The Smell of Light

The Smell of Light

Photographs Laurence Ellis

Artist and scent archivist Sissel Tolaas and Omer Arbel, founder of the Canadian lighting, design and manufacturing brand Bocci, meet in Tolaas’s ReSearch laboratory in Berlin – where she houses her collection of over 7,000 individual odours – to discuss how their careers are devoted to approaching the senses in new and unusual ways. By way of breaking the ice, we invited them to introduce themselves to each other, and set the tape rolling…


Sissel Tolaas ‘I call myself a “professional inbetweener”. You can’t limit yourself to one discipline. I have a degree in biochemistry, but also a background in visual art and languages. I speak nine languages…’

Omer Arbel ‘I was trained as an architect. Light is secondary; that’s what has been commercially successful – I mean, I love light, it’s a wonderful medium – but really it’s all about the technique for me; trying to discover chemical processes that yield form. And light is a great medium to highlight or manipulate that form.’

Sissel Tolaas

ST ‘I think in my case, the process is definitely more important than the product. I discover so much in that process. Sometimes I might stop in the middle of the process, because the understanding is accomplished halfway. Every breath we take, we inhale information: we breathe up to 24,000 times a day. All those molecules that go in through our nose trigger memory and emotion. Your childhood memories stick with you until you die. My work is about awaking that moment again, so that you get surprised every time. But the only way to do that is to activate your nose properly, like you activate your other muscles. So I made the decision to start from scratch again: I closed my eyes, closed my ears, and off I went, nose first. Literally becoming a dog for seven years! And I couldn’t believe it. It opened up a different way of understanding the world I live in. It was amazing. And not only was I surprised by what the nose can do – what the nose knows! – but that the other senses started to function differently. So, I can go into meetings; I just smell the person and I say, “Let’s meet tomorrow. This is not the right moment”. ‘So I work on what I call the function of smells. I will “put on” certain molecules to think more efficiently – it is beyond aromatherapy, something physically happens. I put on smells when I go to sleep to have a better quality of sleep…’

OA ‘The same or different depending on your mood?’

ST ‘The same smell every time, but tailor made for me. We have been researching using these molecules for different purposes: alertness, sleep deprivation… The only problem is that you’re fighting against pharmaceutical companies who don’t want just small molecules to solve these issues – they’d rather sell some more sleeping pills!’

OA ‘It sounds like a lot of the way you work has to do with the emotional and memory associations of a specific chemical compound. I’ve always ignored that.’

ST ‘So it’s not important?’

OA ‘Not in a conscious way, no. Because I’m investigating what the object wants to do.’

ST ‘And how many more lamps do we need in this world?’

OA ‘I don’t only make lamps!’

ST ‘Yeah I know! But I mean in general: how many chairs do we need, how many lamps do we need…?’

OA ‘I think we need better things. Things that can last. A lot of the things that we have around us are not worthy of existing.’

ST ‘Yes, absolutely. And I think a lot of it has to do with what is this stuff meant to be for?’ ‘I hate small talk. There are situations where I want my peace, I don’t want to talk at all, so I dress nice and I put on a smell to be sure I have my half metre of security!’

OA ‘So people don’t come close?’

ST ‘Yes. People are very disturbed and can’t imagine that this smell might come from me. People who know me, they know – but other people are looking around trying to find the source of the smell. It’s fantastic. I can go home without exchanging one word. So the mission is absolutely accomplished!’

OA ‘I have wanted to do a piece that is just a bright light that’s so bright you can’t even see, that hurts.’

ST ‘I think that’s how smell could work. That’s what I mean by the function of smells. You can put on smells to attract people; you can put on smells to distract. Why not? It’s fun! And it’s so relieving that you don’t have to speak a load of bullshit! But in my world, if I deliver a smell that makes someone sneeze, I could end up in prison.’

OA ‘Explain? I don’t understand.’

ST ‘Because smell is so little used in the proper way – we communicate smell in our world through perfumes and commercial detergents, you name it – there are very strict limitations. There’s a molecule police, called IFRA [International Fragrance Association], sitting in Brussels. I did an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London with David Beckham; we had a peep-hole that you could put your nose in to smell, and one person complained to the management that it made them sneeze – and I had to remove my work!

Omer Arbel

‘Ugly can be very beautiful. Hardcore smells can be amazing. The smell of a body, the sweat of a person who’s excited is amazing. So much more exciting than to smell a perfume or an aftershave! Wow! Something happens. It can generate a response, you know. If I say to David Beckham, “Why don’t you give me your shoes?” What’s wrong with that? So he does and I look into them. Something happens with people’s mindset.

‘I made cheese with Olafur Eliasson’s tears. Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s forehead. David Beckham’s sneakers. And the world starts to think about smell in a different way. What justifies cleaning the floor with the smell of a Granny Smith? I’m sorry, I’d rather clean the floor with the smell of dogshit!’ [both laugh]

OA ‘How often do you wear a scent?’

ST ‘I don’t. I never wore a perfume in my entire life. Long before I worked on this. It’s like any kind of drugs, the more you use, the more you need. The same with deodorant, the same with garlic, the same with cocaine.

