Icelandic artist and cult perfumer Andrea Maack is far more comfortable with sketchpad and charcoal than blotting strips and vials of chemical compounds. A graduate from the Icelandic Academy of the Arts in Reykjavik, she fell into perfumery almost by accident, through creating ambient scents that complimented her complex illustrations and multimedia installations. Her first fragrance Smart (a play on Smell+Art) was initially designed to create an interface between the work and the audience – but proved so popular that it became the driving force behind the brand. Today, she presides over a growing stable of fragrances, each one created with the desire to make scent lovers think as well as smell.
côte&ciel: Hello from London – it’s pouring with rain here but not so cold, what’s it like there?
Andrea: I’m in my studio in Reykjavik, it’s overcast, but weirdly there’s hardly any snowfall yet – which is strange as friends of mine in Sweden say it’s already a whiteout. I guess that’s something to do with global warming, you can’t predict the weather with any certainty anymore – even here...
CC: But you’re only just south of the Arctic Circle! I just read that Ernest Beau – the nose behind Chanel No5 was inspired by the smell of the Russian steppes. It’s crazy to think that such a luxury fragrance came from somewhere so empty. Is Iceland a blank canvas in a similar way – especially in terms of perfumery?
A: I can remember coming back from once a trip to Italy, and Iceland felt comparatively empty in terms of smell. A blank canvas, something super pure just waiting to be discovered – that’s what makes it so special. The sense of solitude that you get here is incredible and a great starting point for creating new work.
CC: Iceland has a sense of magic too – I was blown away on my first visit.
A: Oh, yes – especially for outsiders. A lot of people who come here for the first time have a really deep emotional experience, especially when they get into the wilderness. For us, it’s slightly different as it’s where we originate from. For me, watching the Northern Lights as a child was an everyday occurrence. So, part of me feels envious when I see these extreme reactions.
CC: Also, as tourists, we come and go – the Blue Lagoon, a geyser, maybe a pony trek – but we leave without a real sense of the place.
A: Yes! If you live here, you absolutely have to acclimatize to the sense of solitude. It’s very beautiful here, but it can be brutal too. Drive out into the darkness – and it’s just you - you might not even have the comfort and security of your mobile phone. You are completely alone.
CC: Something we’re not used to...
A: No. You have to adopt a different mindset. Slow down. Give yourself time. When I’m creating work, I don’t necessarily think about what the outcome will be - I let it develop slowly and naturally. It’s the complete antithesis to a perfumer starting with the idea of replicating a flower – and building from that idea. I prefer to see what happens.
CC: But surely, some of your fragrances are directly linked to your environment? I was in Egypt recently, and I could smell the desert even from the suburbs of Cairo.
A: True, some are. One of the most popular, Coven, is taken directly from the smells of nature. Smell it for 30 seconds and you’re drenched in the Icelandic countryside. It’s funny but here, people don’t really relate to it in the same way – it feels almost too local – but overseas customers love it.
CC: So, very natural?
A: Yes. But Iceland can also be very futuristic. So many sci-fi movies are filmed here that the idea of ‘alien-ness’ is also an interesting concept. Or, it can be abstract. How can you recreate the sensation of watching the Northern Lights in an olfactory way? One thing I want to get across in my work is the sense of the harsh and the futuristic as well as the romantic side of this country.
CC: If you work without preconceptions – how does that translate into the process of creation
A: It changes. One of my first fragrances – Craft - was designed primarily as a room scent for a show I put on in 2009 that was all about creating a fragrance that simultaneously felt like a piece of wearable art. It was also designed to capture a scent of Iceland’s terrain, its coldness, its harshness, its emptiness – but then I found that people wanted to wear it on their skin. From that point I realized that you had to just let things happen naturally. If my preconceptions are interpreted in a different way by the audience, then why not just start instinctually in the first place and see where you end up? So, in a way I freed myself up creatively. Now, I sketch everything that comes to mind. I tear them up, I refine, I re-sketch. It’s a traditional artistic process and you could say, very old school, but it gives me a solid outcome – which then sometimes goes on to become the roots of a fragrance.
CC: Is it always about Iceland?
A: Yes and no. I’ve worked with a number of noses (perfumers) overseas to develop the concept from the artworks I create to the finished product in an atomizer – but that’s common to everyone in this industry. For instance, I got the new bottle (an Obsidian obelisk of glass with an asymmetric corner) created in Italy, because there’s a crazy level of heritage around making perfume bottles there. It’s amazing to see how they work – and, crucially you can’t do that kind of thing here. Also, travel isn’t just about going, but coming back too, and the sense of homecoming you get when you step off the plane.
CC: How so?
A: Well, you’ll find that a lot of Icelanders are well travelled because we’re such a small nation – and you have to look outwards to appreciate what you have at home. As a child, I lived in a lot of places, and with the inevitable exposure to American media there was a point when I thought ‘I’m bigger than this place’. I was away for 15 years more or less, and when I got back I was almost phobic about leaving Reykjavik, so much so that I didn’t even want to venture outside the city. Then I did, I gave in, I remembered where I was from, and I let go of my inhibitions – that was when I rediscovered the joy of solitude and from that point onwards it became much easier to be creative...
Photography: Benjamin Hardman