project with Firmenich, many of the students were also keen to explore the ways in which scent can be linked to both personal and cultural memory, and how olfactive experiences could allow people to connect and better understand each other and their environments.
ON THE FUTURE: Questions to Maël Hénaff, tutor, Master of Arts Material Futures. Hénaff is a designer-researcher whose practice examines the intersection of technology, social sustainability and critical design.
Firmenich: How do you prepare your students to imagine the future?
Maël Hénaff: We encourage our students to engage with the political and cultural contexts of their work. They look at the intersection of craft, science and technology, and we also believe it is crucial that they collaborate with the communities their projects relate to, in order to stimulate debate as to what we want our collective future to look like.
Firmenich: Are they rather optimistic?
Hénaff: They are certainly not naively hopeful in themselves, but we could say their practice is optimistic in that it is focused on working towards a more sustainable future. A few years ago CSM held an exhibition of student work called the Intelligent Optimist, and we rather like that turn of phrase. Our Head of College Jeremy Till commented at the time: “the work of our students is almost by default optimistic – why design the world as a worse place? – and is always shot through with a canny intelligence.”
Firmenich: What evolutions have you observed in recent years in the way they envision solutions for the future? Do you observe an emergency feeling?
Hénaff: Our students come from a diverse range of disciplines and backgrounds. During their time in the course, some are interested in tackling tomorrow’s issues with today’s solutions, designing more sustainable materials for industries and practitioners. Other students are urgently challenging emerging technologies such as AI and Biotech, by developing critical tools.
Firmenich: Do they spontaneously think about smell in their future scenarios?
Hénaff: There are certainly some students who have proactively used olfactive design approaches in their practice. We have recently seen them using smell as a narrative tool, and as a key element for imagining the future of healthcare.
ON THE CONCEPT OF EXPERIENCE: Questions to Claire Healy, second-year tutor, Master of Arts Narrative Environments. Healy is award-winning designer specializing in the creation of narrative environments. Healy is inspired by the various ways that story can map on to space to create compelling and memorable experiences.
Firmenich: When you approach the notion of experience today (museum, urban or commercial), does it immediately integrate the olfactory dimension?
Claire Healy: This depends on the will of the individual practitioner so it is not an immediate consideration that is standardized as practice across the industry, but it is definitely good practice to consider what the olfactory experience and the delivery around that might be. Scent is certainly a powerful tool that can be used within visitor experiences and it is something we encourage our students to explore, and something we try to bring to projects we are involved in ourselves professionally.
Firmenich: How do you think a scent tells a story?
Healy: A scent can be multilayered and reveal itself over time, it can build a scene, and describe an environment or a moment. It has a powerful effect on the imagination and can evoke memory in a way that cannot be achieved by the other senses.
For more information and to discover more student designs, go to Olfactive Design on our RE|GENERATION site.