An insatiable need to create: An interview with Dawn Spencer Hurwitz

Long-time niche aficionados all know the initials DSH. Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is a Boulder-based perfumer who was one of the earliest to appear on the modern American indie perfume scene, and her Au Lait is featured in the Olfactif Evening collection. The marvel of Dawn’s work is that she creates at a remarkable pace yet each scent has the quality of a long-thought-out opus. And as it turns out, there’s a good explanation for that: Dawn’s perfumes are precisely that thought-out and planned, some fully composed in her head for years before she builds them in physical form. It also turns out that this isn’t the only interesting quirk that makes DSH such a fascinating artist. Here, she talks about the curious thing that happens in her brain when she experiences scent; the serendipitous story of how she became a perfumer; and her love of exposing people to the intellectual side of perfume.
 
Olfactif: What did your childhood smell like?
 
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz: I grew up a couple of hours north of New York City in the country. I had violets growing in my backyard and my next-door neighbor had wonderful muguet every spring. When I think about my childhood, I think of muguet and violets most of all. Of course hay in the summertime is a big smell that I'm still very nostalgic about.
 
O: Were you really into scent, too?
 
DSH: Yeah, I've always been interested in scent. I can remember saving my very meager allowance as a small child for a really long time to buy perfume that my mom would take away. She used to say, “I'll give this back to you when you're 30.”
 
O: Thirty! What were you buying?
 
DSH: I used to buy a lot of musk things from the drugstore. Things like Charlie, Max Factor. I remember really vividly buying some sort of musk, and that was the one that my mom was like, “I'll give this back to you when you're 30.”
 
O: I think all perfumers have stories about saving up their money as children to buy perfumes.
 
DSH: Yeah, I know. I can remember even in my high school yearbook, where you list your likes, I was the only person who said, “I like expensive perfumes.”
 
O: So did you know that perfumery was a potential career?
 
DSH: I had no idea at that time that I could—let alone would—become a perfumer. I think that Europeans know probably that they could become a perfumer. I think it's more in their consciousness that there are people called noses and there are people who do this kind of work. But a young woman growing up in a small town in America—I didn't know that that was something you could do. It just seemed so far beyond anything that would be available to me. I thought I would be an art professor. I wanted to be an academic way back before I got into perfume as a career.
 
O: So how did perfumery happen?
 
DSH: It was all a random fluke. I met someone by accident on the T in Boston when I was going to school at Boston University. I was in art school. When I met him, I heard this voice in my head that said, “everything is different now.” I had no idea what this could possibly mean. And then that person walked through my door two weeks later because he happened to be a friend of my next-door neighbor. We were having a party and our door was open, and he walks through the door. We got to be really good friends, and then I met his friend, who was the manager at a perfumery.
 
At that same time, I was really, really ill. I'm asthmatic, and I had really bad asthma when I lived in Boston. I was researching aromatherapy and herbs to help with the asthma. My doctors kept saying that I would be highly medicated for the rest of my life, which was a hard thing to hear when you’re 18. So I'd been researching aromatherapy and getting into oils and herbs. Then I met this guy who owned the perfumery, and they had an opening.
 
I convinced him to hire me, with no experience. So I came in, and it was sort of sink-or-swim. So I swam. Sarah Horowitz was also working at the perfumery. She and I both worked there together, then eventually the owner sold the business to us. So Sarah and I were business partners for two years in Boston before she moved to California and I moved to Colorado.
 
But perfumery was something that, very early on, I realized I had an aptitude for. I really understood the oils. I really had an ability to ascribe my artistic sense from painting to perfumery. It was through that process that I realized that I’m synesthetic.
 
O: How does synesthesia manifest for you?
 
DSH: When I smell smells, I see colors and shapes, and I feel textures. And it goes both ways. So a lot of times, I can see a color or feel a texture and start to get a smell. So I can start to develop a perfume in my brain just from that sensation.
 
O: Can you tell us a few scents and their related textures, colors, and shapes? If I were to say “galbanum,” for example…
 
DSH: I have it in my head right now. It's green, of course, but it's green shaded by gray. It's very pointy and crystalline, sort of like a cartoonish mountain. There's one pale, sheer hue of green, and then behind it is gray. Like two thin mountains.
 
O: The world must be a very rich place for you.
 
DSH: It is. It is a very sensuous place.
 
O: How did you end up starting your own line?
 
DSH: My husband’s band had been touring out in Colorado, and I would fly out and do the Colorado part of his tour with him. As soon as we got to Colorado, we both realized that we could breathe easier. And it felt like every person we met would come right up to us—perfect strangers who would give us a hug. It seemed to be the right place for us. I can tell you that my health is so much better. I don't even have to deal with my asthma here.
 
