With the one-click simplicity of Flickr and Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, recording our memories has never been easier.
“We take pictures of everything and load it all online, to the point where it is all infinitely replicable and disposable,” says designer Amy Radcliffe, whose MA project at Central Saint Martins set out to bring a more meaningful sensory dimension to storing our favorite memories.
The Madeleine, named after Marcel Proust’s story of involuntary memory prompted by biting into a cake, is Radcliffe’s design for a new kind of camera that records not images, but smells.
“Sense of smell has a direct link to emotional memory,” she says.
Her project, developed in the college’s Textile Futures department, draws on “Headspace capture” techniques pioneered in the 1970s by Swiss fragrance chemist Roman Kaiser, for obtaining the composition of rare botanical scents for the perfume industry.
Radcliffe’s “Scentography” camera has a retro-futuristic form, referencing both this 70s heritage and our growing nostalgia in photography – embodied by clunky Lomo cameras and wistful Instagram filters.
You place the funnel over the object or environment you wish to capture, then a pump sucks the air across an odor trap made of Tenax, a porous polymer resin which adsorbs the volatile particles that make up the smell.
It can take anything from a few minutes to capture the scent of fresh strawberries, to around 24 hours to store the most subtle aroma of an atmosphere.
“It processes the particles and produces a graph-like formula that makes up the smell. From this formula, you can artificially recreate the precise odor.”
In her speculative scenario, users take their exposed odor traps to the local lab in the same way you would take a 35mm film to be processed. The product being not photos, but delicate vials of the scent, along with a bronze disk of the particular formula, bringing a precious, ritualistic quality to the process.
“It could be anything from the smell of your old house to sniff when you’re feeling homesick, to the scent of a missed relative or partner,” says Radcliffe.
“I like the idea of portraits, as every single person has their unique smell.”
The design has been short-listed for the Lowe and Partners Nova award, and Radcliffe is currently seeking work with fragrance labs to take the idea further.