In homes of the future we may be putting on airs with mood-altering aromas

January 09, 1994|By Beverly Hall Lawrence | Beverly Hall Lawrence,Newsday

Not too many years from now, alarm clocks will not buzz but will instead squirt aromas blended to stimulate sleepy heads into alertness.

By the year 2000, one researcher predicts, people will be using scents in their homes to stimulate or curb their appetites, and they'll work at terminals that dispense odors designed to keep them more productive. People will go home and exercise in rooms filled with an odor to make them feel invigorated. After dinner, how about a whiff of the amorous stuff?

Advances in technology and scent research now make it possible to release odorants in accurately measured concentrations, says Alan Hirsch, director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation of Chicago, a clinic that conducts surveys on how smells affect our emotional and physical responses.

"There are many who want to harness the power of smells to make it sort of like Muzak, just another background ambience," says Mr. Hirsch. "Scents are one of the easiest ways to influence someone."

A Japanese clock maker is already testing the smell-alarm clock, proof, Mr. Hirsch says, that the world is changing right under our noses. And, ready or not, there are many studies under way to see how consumers can be led around by the nose.

Though nothing quite as futuristic as the clock is available yet in stores, more and more scents condensed in beads, gels and potpourris are coming on the market. And the idea of personalized home fragrances has become something of a fashion item in home decor.

"The consumer is so sophisticated now and is much more thirsty to experiment with smells and anything that might improve the quality of life at home," says pharmacist Sharon Christie, president of Aromafloria, a division of the California Fragrance Co., which makes grooming products and "inhalation" aromatherapy beads.

Luxury home fragrances

We're talking way beyond Glade here. Pressurized air-freshener sprays and their plug-in-the-wall counterparts are still the most popular in American baths, bedrooms and kitchens. But a new market segment of luxury home fragrance products has emerged, targeting those for whom a pleasant aroma is part of the overall ambience of a room and for whom a $25 box of Tiffany's rose potpourri or Ralph Lauren's Telluride environmental fragrance products -- priced in the $30 range -- is not a reach.

"We view home fragrance as an area of business like any other home accessory," says David Gebhart, a manager for the New York metropolitan area's Bombay Company furniture stores. The company has created a new signature collection of 11 fragrance products to "complement" its classic wood furnishings. Customers, he says, see the fragrance of a room "as an extension of a personal statement."

Even more personal, those interested in holistic health are looking to ancient aromatherapy recipes for pleasant -- some say health-enhancing -- whiffs.

"The knowledge that we react more strongly to odors than we do in the other sensations is not new," says Mr. Hirsch. "As early as 1908, Freud recognized the link between emotion and odors. It's just that now science is advanced enough for us to decipher and control our environment, and some in the fragrance business are seizing that to help us learn to manipulate our emotions by controlling the smells."

Two schools of thought

In trying to advance theories of the benefits of sweet smells, there appear to be two schools of thought. One includes forward-looking scent professionals like Mr. Hirsch who believe that controlled scents can be used to enhance human behavior. The second attitude is advocated by people like New York interior designer Clodagh, who prefers to incorporate natural, ancient, aromatic roots such as sage, rosemary and even dried oranges in their natural forms as sources of "environmental purification."

"Scents are very important to the creation of a sense of calm. What I strive for is to remove bad smells rather than to introduce new aromas," Clodagh says about using scents in her work with clients.

Whether you prefer products that add a smell or those that remove bad odors, research shows that what we're mainly responding to is the memory the smell may have triggered.

The average healthy individual can smell 10,000 odors, but no two people will respond to a particular odor in exactly the same way, says Mr. Hirsch. Who they are, where they live, whether they have smelled the odors before and the circumstances in which they smelled them enter into the reaction. That is why no one will ever be able to create a universally pleasant-smelling potpourri, for example, he says.

In his studies Mr. Hirsch has found the nostalgia evoked by certain scents often is shared by people in the same age range. People born in the 1920s, for example, experience fond memories when exposed to nature scents such as grass, roses and pine; for people born in the 1950s, crayons and Playdough are two of the smells that trigger happy memories and feelings.

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