Something interesting about how we work is that it’s always been very hidden – there’s a certain mystique. And I guess I feel this about any art, that there’s a magic from the creator, which is something I can’t explain.
Lyn Harris lives and works in London. She opened her first fragrance house, Miller Harris, with Christophe Michel in 2000. Having sold the business a few years ago, Harris established Perfumer H, an intimate and elegant concept store in Marylebone, which opened last autumn. Plinth talked to Harris about her journey, her drive, and the process of getting back to her roots.
How close do you consider yourself to the art world? Do you think of your practice as art?
I do, most definitely! I consider what I do to be an art form. It’s a process, and you learn the basics, and you learn how to smell. You develop your olfactory system, and you learn to smell on different levels, and how to differentiate between each material and each category. In a nutshell, you learn how to dissect a complete fragrance, whether it’s a smell in the street or a perfume. Everyone has the ability to smell in detail, but there are only very few who can actually translate the learning into creating beautiful smells, to wear or experience in the air – you know, there are different formats. It’s a very beautiful thing – I think, once you have the ability to create, it’s such a special part of who you are. It’s a different way to express who you are, through smell. Your materials are everything, as with any art form, like a painter, or a musician. Every day you learn something new – about how to create, or about a material, and you reach different levels, as any artist might. You live and breathe it – you don’t have holidays, it’s part of who you are. You might be on a beach, but you’re still creating.
Something interesting about how we work is that it’s always been very hidden – there’s a certain mystique. And I guess I feel this about any art, that there’s a magic from the creator, which is something I can’t explain. There is a way of formulating, and a structure, and then you bring your style and your sensitivity to the work, as I have with Perfumer H. It’s very much about the perfumer – I wanted to show, on every level, how this works: from the laboratory to the glass blower, and the experience as a whole.
It’s not something I know much about, but I understand there are five scent groups…
That’s right. I’m very much schooled in French perfumery, and then I’ve gone off and done my own thing, but I’m part of an amazing fragrance house. A perfumer is nothing without a fragrance house – they’re the people who nurture you, and give you your materials, and we’d be nothing without that support.
There must be a certain amount of training, too.
The training is very intense. I went to school in Paris where I learnt to smell, where I learnt the basics, and I was told I could be a ‘nose’. There’s a lot of people who go to school but they just don’t have that ability to create. For example, my best friend, in her class, she said to me, I don’t have what you have, I’m on a different level completely and I can’t create like you can. That’s something you realise at school, and then you start presenting to fragrance houses and then you have the privilege of being chosen by one of them. I worked under a master – people still do today, but to a very different extent. I had a master for over two years giving me one to one tuition in Grasse in the nineties, and it was a very special time. It was a male dominated world as well; there weren’t many women when I set out. That’s changing, though. But today you wouldn’t have that level of supervision or attention to detail… My first teacher was himself taught by Jean Carles, and these are people who have set French perfumery on its course – it’s like having sat with Picasso, and then you pass that on yourself. I’ve had various stages in my career. I had a brand before Perfumer H called Miller Harris, but I feel now that wisdom has kicked in and that I know my materials on a different level. I feel very confident about where I want to go, and who I am as a perfumer.
Can we go back, before training? What drew you to perfumery in the first place?
Well, we’re all on a journey, we’re all destined… It’s whether you have the strength to follow that path. I do believe some people get lost, and others are completely driven and know what they’re destined for, which is what happened to me. I grew up in Yorkshire, and I spent my holidays in the highlands of Scotland. My grandparents were self-sufficient. They grew their own vegetables, my grandfather had the most amazing flowers… So I remember this idyllic surrounding. In summertime we’d live off the land – bread, jams from all the different berries. And from the minute I woke up I could smell the fires, and I could smell the cooking. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by when I don’t think about that place. It determined who I was at a very early stage, and cemented what I love, which is nature and what it does for us. That’s what perfumers are, our materials are from nature and they are very special, and I’ve just gone many steps beyond that. In school holidays I worked in a fragrance shop in my home town and that was amazing… I wasn’t academic, I didn’t do very well at school – people just weren’t supporting me on that level, so I left. I worked again at this fragrance shop for about a year, and then I took myself to London where I worked with an importer of essential oils. I started playing around, and then I went to Paris in my early twenties. I knew when I was in the fragrance shop that this was my destiny – I loved fashion, I loved couture, and then I loved this thing, this bottle, this smell that could complete how someone felt. We used to have these amazing women who came in – when I was there in the eighties, fragrance was only for very wealthy people – and it was such a special thing. Today it’s gone beyond that, but I just loved how it transformed people. Something that was there but wasn’t there – just in the air, and became part of somebody.
In summertime we’d live off the land – bread, jams from all the different berries. And from the minute I woke up I could smell the fires, and I could smell the cooking. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by when I don’t think about that place.
