Interview with Beau Rhee of Atelier de Geste


03rd December, 2014

By no means is Beau Rhee, perfumer and founder of Atelier de Geste, traditional. Her first perfume collection, which launched last fall, eschewed typical industry scents, such as florals, for ones that mimicked the elements: water, earth, wind. Her scents, she says, are meant to conjure the idea of movement -- “Atelier De Geste” quite literally means “The Gesture Studio.” Now, she’s designed a new collection of silk garments, "Silk Movement Wear,” that she has paired with her perfumes. Her garments are named after German choreographer Oskar Schlemmer and Russian ballet dancer Vaslov Nijinsky, and are available now on atelierdegeste.com

I met Beau Rhee at her studio in Flat Iron to hear about her new silk line, how she developed her current life of scents, and what she’s planning for her next perfume collection.


Beau Rhee. image by Barbara Anastacio

Are you approaching your clothing line the way you’ve approached your scent collection?

The color palette is very similar between -- the red, the blue and a bastardized pure yellow color on the boxes. It took months to choose the colors to go with each scent. I think the clothing will tell the same story, though the clothing is a little more literal in terms of what the scent will conjure up.

Fragrance in general is esoteric. When I started the project, I never thought it would be a commercially available perfume. I thought, “How do I make scents move and make them about movement?” And then they ended up kind of being interesting and unique.

Each of the fragrances was developed throughout a period of years. I’m brainstorming for the next set, which will have to do with stone and metal. The first set is elemental -- Blood Sweat Tears is water, The Good Earth is earthy, Wild is the Wind is wind to me.

I have a background in dance and I wanted to create dance inspired objects. The school I attended they loved that. They mixed the fine art and design schools and you need to make things and have a portfolio.

My professor was asking me what I was obsessed with since I was young -- and he was asking me what had I been obsessed with since I was young. I knew I’ve always loved fragrance and collected it. I bought a bottle of Chanel Chance in the seventh grade with my allowance and I still have it.

I was then turned to a woman named Eileen Grey -- she was amazing. She designed textiles and furniture and designed lacquer work and had a storefront in Paris in the 20s.


The Good Earth

A lot of your inspirations come from the early 20th century. Can you talk about why this might be?

The early to almost mid 20th century, with the Bauhaus movement’s Oskar Schlemmer and Ballets Russes, Sonia Delaunay and Eileen Gray, has always been rife with inspiration for me because of the kind of sprawling creativity and technique that artists and designers displayed. Art-making seems to have a physicality and a rigor, while connecting very deeply to life and living.

Mediums were gracefully and virtuosically traversed (textile, painting, sculpture, theater) by people who had a vision, and technical skills that allowed them to execute their visions. Sonia Delaunay's Atelier Simultané featured textile design, clothing design, painting, cars paintings, costumes...all informed by her exploration of pattern and color. Schlemmer's sculptures were sets on stage, costumes mimicked his figurative paintings, his essays delved into his body theories. His oeuvre has a central aesthetic and idea of the body in space, but then rotated so playfully and dizzyingly around mediums.

I relate to and use this kind of art-translation process, where an idea or vision becomes translated (hopefully very well) throughout many media. It's playful, it's thorough, it's virtuosic, it's rigorous, it's fun, it's difficult, it's free. Most of all, it is _tactile_, a kind of engagement of an all-5-senses exploration of art. This freedom and this physicality, which I admire deeply in the artists I mentioned above, are possibly only through: a) vision/idea that is really strong and unique and b) a deep, thorough, wide knowledge of tactile making techniques.

Perhaps artists in this time period were more tactilely handy than artists trained post WW2 - maybe art & design education became a bit too sectored and esoteric, or our society became too controlled to allow for this kind of “gesamstkunstwerk” type practice. Perhaps now, contemporary artists try to practice freely, but we are definitely more accustomed to more conceptual play, and make work within the predictable structures of gallery, museum, boutique, etc. It is inspiring to see these early 20th century artists so deftly and tactilely iterate their singular visions in so many forms.

Growing up cross-culturally, I see this ability to form relationships between disparate art forms, as pretty basic to my own creative process.

Having the studios and talking to many people, I realized fragrance was a medium that I could communicate with.


Wild is the Wind

How did you go about taking the fragrance idea into reality?

I contacted actual perfumeries. I didn’t expect any to get back to me, and the bigger ones didn’t, but it turned out all perfectly because the smaller one that I work with still is in the south of France. They supplied Louis XIV with oils. They know what they’re doing. They’re also extremely classical; a project like mine to them was really weird. It was like classical music to them -- some things are correct and other things are incorrect. certain things have genders and lavender is masculine and it was weird. But they were gracious with it. It was all fortuitous.

