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A Time Machine For Smells

This installation transports visitors back in time to the space’s previous life as a factory through the smells of metal, sweat, and grease.

Smells are deeply evocative. They can conjure up memories that are years or even decades old. In this spirit, one recent design school graduate is attempting to harness the power of scent to create a time machine.

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Révélateur is an installation by Design Academy Eindhoven graduate Mickaël Wiesengrün and Norwegian chemist Sisel Tolaas that uses scent to transport visitors back in time. Installed in the De Witte Damme, Révélateur recreates the smell of sweat, grease, and metal that used to saturate the building in its previous life as a Philips light bulb factory.

Born in Chamonix Mont-Blanc, France, Wiesengrün traces back his fascination with scent comes from a childhood spent in the constant presence of pine, snow, mountain air, and ice. When he moved to Eindhoven to pursue his studies, Wiesengrün found the contrast jarring. He began wondering just how it was that scent helped us contextualize the world, both in the past and in the present.

In execution, Révélateur is minimalist. Each smell–sweat, grease, and metal–is contained in a beaker. Ultrasonic vibrations are used to turn these distilled chemical scents into a vapor, which saturates the room as a combined scent. Each smell can also be sampled individually, thanks to three glass tubes, which are broken at nostril level to make it easy for visitors to get a snootful. But how does Wiesengrün know what a Philips light bulb factory smelled like 30 years ago?

“For the Witte Dame, I researched the different smells by talking to former employees and watching old documentaries,” Wiesengrün tells me. “In the end, there were so many smells in this space that I had to limit myself to just three. Because I wanted simple and clear smells that would communicate to a big crowd, I ended up choosing smells around a single theme: the hard work that used to be performed in this space.”

According to Wiesengrün, the intent is to tour with Révélateur, bringing the installation to new spaces. As he tours, he will continue to work with Tolaas to mix together new scents that suit the olfactory palette of the space’s past.