Behind the Rise of Artist-Designed Perfume Bottles

Creative collaborations between art- and design-world talents and fragrance houses have long elevated mass-produced goods to the status of artwork. The likes of James Turrell and the Yves Klein Archive are building upon a tradition everyone from India Mahdavi, Frank Gehry, and Salvador Dalí have taken part in: designing rare perfume bottles.

James Turrell's fragrances and decanters, designed for Lalique. Photo: Courtesy of Lalique

In some corners of the design world, collaboration fatigue has, understandably, set in. One kind of creative partnership that reliably drums up excitement among even the most jaded aesthetes is also one of the least predictable: artist-designers and fragrance houses. According to beauty expert and Smell Ya Later fragrance podcast co-host Tynan Sinks, one of the earliest examples of crossover between the fragrance and art worlds occurred in 1908, when avant-garde artist and theorist Kazimir Malevich was commissioned to design a Severny Cologne bottle before shaping the future of abstract art with his bright, cubist paintings. The semi-opaque glass bottle he created features a polar bear perched atop an ice block as its stopper, with the remainder rendered as an ocean-worn block of ice.

In 1937, still far before the word “collab” existed, the Surrealist painter and designer Leonor Fini created the curvaceous bottle for Elsa Schiaparelli’s beloved ‘Shocking!’ fragrance, drawing inspiration from the Italian couturier’s dress form, or mannequin, for Golden Age film star Mae West. (In 2018, Kim Kardashian’s KKW Body fragrance raised eyebrows for its conspicuously similar packaging design.) Schiaparelli also worked with Salvador Dalí, commissioning him to design the bottle for her ‘Le Roi Soleil’ fragrance, which debuted in 1946. Schiaparelli ran in the same social circles as Fini and Dalí; she considered them friends, attended parties with them, and admired their work before tapping them as collaborators.

Left: Shocking! Bottle design by Leonor Fini for Maison Schiaparelli. Right: Le Roy Soleil bottle design by Salvador Dali for Maison Schiaparelli. Credit: The Schiaparelli Archives

Fini’s bottle for ‘Shocking!’ represented an uninhibited celebration of femininity: “The shape of the mannequin was inspired by the curves of the actress Mae West, the Hollywood sex symbol of the time,” according to the Schiaparelli archive. “The bottle was placed under a glass globe in reference to those in which late-19th-century brides preserved their floral wreaths.” Dalí’s design, which was released nine years later, was a celebration of postwar Paris. It referenced the Place Vendôme, where Maison Schiaparelli was based at the time. The Place had also once hosted a statue of Louis XIV, the fragrance’s namesake. The bottle itself was made from Baccarat crystal and featured a stopper in the shape of a flaming sun atop a bottle evocative of rocks emerging from the ocean.

The more recent past has seen James Turrell team up with French glassmaker Lalique in the form of two obelisk-like crystal decanters that recall Asian stupas and pay homage to the Range Rider and Purple Sage fragrances they hold. The two prismatic bottles mark the renowned Light and Space artist’s inaugural foray into perfumery—and the first time he has created work on a small scale.

Then there’s Guerlain’s special release of L’Heure Bleue with the Yves Klein Archive, which has also charmed the design world. For the 110th anniversary of its L’Heure Bleue fragrance, the brand worked with the Yves Klein Archive to issue 30 bottles painted in International Klein Blue, using the late artist’s same pigmentation processes. The effect of such a matte, monochrome coating on the curvature of the Waltersperger glass crystal is wondrous to behold.

Guerlain's special edition of L'Heure Bleue, with a bottle painted in International Klein Blue in partnership with the Yves Klein Archive. Credit: Guerlain.

Also worth mentioning is Dries Van Noten’s recent partnership with the renowned 19th-century French fragrance glassmakers at Stoelzle Masnières Parfumerie, which yielded a chromatic array of luminous glass bottles. And, in 2021, India Mahdavi’s reimagining of Dior’s iconic J’Adore fragrance and Frank Gehry’s sculptural crinkled cap for Louis Vuitton’s Les Extraits perfume collection.

“Artist-designed perfume bottles are a little harder to come by than artists designing limited-edition deco on existing components,” Sinks tells Surface. “Perfume houses often have their own bottle designers, who are artists in their own right, of course. To me, that’s not the same as an artist who works in their own medium, be it in sculpture or otherwise, being brought on for the specific purpose of designing a perfume bottle.”

In a crowded retail landscape, where collab culture feels increasingly like a meme of itself, these fewer and farther-between launches feel newsworthy when announced. The strategy behind formulating, launching, and marketing a fragrance is so calculated that bringing in an outsider—even one of the art or design world’s best—could present numerous risks. But in these cases, that’s where the magic happened. In fact, we wouldn’t be mad if more artists left their signature stamps on perfume bottles.

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