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Preview: On the Nose

By Anh-Minh Le

Brass, marble, glass and oak converge in Jody Kocken’s “Perfume Tools” (2011), which is both jewelry and fragrance. | Photo courtesy of Jody Kocken.

A new exhibition devoted to olfactory design engages the senses of sight and smell.

Architects Virginia San Fratello and Ronald Rael have taken the notion of a good cup of coffee to another level.

In 2013, they founded Bay Area–based Emerging Objects, which specializes in 3D-printed elements for buildings, interiors and environments. The duo has also used the technology to create artifacts with a meta twist: A coffeepot and pair of cups, for example, are composed of a material that includes coffee grounds.

Yes, it’s a coffee service made from coffee.

The idea came to San Fratello several years ago. “I was sitting at my kitchen table having coffee with breakfast. I had the leftover coffee grounds and thought to myself, ‘Can I 3D-print with these coffee grounds?’” she recalls. “So I started developing the coffee grounds as a material for additive manufacturing and developed a recipe that I could 3D print with, that would be strong and solid. I started printing coffeepots and coffee cups and realized that the aroma of the coffee stays with the object.”

The pieces will soon be part of a new exhibition at the Museum of Craft and Design — as will an Emerging Objects tea set made from, you guessed it, tea. Living with Scents, which runs from February 12 through June 5 and showcases olfactory design, was guest curated by Clara Muller and Elisabetta Pisu.

Simply put, olfactory artworks “are works of art that include an olfactory dimension, either added by the artists or inherent to the used material, and without which the works would be incomplete,” explains Muller, drawing on a 2015 exhibition catalog by fellow art historian Caro Verbeek.


Emerging Objects’ Virginia San Fratello and Ronald Rael used coffee grounds to make their 3D-printed “Coffee Pot” (2018). | Photo courtesy of Virginia San Fratello And Ronald Rael.

MCD curator Ariel Zaccheo notes that although art museums are primarily concerned with the sense of sight, in the past the San Francisco institution, which is constantly exploring fresh perspectives, has augmented exhibitions with sensory elements like sound and touch. But never smell, until now. “Utilizing the sense of smell is an opportunity to incite unique experiences and expand our way of thinking,” she says.

Living with Scents features approximately 50 objects from 40 international designers. “Some of them have been working around the sense of smell for years and produced several olfactory designs, while others focused on it only for one specific project,” says Muller. There are designs that have been previously exhibited as well as more recent ones that have not been shown at a museum or gallery. There are prototypes and one-of-a-kind creations, along with commercially available items.

“Scentainer,” conceived by Monica Förster and hand-carved by Zanat, is a sculptural three-tier wooden vessel that contains leftover wood chips that have been soaked in fragrance. Jody Kocken’s “Perfume Tools” jewelry series diffuses fragrances and, since there is no skin contact, is ideal for those who have allergic reactions to perfumed liquids. Ani Liu envisioned that her “Olfactory Time Capsule for Earthly Memories” would be worn by astronauts and hold smells that remind them of a loved one, a home and a natural resource (consider them tokens of Earth should one-way trips to space become a reality).

“All of the designers in the show are concerned with ways of delivering scents, but they aspire to various design outcomes, ranging from the purely hedonic or aesthetic to the useful and functional,” says Muller, adding, “One of the most interesting things we noticed is how their concerns often converge with very cultural and scientific considerations, either very ancient or extremely modern.”

Antonio Gardoni’s aromatic “Bogue MASK” (2020), composed of gold-finished terra-cotta and wood, was inspired by disposable paper masks. | Photo courtesy of Antonio Gardoni.

For their “Coffee Pot,” San Fratello and Rael — who also cofounded an architecture firm and are the sole local contributors to Living with Scents — were inspired by the traditional Ethiopian coffeepot. “It’s a country that produces a lot of coffee,” says San Fratello. “So it was literally looking back at the history of coffee and being meta-meta in a way: It’s a coffeepot made out of coffee and let’s look at the tradition of coffee.”

The self-referential wares debuted at New York’s Cooper Hewitt museum in 2018, which is where Muller initially encountered them. A few months ago, when San Fratello unpacked the pots and cups from their storage boxes, “they were in perfect condition,” she says. “You can still smell the coffee and tea.” At the MCD, they will be displayed beneath cloches that allow museumgoers to sniff the contents. The interiors of the objects have not been treated with a polymer finish, which makes them more redolent but also means they are not designed to be used. “You could pour hot water in them and make instant coffee,” laughs San Fratello.

Zaccheo is hopeful that Living with Scents’ added sensory component will give visitors “a chance to ‘stop and smell the roses,’” she says, invoking the adage about pausing for moments of appreciation. “Our sense of smell is deeply connected with our production of memory and emotions, and we hope the exhibition will produce strong memories and inspire our audience with new ideas.”

Living with Scents

569 Third Street, San Francisco
Museum of Craft and Design. February 12– June 5.

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