In the wonderful If There Ever Was: A Book of Extinct and Impossible Smells, Robert Blackson commissioned some of the “finest noses in fragrance production” to design accords of things that were absent. For instance, smells of Hiroshima (inspired by the vibration of the atomic blast), surrender (as manifested through incense, which was burned as an indication of defeat in ancient Egypt), the space station Mir, and the sun, become blank pages of olfactory fascination. One of my favorite smell artists, Sissel Tolaas, created the scent of communism.

If There Ever Was: A Book of Extinct and Impossible Smells by Robert Blackson. Image via

Currently, I think smell is, for lack of a better word, “trending” in design. Consider Tolaas’ work in MoMA’s Talk to Me exhibition last year, the delightful Olly by Mint Digital, or the slew of smell sensors that are or will be available on the market. And not a moment too soon for one of our most visceral and powerful senses. Blackson writes:

“Smell is an unlikely subject in the aesthetic discourse of contemporary art. The tendency to exclude our sense of smell from philosophical and art historical discussions began in the Age of Enlightenment. It was then that philosophers such as Kant and Descartes argued for the power of vision over our ‘lesser’ senses. These thoughts were further reflected in scientific advancements such as Louis Pasteur’s breakthrough that germs rather than miasma (foul stenches) were the carriers of disease.”

Thanks to designer Nikki Sylianteng who lent me this awesome book.


In 1954, Aldous Huxley published the book, The Doors or Perception, which details his experiences after swallowing 4/10ths of a gram of mescaline dissolved in half a glass of water. It’s a book that, thanks to my tutor, the Barcelona-based sculptor Frank Plant, has been one of my go-to books when exploring how we can perceive. This post is based on 18 pages of notes I wrote three years ago while reading this book.

Mescaline is an alkaloid, whose effects wear off after 8 to 10 hours with no hangover. It is the principal agent of peyote, a psychedelic cactus. It was first isolated and identified in 1897 by Arthur Heffter and first synthesized in 1919 by Ernst Späth. It inhibits production of an enzyme that regulates the supply of glucose to the brain. The individual remembers less, but has heightened visual impressions. His perceptions, such as of color, improve drastically, though the will to do anything decreases.

While under the influence of mescaline, Huxley observed carnations such as this. Image via The Guardian

Among the things Huxley discovered, or re-discovered, are magenta and cream carnations such as above, which he wrote as to be “breathing” — “repeated flow from beauty to heightened beauty, from deeper to ever deeper meaning.”  Books glowed, and walls no longer met in right angles. Spatial relationships stopped mattering; mind was perceiving the world in terms of other criteria, more on the intensity of experience, profundity of significance, and relationships within a pattern. Furniture became a pattern of horizontals, uprights, and diagonals —  of pure aesthetic purpose, concerned only with form. Huxley’s general reaction:

“This is how one ought to see, how things really are.”

What was intriguing was Huxley’s outlook on relationships when he was under the influence. He wrote:

“Wife and friend belonged to the world from which, for the moment, mescaline had delivered me—the world of selves, of time, or moral judgments and utilitarian considerations, the world of self-assertion, or cocksureness, or over-valued words and idolatrously worshipped nations.”

And when he was done, he also raised the age-old debate between the actives and the contemplatives:

“How was this cleansed perception to be reconciled with a proper concern with human relations, with the necessary chores and duties, to say nothing of charity and practical compassion?”

Or, how can we bridge the transcendent with our worldly cares?

Perhaps, as a suggestion, we can do so by sharing, by making visible what we perceive, or by letting positive feelings, such as joy, be contagious.

The Guardian has a gallery of what Huxley saw in pictures. Also, a reminder of where Huxley’s title came from:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Two years ago during a critique at an art residency in Barcelona, one of our tutors mentioned that for years he was looking for a quote by T.S. Eliot. It was about exploration, and how at the end of it, we would have arrived where we began and will know the place for the first time.

After madly searching for months and giving up, I finally saw it on the title page of Keri Smith’s book, How to Be an Explorer of the World: A Portable Life Museum:

“We shall no cease from exploration
And at the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
―T.S. Eliot, “The Four Quartets

(I have no idea why I’m bringing this up at all, but it ends a two-year treasure hunt for me.)

There are books that you feel were written for you because you live your life this way, and Smith’s book is one of them.

Here are some other quotes written in that are useful to current and would-be explorers:

“Everything has a value, provided it appears at the right place at the right time. It’s a matter of recognizing that value, that quality, and then to transform it into something that can be used. If you come across something valuable and tuck it away in your metaphorical suitcase there’s sure to come a moment when you can make use of it.” ―Jurgen Bey

“Look with all your eyes, look.” ―Jules Verne

“I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused, or following, sounds of the city, and sounds out of the city―sounds of the city day and night.” ―Walt Whitman

“The universe is the mirror in which we can contemplate only what we have learned to know in ourselves.” ―Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino

“[The residual purpose of art is] purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life―not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.” ―John Cage

“Who is to say that pleasure is useless?” ―Charles Eames

“Sometimes a tree can tell you more than can be read in a book.” ―Keri Smith

“The closer man gets to the unknown, the more inventive he becomes―the quicker he adopts new ways.” ―Buckminster Fuller

“All books continue in the beyond.” ―Italo Calvino

“The imagination needs moodling―long, inefficient happy idling, dawdling, and puttering.” ―Brenda Veland

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” ―John Cage

“Every experience is unrepeatable.” ―Italo Calvino

“No ideas but in things.” ―William Carlos Williams

“The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” ―Carl Jung

Thanks, Frank, for yet another book recommendation for me that is spot on.