By 1905, when L’Origan de Coty stroke a scented crescendo of the Art Nouveau age, this art movement had already been at its deathbed for a few years. Airplanes, fast steam engines, colossal ships, electric vacuum cleaners, radio transmissions, automobiles: they all promised a faster and more technologically exciting future. Art Nouveau had ceased being nouveau. New art movements were mushrooming faster than an art history student can learn about them today. Of course, at that time, nobody but a select few could appreciate analytical cubism or first attempts at geometrical abstraction, but those select few were the ones who were making artists into big names. To surprise and charm that elite group, a talented artist had to be disruptive, revolutionary, and – preferably – incomprehensible to the bourgeois masses.
There were also artists then who wanted to make new, but understandable art, something that would incorporate “times a-changing” dynamism and also… be useful. Like, think of furniture. Or architecture. Or wallpaper!
Most people don’t know the artists’ names today. Was it a conscious sacrifice to forsake fame for steady income there and then? I don’t have an answer. Their names may not be known as well as those of Picasso, Matisse, or Kandinsky, but we all know their work. We know Palais de Tokyo or Empire State bulding, even if the names of their architects need to be googled up. We see Art Deco typefaces in logos, ads, texts, but we don’t know who invented them:
We may sit in a chair like this at any West End theatre (or think of a theatre district in your city) unaware of who was its designer.
From the early 1900s till 1912 Art Nouveau and Art Deco (it didn’t have a name then) co-existed peacefully, but the Autumn Salon of 1912 saw a clash of modern and uber-modern. The Salon housed Cubists, Futurists, and Dadaists (whose art caused an explosive political debate on the freedom of expression) but was decorated by the department store Printemps in what in ten years would become known as Art Deco.
Art Nouveau was effectively wiped out from the agenda of the future, yet no new scents had been offered!
It is easy to see the contrast between Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Anyone could spot the difference between Alfons Mucha (very well known) and George Barbier (known to Art Deco fans only) or the shift to simplicity from an Art Nouveau ceiling dome to that of Art Deco!
Cars can be an even better illustation of both technological and stylistic changes. Cars were highly visible, very desirable, and prohibitevely expensive. Perhaps, it was the automotive industry that delivered that final push to perfumers that made them think of new scents.
This is a Pic-Pic (Swiss-made) of 1911. It is exactly the “horseless carriage” type that we may find difficult to call a “car”. It is the epitome of Art Nouveau style.
Same year as PicPic, Delaunay Belleville, a French marque, was producing their luxury (Russian Tzar favourite) model that was already taking the shape of a car:
Yet, these babies could only be seen when the tzar or French Prime Minister would go out, and the more massively produced models were still angular and awkward, like Ford T of 1912 (US), the most affordable car then (at roughly $25K in today’s money). Stylistically, it is ahead of PicPic in the proper car category, but it does not herald a new design era (and while PicPic of 1911 could go 70 kmh, Ford maxed out only 60)
And then suddenly, just as the WWI broke out and millions of people marched to their death, the world was stunned by totally new designs that owe everything to Art Deco artists working on streamlined geometrical shapes and sleek dynamic lines. Of course these designs had been in the works long before the war, but the timing of their launch still bevilders me.
This is Richet-Schneider of 1915 (France).
And this is a new, war-like model from the luxury maker Delaunay-Belleville that they launched in 1914 and were producing until 1917.
Can you imagine that ladies in the back of PicPic (1911) and Delaunay-Belleville (1917) would wear the same perfume? So, finally, at the end of the WWI, a new scent arrived.
Chypre de Coty – 1917
It was based on 4 natural ingredients: patchouli, bergamot, labdanum, and oak moss, and has become a defining scent for modern perfumery.
Together, they produced dry and mossy scent with – as a connoisseur would say – amberly warmth.
The scent was still natural, but much more “serious” than the oriental flowers of L’Origan. It was a perfect transition from Mucha to Barbier.
You may notice that Chypre bottle is very similar to L’Origan’s one. Yes, Coty excelled in scents but their marketing sucked. This Art Deco revolution in aromas fell flat in sales.
Two years later (1919) Guerlain rolled out Mitsouko, with a fruity note on top of the Chypre base, and it became such a success that they would keep making it until today.
Mitsouko was packaged in strict accordance with Art Deco guidelines and positioned as women’s fragrance, which didn’t stop Charlie Chaplin from becoming a life-long fan.
And yet, by the time Mitsouko hit the market, new trends had already been shaping and shaking the very foundations of European societies.
The Great War was over, but its echo was still heard very clearly.
Women had to fit into men’s roles – and even trousers – during the war, and they were not coming back to the inconvenient pre-war designs. Scarcity of textiles shortened hemlines and streamlined cuts. Ironically, cloth deficit did a lot of progressive re-educational job that Art Deco fashion designers would have to do otherwise. Men were getting bolder and experimenting as well, especially with adding colour to their everyday wardrobe. A Russian magazine of 1917 summarised the conservative fear of the changing morals and fashion in this caricature, capped “in not so distant future”, in which a man and woman switch roles. I am sure it was not meant to be prophetic.
When Chypre de Coty was making its first steps, Marcel Duchamp scandalised the art market by his attempt to put a urinal in an exhibition. By 1919, when Mitsouko came out in all its glory, cubism had become mainstream (many believed it was already a thing of the past). Leading-edge art was half way out of representational or logical. It was time to start looking for a new scent; a scent that would go beyond a cheerful commemoration to the death of Art Nouveau and the rise of Art Deco; a scent for the fast approaching Roaring Twenties.
Two years after Mitsouko, this scent, one of the few brands in the history of perfumery that weren’t about the past but aimed at and defined the future, came to market.
I am sure you’ve already guessed right.