"Magic Moments" By Luca Turin
One of the many things I love about the US is the majestic size of home appliances: to European eyes, US washing machines and driers belong to a friendly race of giants and serve as a reminder that space is always a luxury, even if you merely intend to fill it with dirty laundry. These large creatures inhabit house basements, open-plan spaces typically full of obsolete children’s toys, gardening equipment, things bought in haste and repented at leisure and, where I live at least, snow-clearing equipment ready for the next time you wake up and can no longer see your car parked in front.
As you walk past the curiously flimsy houses Americans live in, meant to last no more than one lifetime, extractor fans at street level breathe powerful blasts of laundry soap and fabric conditioner across your face. These smells suddenly make you feel you’re no longer outdoors, but in a mysterious room the size of a city. The combination of crudeness and volume tugs at your heart, like a snatch of melody played too loud by a passing car. Appliance breath has the poetic beauty of objects the wrong size, like Claes Oldenburg‘s giant telephone, three-story tall half-eaten apples and truck-sized clothespin. These fragrances are clearly not meant to be smelled at this magnification, and seem rough and hairy like newsprint seen in a microscope.
When displayed at the correct, legible size, fragrance in soap and conditioner is meant to elicit loyalty. People ultimately choose a brand because they think April Fresh or Summer Pasture smells great. It does not do so by accident. Soap manufacturers are the political parties of perfumery: a few percent change in market share is a very big win. Thousands of volunteer testers take home small test packets of proposed new fragrance compositions, and diligently fill questionnaires at critical points: after opening the washer door, while hanging the clothes to dry, and while folding them. These time points are known in the trade, without the slightest irony, as “magic moments”. Despite the very low cost of these compositions, this is where the money is made in perfumery.
A week’s worth of Tide fragrance oil is probably worth ten years of Patou’s turnover, yet every penny spent by soap makers on fragrance compositions is scrutinized as if it were a gold sovereign. Does it have to be so? Why doesn’t Guerlain make a luxury fabric softener? Probably because we wouldn’t buy it. Objects too have their castes, and we seem to like it that way: telephones must do a poor job of reproducing the human voice, burgers should be greasy, car dashboards should be plastic pretending to be leather, washing products should smell pleasant but obedient, unadorned—in one word, deferential. To borrow a Victorian phrase, they should know their place, below stairs.