When I first moved to Boulder, I was so burnt out on retail. So I kept working with the clients I had in Boston through the mail. In fact, I still have tons of clients that I have had since the late ‘80s. I was also designing for Wild Oats, which is now part of Whole Foods, Zents Spa Collection, Jules & Jane. Then I started my first collection in 1997.
 
O: You’ve been extremely productive since that time. Can you tell us about your creative process?
 
DSH: I have this insatiable need to create things. If I'm not doing that, I don't feel alive, and that’s how I end up with five gazillion perfumes and paintings.
 
I think about a perfume for a really long time. There are some perfumes that I have in my head from 15 years ago that I still haven't completed. I definitely create the perfume in my mind, so it’s finished before I sit down to formulate. Some perfumers do a lot more experimentation with materials. I have never been able to work that way.
 
O: Your perfumes have a lot of historical references. Why is that?
 
DSH: I definitely like to reference history in my perfumes. As an artist, I'm really aware that there is nothing new under the sun, and there's always some kind of homage or quotation from a perfume or a piece of art that came before you. What makes it original is how you express it and put the pieces together in a unique way. But the idea itself is not new.
 
O: Knowledge about perfumery is starting to become a form of cultural capital. Have you noticed that people understand more about what you do today than they did 10 years ago?
 
DSH: Absolutely. I can remember sitting at my in-laws’ table having dinner, and they knew I had just bought into this perfumery business. They said, “What about your art?” And I said, “This is art.” They looked completely shocked, because they thought perfume was a commodity. A business. A luxury thing. That it’s so unimportant, and art is important.
 
I think I've been talking about this concept—that fragrance is art—since the early ‘90s, and people looked at me like I was nutso until around 2000, even 2003. That's when people started to get it. Yes, this is commodity and luxury and all of these things—but for some people, it's art form. It's how we’re expressing ourselves. It's how we can communicate in an artful way to the world, and there is actually an audience for it.
 
I think that's the thing that a lot of people doubted for a really long time: whether there was an audience for it. I think of a client I met in the past year who came in and said, “You know, I never thought I would love perfume. I always thought it was a non-thinking woman's occupation, being interested in perfume.” She said, “Then I started noticing niche perfume. I started smelling it and seeing what's happening. I realized it is for thinking people.”
 
O: If nobody shows you that it can be something other than a beauty product, you might never consider it that way. Until someone explains, perfume may as well be mascara.
 
DSH: Exactly, or shower gel. And now, niche perfumers are looking for discerning clients. Some of my perfumes are very accessible, but some are kind of off-the-wall. Some perfumes are experiences and aren’t even what you'd consider classic perfumes. They are literally just meant to be experienced and smelled, like a sculpture, like an aromatic sculpture. I sometimes work with the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art to express a painting in a perfume sculpture, or a sculpture into another perfume sculpture. At this point, the art form has been expanded and people know how to experience and accept smells that are not generally what you would consider a perfume.
 
O: Tell us about Au Lait, which is featured in our Evening collection.
 
DSH: Au Lait came about through customer requests. In the ‘90s, we had been through a vanilla trend and everything was vanilla. Then all of a sudden there was chocolate, caramel, gourmands. People had started to know me for gourmand fragrances, and they kept saying they really wanted a good milk fragrance. It's really hard to find a good milk fragrance. They're either too musky or too vanilla.
 
I really understand the concept of a comfort scent. This is one of those fragrances that you don’t have to try really hard to love, to experience, and to feel joy with. It’s comforting, soft, and sensual, and even a little bit sexy. You don't think of milk necessarily as being something sexy, but it is something that all people have some attachment to. It’s hardwired in us.
 
That's how Au Lait came about. I was trying my hardest to make the best milk fragrance within my capabilities. It's not too sweet. It's not too sugary. It's not too plasticky. It's not too musky. It's Goldilocks’ milk. It's just right.
 
O: So many of your perfumes are really complex, multifaceted, and layered. Is it fun for you to indulge in something that engages the sweetness of simplicity?
 
DSH: Yes, it is. I think Au Lait is perfectly suited to that kind of thing. But there was a lot of construction that went into creating this sweet-cream note and fresh milk smell. One of the notes in there is butter absolute, which in its straight form smells like buttery popcorn. But if you dilute it way down and you mix it with other notes, you a get a buttery, creamy smell. But they all have to keep each other in balance. The musk could go crazy and take over, or it may get too clean. Or the buttery smell could get too rich or start to be popcorny. Or the vanilla could be too sweet or sticky. So it's a matter of finding the perfect balance of those three particular elements and getting them to commune with each other in a beautiful way—and keep each other in check.
 
Get the details on Au Lait from DSH Perfumes here
Olfactif Editorial Team
Olfactif Editorial Team

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The Olfactif editorial team is made up of people who love to get geeky about perfume and scent.



1 Comment

Pamela
Pamela

January 02, 2014

Au Lait is the first full bottle I’ve bought from Olfactif. I could wear it every day. I’ve recommended it to all my fragrant friends.

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