The Aēsop Guide to Smelling Like a French Design Master
What makes a legend? Is it the epitaph etched on a person’s headstone? Or the buildings left behind that bear their namesake? A thick biography? For the master perfumer Barnabé Fillion, the past is best reawakened through scent. A longtime collaborator with the buzzy beauty brand Aēsop, Fillion has developed a triptych of aromatic candles inspired by ancient astronomers, as well as Rōzu, an original fragrance dedicated to Charlotte Perriand, the late French interior architect, artist, and designer. In 1981, Perriand wrote that better societies are formed when people find happiness in well-designed homes. Her philosophy rings truer than ever at this moment, when humans are spending more time indoors than ever before. To discuss the new collection, Fillion got on the phone with Michael Bargo, the New York-based dealer and interior designer, who, like Perriand, knows a thing or two about making a happy home. —MITCHELL NUGENT
MICHAEL BARGO: I was curious about your introduction to Charlotte Perriand. Do you remember the first moment that you were introduced to her work?
BARNABÉ FILLION: Yes, it was basically a Saturday walk with my parents and we passed by François Laffanour at Galerie Downtown in the mid-90s. And there was an exhibition of her collaborative work with Fernand Léger. He was painting some of her photography; they were showing furniture, but also some of this [collage] work.
BARGO: When you speak of her photography and the collages, does that give you more insight into her personality and a deeper sense of the way she worked?
FILLION: Yes, the collages gave me a lot of ideas on how she was building her creativity. We can all remember the fact that [Perriand] is one of the only ladies that confronted Le Corbusier. Also her engagement in politics, and the fight for emancipation of women in design, challenging the expectations of genders. All of these were important elements for me to try to re-transcribe in the perfume. Another thing you can think about is her style. Just being a woman in the ’30s wearing men’s clothes and wearing a perfume made for men.
BARGO: Do you know which perfume she was wearing?
FILLION: She was wearing Vetiver.
BARGO: Incredibly masculine. How did this project come about with Aēsop?
FILLION: I was collaborating with a Japanese botanist that has a farm for roses. Actually the Keiji Rose Farm is the place where Charlotte wanted to build a pavilion, in front of Biwa Lake behind the mountains of Kyoto. In general, I’m not a big fan of roses… but these are just beyond. When I saw this I really wanted to do a perfume for Charlotte Perriand and relate it to that rose.
BARGO: I’m actually smelling it now, it’s really amazing. And when you’re developing a fragrance, explain to me the process.
FILLION: The collaborative aspect of the project was really a big support for me. Obviously the collaboration with the family of Charlotte. And at Aēsop there is Dr. Kate Forbes, who really helps with the formulation, and is a perfectionist. In general the creative process for me always starts from the quest for the best ingredients. And usually, when I start from the ingredients that I get attracted to for a project, I start to see blurry images that little by little, when blending more ingredients, become more clear. Here we had lots of things to celebrate about Charlotte.
BARGO: And then the three candles [Ptolemy, Aganice, and Callippus]—what’s the relationship and the process for those?
FILLION: We wanted something quite subtle and something that was not invading the space because a scent in a space can become invisible furniture that can bring a lot of impact with these sensual, invisible shapes. We decided to focus on this idea of candles as towers, and to remember the work of amazing astronomers that helped change our understanding of the world.
BARGO: Some of my first memories are fragrance. I remember my grandmother’s perfume—she wore Chanel No. 5. If I ever smell that I immediately think of my grandmother and summers at her house. And I think, for me, fragrance in general is one of the greatest luxuries, because you can’t see it.
FILLION: How did you discover the work of Charlotte Perriand? And what was the feeling that it gives you?
BARGO: It was on one of my first trips to Paris. I was a freshman in college and went to Galerie Patrick Seguin and saw her work there. It was the first time I was really introduced to most of those designers, Prouvé and Perriand. And as an American, it’s the antithesis of what we think of as beautiful design. Because as Americans we really think large-scale and decadent makes for beauty. It was one of the first experiences I had that taught me the French way of approaching design in its purity and simplicity.
FILLION: And when were you able to purchase some of her work?
BARGO: I’ve been very lucky with work recently, and I’ve started getting to be able to purchase and live with all these pieces and designers that I never really thought I would get to. It’s one thing just to appreciate the beauty in the gallery, but to actually live with them is something even more special.
FILLION: If you are thinking of Charlotte Perriand as an element, almost like her perfume, what do you feel that a Charlotte Perriand piece brings to a space?
BARGO: The beauty of her work is the functionality of it, first and foremost. I think, as someone who was a very practical and intelligent designer and architect, that functionality came first for Perriand. If you think of her dining tables or the dining chairs or even the small stools and things, those elements in a room are so powerful and impactful, and at the same time, so functional and beautiful for day-to-day use.
FILLION: Charlotte Perriand is known for all the frequent travels that she did and all the inspiration that she took. Do you have some specific place that is very important for your work?
BARGO: For me, France, especially when I discovered the furniture at Galerie Patrick Seguin. That trip in particular was one of the first moments I realized I was a complete Francophile. And for me it’s the French way of living and the French way of design that is the most inspiring to me. It’s very fantastical in a way, and it’s very practical at the same time. But it’s beauty, first and foremost. And enjoying life in a really beautiful way.
FILLION: When you’re starting a project beginning from the empty space, and then slowly filling the space with your clients, when do you know that you are finished?
BARGO: I don’t know that any project I worked on is ever really finished. Because people develop and change, and even recently with everything that’s been happening in the world, people are at home a lot more. Clients have called me just because they want to change things up a bit because they are there all day and are looking at the spaces differently. And I think that’s the beauty of it, probably the same way that you do with fragrances—I imagine that when you develop another one you’ll come back to one that you’ve worked on [previously] and take notes of that out and understand the elements of that, that you want to contribute to the next.
FILLION: Yes, there’s a subtle connection and dialogue between projects, and you never really want them to end.