Recently, a problem with my sinuses meant that I could not smell anything.

From the pungent to the sweet, acrid to scented – the good and the bad – none of these odours registered with me at all. It’s what they call anosmia.

For months this became the new normal. My whole world was free of all odours.

Gone were all the rich, salivating cooking smells that accompany the most delicious meals. The fresh tang of oranges or sharpness of salt and vinegar crisps.

Gone were the sweet, soft, mellow, deep, coffee aromas. And all scents, perfumes and fragrances.

Food is much less interesting when it smells of… nothing.

There are some odours where we make choices and can control: Cigarettestoast, hyacinths, cleaning fluids.

Some are just part of who we are and who we live with and how we live: oil-fired heating, polished wood, wet dog, new carpet, fresh paint, nappies.

And then there are the environmental odours that we cannot contain: heavy exhaust fumes, pervasive farm smells, ventilation outlets, fresh tarmac, newly mown grass.

With no olfactory sense to keep odours in check it affected my confidence. I feared there would be lurking, lingering, heavy smells in my home. The rancid smell of  cat food….. congealed cooking oil… blocked drains… damp…something burning… gas?.

Might other people smell something fetid, putrid and rotting in my home that I could not?

Does my home have an overpowering heavy and lingering odour of fish, of curry and garlic…

Are there obvious signs that the flower water needs changing… or that damp dish cloths that have been sitting too long?

Or, is there an over-powering sickly sweet of pot pourri?  

How would I know?

Am I over-compensating for my loss of smell by adding even more powerful odours to the mixLemon, pine, cotton fresh, lavender.

By pitting one smell against another smell, was I just making it worse? 

When you don’t have a sense of smell you are a lot less certain about the world around you.

Then my sense of smell returned. 

First, it was a hint of an odour, a mere whiff of something… something different.

But it was also an awakening, an unexpected stirring of the senses that was a little unnerving.

This was something peculiar… and yet strangely familiar.

I am rediscovering that odours are complex.

And as I move from room to room I recognise how they can add a powerful dimension to my spatial experience.

As if for the first time I am confronting and exploring heady, deep tones combined with pungent highs; stench vs  scent.  

Locating and identifying these odours is about making sense of a world where you can take nothing for granted.

Our sense of smell is such an important part of our lived experience.

Now, opening the fridge becomes an experience rather than a routine action. It is a joy to release the subtle freshness of fruit and vegetables, the pungency of hard cheese, the fragrance of something sweet.

It reminds me that my granny’s fridge smelled of spilt milk; sour and heavy. My grandfather’s house smelled of stale cigarettes, and coal fires. 

I recall the heavy, pervasive smell of over-cooked cabbage ( school dinners) of steamy, laundry-day (my mother’s twin-tub), of turf fires and pipe tobacco. Odours that are not a part of my life any more. 

A designed experience makes uses all the senses.

Pleasant aromas draw you in (coffee, freshly baked bread, pastries). This can also be used to influence what you buy and create deeper positive memories of space and place.

Scents are now being actively deployed in marketing through scent branding.

Every estate agent knows any sign of bad odour will actively put potential buyers off. It’s hard to picture yourself living somewhere that smells rank.

And so, taking smell to a higher level in luxury interior design scent scaping is now used to differentiate different moods in different rooms.

We often rely on ‘smell’ to override what we ‘see’ in order to decide what we ‘think’.

We can live without any sense of smell – many people do. But it means we lose the ability to call on all our senses to protect us and alert us to danger. The idea that something could be potentially harmful, or just, ‘not right’. 

In the Oscar award-winning film Parasite the young son identifies that the four people working for his family all ‘smell’ the same. As a child, he says it as he thinks it out loud without the social filters of adulthood. 

The family of tricksters could present themselves with confidence because they were clever and savvy. But their underlying odour was something they could do nothing about.

As a poor family they lived in the close confines of a basement flat. This poorly ventilated space captured and held bad odours: stuffiness, damp and poor drains a smell associated with poverty. But also, of cheap washing powder, soaps, shampoos, shaving balms. 

These odours not only linger but can be carried on our bodies and clothes. This makes it difficult to mask or control.

By contrast, wealth has a very different smell.

The smell of success is neutral and unobtrusive, perfectly pitched to be appealing, subtle yet uplifting.

It is: leather seats, fragrant flowers, polished floors and the evocative aromas of ‘newness’ that is, freshly painted, clean, scented, delicate, expensive and pristine. 

It is said that Queen Elizabeth 2 was immersed in a world that always smelled of fresh paint. Her visits are carefully stage-managed so she would only ever see places looking spruce and smelling ‘new’.  And so she was able to waft in, and waft out, in a fresh, sweet-smelling cloud – or bubble.

In Parasite, it was a permeating smell that changed everything.

For the wealthy family, this ‘offensive’ odour was a deal breaker. They could not tolerate it in their charmed and privileged lives.

For the poor family, making a distinction based on odour stemmed from an abject lack of respect.

While, there are some benefits to having no sense of smell – zero stench, nothing putrid or rank. It is a world that smells of nothing.  

I can now experience the world as it is.

Being able to smell what everyone else smells (good and bad) and to recognise and enjoy those smells, is to have a rounded sensory, spatial experience.

What a wonderful world it is.

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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