Shizuko Yoshikuni and Manuel Kuschnig are artists of air and atmosphere. As AOIRO, an olfactory design studio that sits in the misty divide between perfumery and aromatherapy, the pair create tailor-made scents for spaces.
In the stairwell leading to the couple’s Kreuzberg apartment, the fragrance of ‘Hakudo Rain’ lingers. This purifying scent is AOIRO’s ode to petrichor; the smell of earth after heavy rain. Its complex duality—both light and heavy, organic and otherworldly—seems a suitable welcome to the space in which the Japanese-Austrian couple live and work.
Like Shizuko and Manuel, the Altbau loft is serene and orderly; though not obsessively so. In the double-height room that houses the studio, tatami mats sit below floor to ceiling shelves that contain oils, scents, and powders. Though it is early autumn when we visit, the leaves haven’t yet fallen from the trees, and the view to the park beyond is strikingly green.
They have lived in this apartment—rumored to have once belonged to Wim Wenders—for five years, and have been in Berlin for eight. This year marks their tenth anniversary as the AOIRO; a name that translates to ‘the color of blue’ in Japanese. A fitting title for a design studio whose work is as intriguing and elusive as the color of the sky itself.
Though we understand the world sensorially, our olfactory ability is commonly considered less important than sight, hearing, taste and touch. But why? Marcel Proust’s writing on memory illustrates the mnemonic power of scent; capable of resurrecting memories thick with sentiment from the depths of our unconscious. Contemporary science corroborates this fact, with studies concluding that scent is more likely to evoke emotional memories than any other sensorial experience.
For this reason, fragrance is a powerful element of identity; from perfumes on people, to scents—like those that AOIRO design—in spaces. The studio has created scents for the boutiques of Cartier, the brand space of Liganova, for Berlin Fashion Week, the Oper Leipzig, the Salzburg Festival, the Design Biennale Interieur in Kortrijk, Muun, Designhotels, and Bang & Olufsen as part of London Design Week. Scent, the pair maintain, is integral to the design of a successful space.
001: The Kitchen
To understand something as intangible as scent, and as unknowable as the conceptual method of its making, we rendered two hyperreal rooms—a kitchen and a gallery space—and asked Shizuko and Manuel to talk us through the way they would approach creating a custom scent for each of them.
“We instantly felt the contrast in this room”, Shizuko tells us as we sit down to examine the rendering of the kitchen over a pot of jasmine tea. “The monumental black trees are really pronounced in this stone room. The contrast of texture; organic roughness against the slightly-wet ground and the clean treated stone. The right scent for this space is one with that kind of impact.”
The rendered room is large, its ceilings lofty; the austere nature of its design is enhanced by the imposing trunks that stand at its center. “Kitchens are for living,” Manuel says, having just commented on the somewhat-severe aesthetic of the interior. “It would be nice to have a scent that is stimulating; something to make it a social space, as opposed to being cold or ritualistic, something to make it more lively.”
As the pair discuss the room, they note its material qualities alongside its uses as a space for cooking, gathering, and feasting. The scent, they explain, needs to bridge this divide, bringing together the emotion of the space with its formal composition. This is not the first time that AOIRO has designed a scent for a dining space; they are responsible for the fragrance that greets guests at ernst, a restaurant in Berlin-Wedding. Working solely with natural oils, their scents work with those already present within a space—food included, mingling rather than masking them as syntheticperfume would.
“We’re working with natural materials, so how a scent enters a space and how it leaves the space is natural”, Shizuko explains. “As a natural essence, it doesn’t overpower or come on top, like a perfume”, Manuel continues. “It could really be a smell from something as simple as chopping parsley; and because it is natural, you digest it naturally”.
Drawing upon the colors of the space, coal-black and ivory, the scent that AOIRO devised represents both the depth and lightness of this conceptual kitchen. Combining Hiba wood with cypress draws “the dark and moist, almost monumental strokes within the crisp and pure white background”, Shizuko explains. Hints of bergamot and ylang-ylang add warmth and dynamism to the blend. “Creating a somewhat familiar, but rather abstract experience for those who will gather around the table”, Shizuko explains.
002: The Gallery
The rendered gallery space shares a similar intensity to the kitchen; both are cold and are without windows to the outside world. But while the kitchen feels as if it sits above ground, the gallery seems firmly subterranean. Within this space, duckboard walkways offer views to plinths holding large-scale sculptures. These plinths are surrounded by dark water whose still surface is breached by algal blooms.
“What makes this image really interesting is the combination of water, diffused light, and the moss-green algae”, begins Manuel. “We try to dive in to imagine what the space feels like, or how it wants to feel, as a part of an expression in the gallery,” continues Shizuko. “In this room, there is an out-of-balance mood, a distorted feeling, and despite being a very controlled environment, there is this mossy green plant growing in the water.”
From a selection of scents with hand-drawn labels, Shizuko draws a clear vial of blue cypress. This native Australian oil has what Shizuko describes as the quality of weightlessness. “It has a flowing smooth quality,” she says. “But at the same time, it’s not a fresh scent. It’s very earthy, very smoky, with a kind of fluffy feeling.” The use of cypress is intended to connect the water and the algae with the hard-edged room, “recreating the imaginary earthiness and weightless sensation between the monumental weight of the ancient sculptures.”
The blue cypress is joined by Frankincense, “the essence which offers purified air with a designated amount of tension”, Shizuko explains. “It adds a very different quality and respect to the space. Almost as if it is a church,” she continues. “The scent has clearness, but is also resinous; a very unique quality that is hard but very space-y.” From the diffuser on the table the oils mingle and disperse softly through the room; a barely-there scent that is both cool and warm.
“At the beginning, it was difficult to convince people of the value of scent—because unless they have experienced it, they can’t quite understand it”, Shizuko tells us. “Sometimes, we compare it to buying a nice concept lamp for your entrance; you don’t do it expecting that everyone who comes in will stop and say, ‘Wow, amazing light concept’”, says Manuel. “Because it’s not the level of brightness that makes it a nice area”, continues Shizuko. “If you have a really good light, you don’t actually realize that the light is good. Like a good scent, it takes time to appear to you.”
On leaving the apartment the truth of this statement reveals itself; the gentle warmth of the space a result of company, conversation and the atmospheric scents of AOIRO, masters of the olfactory arts.