“A house without a smell is like a naked person,” declares interior designer Robert Couturier.
It’s amazing the things you’ll learn by eavesdropping on a conversation between two chic Frenchmen. We recently did just that when we interviewed Robert Couturier and renowned perfumer Frédéric Malle—the two have known each other since they were 9—about Malle’s “perfume guns.” Available at Barneys New York, these five high-voltage fragrances are crafted by some of Malle’s favorite noses and served up in vessels that take their cue from industrial design.
Barneys New York: Frédéric, what first inspired you to do room fragrances?
Frédéric: The rooms themselves, in a way. I think it’s interesting to recreate rooms that I’ve liked. For instance, Robert and I were brought up in nice Parisian homes, many of which smell of amber, patchouli and other fresh notes—they all had that in common when we were kids. So I thought of that when I worked on the scent Cafe Society. Then sometimes you want to bring the smell of outside inside. For instance, when we go to our friend Carolina Irving’s house in Long Island, she has this bush of Rosa Rugosa that I always thought smelled delicious, so I based a fragrance on it. Then there are more exotic scents like Russian Nights. When you visit the church or people’s homes in Russia, you find very warm, almost mystical smells.
Barneys New York: And tell us about the design of these “perfume guns.”
Frédéric: Someone like Robert is extremely impatient and he wants things done immediately [laughs]. When you use a candle, it’s very pretty, but you have to be very patient while the fragrance grows. But when you want to create an atmosphere instantly, like when you are having a party, you just spray the gun. The other thing is, when I began working on these, I thought I should show them to Robert before the launch, and he said that some of his clients have enormous houses—palaces in Mexico or chalets in Aspen—which you cannot fragrance with a candle.You can, however, with a gun—you might have to shoot it a few times, but you can fragrance enormous spaces.
Robert: I put it on the pillows and on the upholstery because when people sit down on them, the smell comes up, which is really wonderful. My boyfriend is also allergic to candle smells, but not spray guns. I think he’s probably allergic to smoke.
Barneys New York: Do you have a favorite scent for your own home?
Fédéric: We use the same funnily enough—Cafe Society—because it smells like our childhood. It’s a very strange thing. When we launched this new line in Paris, we had a big opening with lots of locals and people from my family, and they all said, “Oh, it smells exactly like our childhood.” I had just done it from memory. It’s a very soothing and comfortable smell for us.
Barneys New York: Tell us a bit about the perfumers who created these scents.
Fédéric: Generally people that create room scents are specialized in room scents, and they are doing Yankee candles and Febreze and all that stuff. It’s a style, but it’s different than mine and Robert’s, to be completely snobbish. So I asked the very best fine-fragrance perfumers—the people that specialize in perfumes that you wear, like Sophia Grojsman, Dominique Ropion, Carlos Benaim and Bruno Jovanovic.
Barneys New York: Do you change your home scents according to the mood, occasion or season?
Robert: I’ve tried all the guns, but the truth is that Cafe Society goes everywhere, anywhere, all the time. Although I think I will use Rosa Rugosa this summer as well because the smell is absolutely delicious.
Fédéric: It has this crisp freshness to it, which is very nice in the summer. I have this mini house in the Hamptons, and I use Russian Nights in the winter, but I think in the summer I’m going to use Rosa Rogusa. Le Premier Mai is absolutely lovely as well because it smells incredibly fresh—it smells like a bedroom in the country.
Barneys New York: Why is a scent such an important element in a home?
Robert: You often enter American houses, and you have beautiful stuff, but there’s no smell, which is so weird. It smells as if everything has been disinfected. Whereas when you enter a house and there’s a nice scent, you feel immediately comfortable.
Fédéric: I completely agree with that. Most people here in the U.S., they rarely invite others into their homes. When you’re invited by a friend here, you’re invited to a restaurant. In France, it’s quite the opposite. People receive each other at their homes. Scent is a fourth dimension—like music.
Each fragrance works with a type of design. If your home is trying to be minimalist and pure, then you’re going to for something much cleaner smelling, like Rosa Rugosa, which has a magnolia scent that smells very modern and clean. Fragrances for the home are exactly like fragrances you wear. What’s important is to match them properly with your type of home so that there is no disconnect. People are coherent. What they like will go with their homes because their home is an epitome of their taste.
Robert: I think it’s also because French people—we always have used perfumes. We’re used to it. The perfume is an extension of the person. We are so used to scent that for us a house without a smell is like a naked person.
Image of Frédéric Malle courtesy of Architectural Digest. Image of Robert Couturier courtesy of Chris New.