It’s funny, my daughter is 17 and when she reached puberty she decided she needed a deodorant, because everybody has one. I said why? What’s going to happen if you ignore what everybody else does? And she started to wear my T-shirts and she got a lot of compliments about how she smelled. She said, “Mummy I want your smell!” So I replicated my own smell and put it in a bottle so she could spray herself with me! It was fantastic. We had this amazing experiment going on together and it changed her view on a lot of things.’

OA ‘I have a dog back in Vancouver, and he always stops and takes a deep breath when I open the door to go outside. And recently I’ve started doing the same thing. And it’s amazing what you can smell – you can smell the railroad tracks, you can smell the rain…’

ST ‘Yes. Just imagine if you couldn’t see or hear. How would you fi nd me? How would you find your food or your bed? Sometimes it’s healthy to shut offyour other senses. Put yourself out of your comfort zone. I work with blind people, it’s quite amazing. How would you explain light to a blind person?’

OA ‘There would always be a problem of translation, where you would have to use a metaphor involving another sense.’

ST ‘Yes. So when you speak about light, what is the language you use?’

OA ‘I never really speak about light! I speak about materials, manipulating material. To be honest, light is really a secondary consideration. I’m sorry, I know that doesn’t really work with the theme of the magazine!’

ST ‘To make a long story short, a combination of chemistry and language is what got me hooked on smell. Because every chemical experiment caused smells of a kind: explosions, disasters! And I started to think, wow, what’s going on here? The world surrounding me contains a lot of particles I’m not able to see, but nonetheless make me react more than what I can see. So I started to look more into this invisible reality. I took seven years offand travelled around the world, building up a substantial archive of smell sources. I tried to categorise my life by smells. Can I relate to a smell beyond emotion, in a rational way? So after seven years of fieldwork I was ready to become a “missionary of the nose”. And the industry started to think, “Uh-oh! Better work with her rather than she work against us”. And so I got married to one of those companies – and it’s been a happy marriage ever since!’


‘I made cheese with Olafur Eliasson’s tears. Hans Ulrich Obrist’s forehead. David Beckham’s sneakers’ Sissel Tolaas


OA ‘If I may ask, how does that relationship work?’

ST ‘I look into the knowledge of making smells, but for a different purpose. Rather than cover up the world, could we not use the knowledge to find out about the world? So it’s a paradox. What I do they cover up, and vice versa. But in the long run, it really helps a lot of these companies to wake up. It’s breaking things up and putting them back again with a different knowledge. What I try to do is bridge the commercial world with the science. And I’m the catalyst between the two.’

OA ‘What you just said makes me think about how in contemporary culture there’s a move away from specificity to universal, one-size-fits-all solutions to almost every part of our lives. And what resonates with me is the fact that the highly specific is your focus. Because there’s less and less particular moments and experiences in our lives and more and more generic situations.’

ST ‘Yes exactly… So how do you stay curious?

OA ‘Me? A lot of people ask this, curiosity is never a problem. I always stay curious. It’s a background condition.’

ST ‘Of course it is. But how do you keep that background condition there all the time? How do you make sure that your surroundings don’t disturb that?’

OA ‘I think if you get too comfortable, it can stop. That’s a big one. So I often try to put myself in situations of discomfort, intentionally. It can occur in many different ways. I think discomfort occurs in a collaborative sense with people you work with; your working method can become very comfortable, so it’s important to change that. I think also physical environment is hugely important. That’s one of the reasons I’m here in Berlin. And a new language – that you must know about!’

ST ‘Yes, me too, I travel all the time. It drags me down if I have to stay in the same place for more than two weeks.’

OA ‘I even think about jetlag as a really important part of my process now, because you’re so uncomfortable, and you have all these great dreams! Honestly. I’ve started cultivating jetlag and trying to prolong it.’

ST ‘I’ve done a lot of therapy work for people who want to get rid of their prejudices. In my case it was the smell of milk. And you? Do you have any prejudices with light? Do you like that white office light?’

OA ‘Yeah, I guess that’s a prejudice: I hate it! Fluorescent light in general is very ugly. It is actually a very clever system, technologically. But it’s kind of a “sick light” for me.

I have actually started loving the sodium streetlights, the orange lights that kill all the colour. I love them, it creates a sepia tone for everything. There’s also an implication about sleep patterns. Before street lamps people had two four-hour sleeps with about an hour and a half of wakefulness in between, and this was normal. People referred to the First Sleep and the Second Sleep – and the time in between was often used to entertain guests, to pray and also to make love. Very interesting. This was the time for sex. And with the invention of street lamps, that ended: you sleep for eight hours now.

‘You know what, you should take the smell of a glass shop, because they use beeswax for the instruments, so it’s a wonderful smell. Because there’s beeswax, hot glass which has a smell, and then natural gas, hot cinder blocks… and also there’s usually people sweating. So glass shops have this fantastic combination of smells.’

ST ‘Wow. But glass does not smell?’

OA ‘Glass does if you heat it. It has a kind of dry smell. A little bit like wet concrete.’

ST ‘Like, dusty?’

OA ‘Yeah.’

ST ‘It’s tricky because people don’t really have the language for smell. They have metaphors – “smells like this, smells like that”… Hey, let’s do a “light” smell together!’

OA ‘The smell of light! That’s a great idea. Or the light of smell – does that work?!’ [both laugh]`;

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