Each session at Parfumerie Galimard, I was actually at the organ mixing oils, with a long list of "wish list" ingredients that I thought would express the feeling/concept/movement idea of each scent. It is dreamy and frightening to be at the table with hundreds of oils at your fingertips. The lab section was where all the noses and noses-in-training were working and mixing formulations in lab coats. The nose-perfumer gave me direction in terms of the structural composition and scent families (like an engineer to an architect) and which percentages of oils to use for the base, heart and top notes.

There were as many failures for each scent as almosts. Getting to one that really spoke was a process. I think it was great to bring the perfumer, a very serious technician, to the table to make sure the scents were structurally sound, and that they function as a true perfume in time. I definitely broke some hallowed perfume rules though, and followed my intuition when adding some not-so-classic pairings, or some temporal modulations and surprises, or adding a tad more of a certain oil, or mixing up some gender expectations with the scents.

I would go spend a week and go into the lab with them. And, Blood Sweat Tears turned out nicely. In dance speak, it was the warmup. It worked and it was so exciting. That was the first year. The other two scents took more time.

But no, I didn’t think of them as a brand at first. It was a dream to have a line, but I didn’t think it would happen this way. I met people in the industry and knew people and they told me I had a DNA for a company.

I worked part-time for the first year while building it up. You can tell when people are faking the reaction and when it was serious. But here we are -- we launched the scents to the industry last August, but the first retail outlet that picked it up was Twisted Lily.

There’s a lot of synthetic chemicals in a lot of scents. Parfumerie Galimard doesn’t use anything.

 

Does it expire sooner because of that?

They give it three years, which is normal. But they can’t be out in the sun for a week, or you can smell the difference. There are some differences between perfumes.


Blood Sweat Tears

 

What scents do you like working with best? Do you have a preference?

I think my standard is always sandalwood. There’s so many different variations. It’s a constant source of exploration. Any fragrance that uses sandalwood, I love smelling it and seeing how they’ve mixed it. It’s just such a good base, it’s like your blazer it will go with everything but it looks so different with everything else. There’s a reason why everyone uses bergamot. It’s good, but it looks different with Hyacinth and Leather. It’s like a crisp white shirt. Gardenia is a floral and Lily of the Valley -- there’s something beautiful and primal. The tuberose that’s in wild is the wind has that stinky flower smell. It’s great. Pine was great to use, and became contrapposto -- it was manly and earthy. It was kind of spicy. It smells different on your skin, though than how it smells.

 

Is there anything that you hate?

Really citrusy things I can’t stand; grapefruit to me is a no-no. Bergamot is a citrus too, but it’s not outright. I also can’t do extremely sweet scents, like too much vanilla.

 

How do you figure out where to take your scents?

I don’t do much of it here in my studio, I need a kitchen to do all of my mixing. I’ll buy little samples to have the knowledge. Each of the oils smell a bit different than they do at the perfumery. But for example, the stone and the metal idea are challenges -- it’s interesting, but I still have to figure out what kind of a performance that is. I still haven’t used a few resins, but I’d have to figure out how to make it smell like stone or earth. There are a lot of different kinds of moss too. It’s earthy and fresh and -- for Maison Martin Margiela the new Untitled -- it smells sweet, but very earthy. It’s strange.

I’d love to figure out how to use basil. Basil is one of those notes that has been banned from productions because it’s really powerful. We all have memories with basil and it’s so foodlike, but in perfume it’s otherworldly. There are a few at Twisted Lily that have basil notes in them. Taken away from the food context it’s kind of galactic. No one would be able to recognize it as basil out of a food context, and I’d love to play around with that.

Woods are really interesting too. We used bark oil for Blood Sweat Tears. They just boil the bark. It’s the stock of the stuff that it’s making. It makes me want to have a garden so that I can try stuff. I got ambitious at home and I adopted a Gardenia but it needs so much light. Trees that are flowering or bear fruit are a lot more needy.

For Blood Sweat Tears part of the reason why people love it so much is the tea notes. Tea notes are very familiar, but you can’t nail down what it is. It’s kind of dry and kind of powdery but you can’t figure out what it is. There are so many different types of teas too: white tea, red tea, green tea. Jo Malone kind of has that with tea, lemon and milk. I think the really fascinating thing about fragrance is that it is compound in nature -- it takes so many rose leaves. There’s so much labor. I’m constantly getting educated about nature through the process.

 

You can find out more about Atelier de Geste at the website : atelierdegeste.com

 

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About the author: Haniya Rae

Haniya often writes about art and architecture for Architectural Digest, and has been a perfume fanatic since she was a child.

Website: http://haniyarae.com/

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Comments

    • juanderer | 5th January 2015 10:03

      Nice interview!

      Will the house be added to the directory soon? I'd like to be able to add the three bottles I have to my wardrobe. :)