Photos: Volker Eichenhofer
1. The Blind Tasting | Cuir by Mona di Orio
We confronted Adam Donen with a mystery perfume in a neutral, opaque vaporizer. Only afterwards did we reveal the name of the scent. Follow Adam on his journey into scent …
I wouldn’t be surprised, to learn Luis Buñuel or Federico García Lorca wore a scent like this.
This scent reminds me of a place almost directly on the coast in Cape Town, South Africa, where I grew up. It’s called Camps Bay: a very, very beautiful beach, either side of which is a rocky coast. You could hear the pounding waves rise up then very suddenly fall down, all quite viciously.
The particular area I’m thinking of is about thirty or forty meters from the coastline, with just a couple of small woods where you can still enjoy the salty smell of the Atlantic Ocean and the sound of the waves. Something vaguely piney and woody in this fragrance also recalls that place.
I’d always go there alone. That was its greatest appeal. I enjoyed my own company very much but especially so the state I would get into when my mind stopped fixating and began to wander and to work of its own accord. Those sorts of spaces allowed my mind to drift. And that was possibly the most important part of my education.
All I would bring was myself and a MiniDisc player, a little Moleskine notebook and a couple of pens. I would sit in the grass writing prose and poetry, with a full pack of cigarettes at the start, and only half a pack left by the time I’d finished.
I grew up in books and music and consequently found myself clearly needing to go either to London or Berlin. Today, I feel more at home there than when I go back to Cape Town. But nevertheless, there are these flickering moments and fixations that remain with me and certainly this perfume evokes one of them.
I’ve found different places for each of the different selves that I have become over the years. But I have never found a place like that again. I suppose because I never could have — I am no longer the person I was when I found it. I’m reminded of a beautiful line from Russell Hoban, my favorite novelist, now sadly deceased, and for whom I wrote a requiem. He says that being is not a continuous state. It’s an occulting state. We flicker into different selves that are unified solely by the mundane fact of happening to be in the same body.
A person wearing this perfume might well have stepped out of an Expressionist painting by Otto Dix. He would carry himself very well; that much is certain. I wouldn’t be surprised, to learn Luis Buñuel or Federico García Lorca wore a scent like this. It evokes a degree of formality but also of theatricality. It’s not a casual scent. It has the air of being the person to whom eyes would quizzically turn in any room. There is a measure of authority and confidence to it.
I could imagine wearing this scent myself. Actually, almost more than that, I can imagine certain characters I play wearing it. There was a puppet opera I had in London called Jokasta, in which I played a magician modeled on Mikhail Bulgakov’s devil in The Master and Margarita and I could absolutely imagine this being a wonderfully evocative smell for him.
Perfume as an art or craft is fascinating because the primary audience is the wearer himself. Of course it is experienced by other people too, but not to the same degree. So it’s very much something that can become a part of your character. I think this is true both on and off stage.
2. The Interview
What is Adam Donen’s earliest scent memory? What is the significance of fragrance in his life? Which are his personal Top 3 perfumes? Find the answers below!
I love the smell of tobacco but in Great Britain you can’t admit to that.
Helder Suffenplan: What is your earliest scent memory?
Adam Donen: A fire! As I said I grew up in Cape Town, and we would barbecue an awful lot. They would be wood fires — the smell of the burning wood from chopped up trees! I liked the smell as a child and I adore it to this day.
HS: Do you still barbecue when you go back to South Africa?
AD: Very much so — and even when my parents come visit me in Berlin. I hosted them once on the Tempelhofer Feld. But we used charcoal than.
HS: Did your mother wear perfume when you were a child?
AD: My mother, yes. She still does so reasonably regularly … It would certainly not behoove me to say it was foul, overpowering, floral stuff. So I am pointedly not saying that! And you can quote me exactly [laughs].
HS: When was the first time you wore perfume?
AD: Probably in my late teens, or early twenties, while studying. It was a Dior thing I was given by my girlfriend at the time. To my shame, I can’t for the life of me remember what it was.
HS: Have you ever bought a perfume for yourself?
AD: Yes, Midnight in Paris by Van Cleef & Arpels. I am very, very fond of it. Unusually, I bought it at a perfumery in London, just off Sloane Square. I do love perfumes but I find the grand cloud of thousands of them amalgamating amid the glitz and pristineness of most perfumeries vaguely terrifying. I find it strange that for all the many beautiful things scent can do, it is typically sold in a space that seems completely antithetical to the atmospheres it can create.
A friend recently told me: “I smelled something the other day — it is so you! Check it out!” He meant Eau Sauvage by Christian Dior. And other very lovely people have likewise made me very lovely gifts: Vintage by John Varvatos and Wild Tobacco by Illuminum.
HS: What is the nicest scent you can imagine?
AD: I have a general fondness for new leather products, which smell wonderful. And I love the smell of tobacco — which you can admit to in Germany, but not in the United Kingdom!
HS: If you had the opportunity to work with a master perfumer would you ask him to create a scent for yourself, or for a project?
AD: One of my grand obsessions is attempting to create a new form of Gesamtkunstwerk. And I have thought about scent and what role it could play, but I honestly have not been able to think of any way to do it. I think it could be wonderful in an art gallery context, where a world is created within a space. But in works such as music, which take place over time and would therefore require several different scents, I don’t really see how it could be done. And so I would probably have to [laughs] very reluctantly ask this master perfumer to create a scent for me personally.
HS: What is the difference between hearing and smelling? Or: Are there similarities between them?
AD: To me the magical thing about smell and specifically about perfume is that it functions like a song but quicker. It immediately evokes something. But the problem is that numerous smells over time just create a big perfume-shop haze.
I think that smell is instantly more evocative whereas hearing takes place over time. I experience smell as a great flush either of reality or fantasy. Very, very powerful and also linked. Some smells are almost hardwired to a specific situation or circumstance in the past. That is not necessarily the case with sound.
HS: Thank you!