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27th July 2016

Q&A: Zuza Mengham sculpts scent with Laboratory Perfumes

Artist and designer Zuza Mengham is gearing up for an exhibition unlike any other. This September, in collaboration with London scent-maker Laboratory Perfumes, she will unveil five new resin sculptures at The Conran Shop in Marylebone. Each one of these represents an attempt to capture the nuances of fragrance in physical form.

Laboratory Perfumes’ five gender-free fragrances – Amber, Gorse, Samphire, Tonka and the forthcoming fifth scent, Atlas – are all complex, multilayered scents with an interplay of olfactory notes that appear, disappear, resurface and evolve as they are experienced. Zuza’s task was to take these symphonies of smell and translate them into shapes, colours and textures. 

The result is ‘Sculpting Scent’, a series of colourful, tactile sculptures that beautifully translate the sensory experience of each scent, but which also work wonderfully as individual artworks. We spoke to Zuza about the thinking behind, and process of, transforming intangible fragrance into material art…    

How did you translate scent into form and colour? Was it a rational process or purely intuitive?
I started with the scents themselves. I made a conscious decision not to read the descriptions, but to smell them all and see what I could decipher from them first directly, taking notes and ideas. After I matched them up with their descriptions I made a series of drawings with watercolour overlays, building up the colours and patterns until I was happy they translated in a way that felt appropriate. Because of the size of the pieces, a certain degree of planning was necessary as they are each around 7kg of liquid resin. Having said that, they served more as a guide to refer to. Sometimes I find the volume or shape of one tone doesn't work with another any more, and I have to use a degree of intuition with what feels right to balance it out again. If an area feels too intense it may need levelling out with a gentler saturation and level of detail, or vice versa.

Would you say the sculptures were representations of the scents or more reactions to them?
Both – as smell is one of the senses that seems so neglected when it comes to interpreting into language. It would be impossible to make a fixed representation of a fragrance, but that’s why I think it’s interesting to try! I’ve attempted to embody them to a degree, but different ingredients will be more or less influential to different people and their own visceral associations. Generally, I would guess that fragrance fits into the categories of known and unknown, and then there’s a whole catalogue of various narratives and nostalgias which are attached for any individual. 

Knowing the scents and looking at the sculptures, the artworks instantly feel like they’re ‘appropriate’ to the scent they reference – did you set out to create something that would ‘make sense’ to everyone or did you focus on expressing something personal?
All of the Lab Perfumes scents have a level of complexity, which meant I was pretty spoiled for options. Most perfumes have three distinctive ‘notes’, which describe the fundamental blueprint that comprises the scent. Amber is a good example; it has top notes that are fresh and grassy, developing into centre notes of rich woodiness. The base notes are the richer, deeper elements, which bind the scent, and Amber’s base note matures with a balmy ambergris. So I wanted to try and represent this development through the junctures as it felt important to the visual description. I used a clear green tint with pale chalky marbling at the top for the lighter leafy notes and, as I moved down, the green became more of a browny burnt red to accent the deeper components. 

Does each colour reflect a specific fragrance note, or is it more complex than that?
Yes, the colours certainly tie to the major elements of each scent. Colour plays such a vital part in people’s visual recognition. Gorse was an interesting one in this respect as it smells like zesty coconut from the gorse flowers infused, but using a white-and-brown coconut colour scheme wouldn't describe the character of the scent effectively, so I decided to focus on clear yellow for the citrus part and soften it out with pastels in pink, grey and milky white to try to characterise its qualities without going too literal. Others are slightly more direct; Tonka has pink pepper and tonka beans, and I felt like it needed to be energetic and exotic. Various hues of orange and pink describe the mandarin and pepper, and by keeping the majority of the sculpture clear, it enables the light to pass through and keep the orange fiery and luminous.

How do you create the colours?
Colours can be a little tricky, as the resin I use comes tinted until it cures and sets clear. There is a little practice involved to predict the eventual hue as it changes with catalysis, so you need to have some basic colour theory to offset hues against each other to obtain the desired outcome. I use resin colour tints and essentially mix them as you would paint, working with primary colours and slowly creating the right tones. Sometimes I also use fillers to play around with opacity or to block light from certain parts.

What makes resin a good material for a project like this?
Generally I try to curb the natural characteristics of resin to my advantage. The fact it’s liquid and sets solid was pretty important in this project as capturing movement and lightness in the material seemed essential in translating a scent. There needed to be a level of gesture to suggest the scent’s transition through the notes. Blocks of colours where also useful to create definitive edges and punctuation for the bolder ingredients.

Samphire, which is hugely reminiscent of the sea, was a wonderful opportunity to show what the effects of what layers of clear resin can create. Building up these tinted clear layers gives a sense of depth while allowing the light to pass through, creating a water-like effect. With Tonka, whose name comes from one of its ingredients, tonka bean, I wanted to represent the beans and peppercorns. To do this I made a big shallow sheet of dark resin and put plenty of slate powder in it. Once cured and broken into pieces, the natural weight and density of the slate meant it would sink to the bottom and reveal itself as a speckled surface.

What’s your favourite of the Laboratory Perfumes fragrances?
I’ve been wearing all of them in rotation! But my favourite is Samphire, it starts out really fresh and zesty and then deepens over time. For me, it’s crisp and contemporary but somehow also comforting.

Sculpting Scent will be on display at The Conran Shop, Marylebone for the duration of London Design Festival, and will be available for sale after the exhibition.


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