It’s interesting hearing you talk about that house, and all the smells that must have been around, the fire, the food…
Yes, my senses became alive.
Yeah… It’s an older way of living, right? Fires, and harvesting your own food... I wonder if you think the modern world has moved away from that sense – those scents! – to something sterile.
I do fear that. But then you just have to go into the countryside – I was somewhere very beautiful the other day, in these wild woods, and there was honey suckle and there were berries… The scents were just singing. It’s all there. I think there are too many smells in our everyday lives that are negative, and as human beings I think we can do something about that. I think it’s my duty to make people aware of these smells. You know, if you analyse all the products and things that smell in your everyday life, if you wrote them all down, you’d be amazed. You just have to say to yourself, do I need my soap-powder to be so strongly scented? No I don’t. When I remember my grandmother, I couldn’t even smell her clothes – they just smelt clean and refined. But now when I go on the tube I can just smell so many synthetic, horrible smells. For me, a scent should be something from nature, beautiful, special.
Yes, there’s something mundane and quotidian about soap powder. It doesn’t have any of the occasion, or luxury, associated with perfume.
It’s a way of life. In food we’re making so much progress, in the way we eat, at every level and down to schools, for example. When it comes to fragrance, people still aren’t aware – I say, well, what about your shower gel, what about your hair? And they say, ah, I never thought of that. We need to be more aware. Your fragrance, as well – yes, use a commercial fragrance, but once you have one like this [indicating her perfume] you’ll never go back. This is real fragrance, this is real French perfume, the way it was.
We have so advanced in our industry, and now we have beautiful naturals. I came into perfumery when naturals weren’t being used, and it was all about synthetics, cheap cheap cheap, no one wanted to pay for beautiful ingredients because it didn’t matter – it just had to smell like the last best-selling fragrance on the market. I remember my teacher laughing at me when I used the iris, or the rose. He’d say, ‘you need to learn and smell these materials, but you’re never going to use them’, and I thought, well, I’m never going to be a perfumer if I can’t use these materials. So I made it my journey, and I pioneered naturals back into perfumery. I was at the forefront of that movement, and everybody followed. Even the big commercial houses are now stepping into that arena, so I have to go one step further. That’s what Perfumer H needs to do. People should see how perfume is made, and I’m not worried about that. It’s like being a fantastic chef – yes, of course you can go home with the ingredients and try to do it, but it’ll never come close what we do. It takes 25 years!
For me, working with different craftspeople was so important. You know, I could just have a bottle – like everyone has – but I wanted a bottle that’s beautiful. They’re handmade by a glass blower. And then you have the ‘laboratory’ bottles, which are part of who I am. So you have these two extremes. The customer never throws them away, which is very important because people throw so many things away these days. We do refills, and we do refills for the candles as well because we want to recycle everything. We personalise too – this is very unique to us, the way we guild the letters. That’s been immensely successful. It’s wonderful to have the freedom to create what you want.
I did a fragrance three years ago which I based on Picasso’s muse – how she looked, who she was to him, the beauty this woman had… Artists step in and out of each other’s worlds.
I’d like to talk about the beautiful candle you gave us for our first pop-up in Great Russell Street, called ‘Ash’ – I had five weeks of smelling it every day, and it suited the space so well. I’d like to hear about the difference between creating a scent for space versus creating scent for a person.
Scenting space is very different to scenting people, and I love that. I think a space should smell like nature. Trying to fulfil that vision is very deep for me, because I think that are a lot of bad smells in our houses. So, for example, with ‘Ash’ I wanted to evoke that smell of the embers of the fires at my grandparents’ house I told you about. This smell is very dear to me – the clothes, the room after the fire, everything infused. ‘Ash’ is full of woods – birch, cedar… I want every scent I make to hark back to a memory as intense as that one, whether it’s for a space or a person.
You made some comparisons at the beginning between perfumery and different art forms. Do you ever gather inspiration from things like cooking, music, visual art?
All of those are immensely important to me. Food, and taste – I’m obsessed with tea, and what I eat; I don’t want too many flavours. I love art, I love various artists, like Barbara Hepworth and David Hockney, who I grew up with because of where I’m from.
I suppose food as an inspiration makes sense to me, maybe because I’m connecting smell and taste…With visual art, does it enter the equation in the sense that all cultural influences must effect everything we produce? Or do you draw inspiration from it directly?
I was recently in Robin Hood’s Bay where Barbara Hepworth used to spend lots of her summers painting, and to be there and see it with my own eyes – to feel the inspiration and then go to see her exhibitions and her paintings in situ – was just so evocative. Equally, a piece of sculpture can evoke emotion and the creative process. And I did a fragrance three years ago which I based on Picasso’s muse – how she looked, who she was to him, the beauty this woman had… Artists step in and out of each other’s worlds.