Air à La Mode: Scented Fans at London’s Fan Museum

08th October, 2011

One of the thrilling things about living in London is that even when you’ve lived here for most of your life, it still offers up surprises. Greenwich, in the South East of the city, is famous as the international dateline meridian (you can stand on the actual brass line at the Royal Observatory), but the area also happens to house a couple of remarkable 18th century townhouses, home to one of the city’s most charming small museums.

I recently attended a private view of the Fan Museum’s latest exhibition, ‘Air à La Mode’, a collection of fans by the young French fan designer Sylvain Le Guen, which happens to be both exquisite and naughty at the same time. Le Guen collaborated with a number of artists including a plumier (feather specialist), engraver, lace-makers and mother of pearl specialists. His pièces de résistance, as far as Basenotes readers would be concerned, are a scented fan and a ‘wedding dress’, made from mouillettes (paper smelling strips) , made in collaboration with the Paris- based perfumer, Francis Kurkdjian.

“We met at a dinner party” Kurkdjian tells me. “Someone said: he’s a great fan maker, you’re a great perfumer; you should both do something together”. Both were busy, but eventually when Kurkdjian was celebrating the 10th anniversary of his company, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, he asked Le Guen to make a scented leather fan for him - also on display and accessible to the visitor’s nose (the fan is scented with Kurkdjian’s fragrance Lumière Noire, a rose patchouli accord.

“We had a lot of fun together looking through old books” says Le Guen. Amongst those they consulted was a treatise by the 18th century perfumer Jean-Louis Fargeon, ‘L’Art du Parfumeur’, which Kurkdjian was already familiar with. Fargeon, was perfumer to Marie Antoinette and when academic Elisabeth de Feydeau stumbled across a recipe of his perfume for the queen while writing ‘A Scented Palace’, she asked Kurkdjian to recreate it (the result was called Sillage de la Reine).

“The last part of that book is all about perfuming things from daily life” says Kurkdjian. “I like it when perfume gets another dimension and it gets visual. It really helps for the beauty of the product.” He points to a scented leather bracelet on his wrist, which has been treated with his own personal perfume.

Le Guen was invited to visit the company “He looked at all the different things we had there, silk cord, perfume, tissue paper, then he saw how we use the mouillettes – when you hold 4 or 5 of them at a time it’s like the action of a fan.”

It is a testament to the craftsmanship and artistry of Le Guen, that the mouillettes are folded in such a way that the fan can actually open and close. Kurkdjian taught the fan maker how to soak the papers and press them with a weight to prevent buckling.

For those without the remotest interest in fans, this is still an exhibition worth seeing. The dominatrix, red leather fan, complete with lacing and spiky steel stays is something that will delight all Vivienne Westwood Fans. Japanese aesthetic is also evident here, from block colour and pared-down simplicity to the use of origami techniques. For something more rock n’ roll, there is a Swarovski diamond studded fan worthy of Damien Hirst. The most ingenious fan, with orchids, required the bending of each stay (or sticks as they are called) to allocate each individual flower, so that it could open and close. (There is an excellent accompanying film made by Pierre-Yves Dodat)

For Le Guen, the sense of anticipation is what he enjoys most: ‘I like to see the shape of a fan when it’s closed, it’s intriguing. Then when it opens, something unexpected happens as it opens. It is the universe of Pop-Up.”

This ‘pop-up effect’ of opening his fans is reminiscent of time-lapse photography: before your eyes the beauty and spectacle sprouts forth as each stick opens.

A final word should go to the founder of the museum, the formidable Hélène Alexander, “Before I started the museum I went to see Lord Montagu, who has the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu . His advice to me was very simple “Give them a good tea and a good pee”. That would explain the grandiose loos, complete with fan-shaped, scented soaps, specially made in Grasse.

Sylvain Le Guen will be holding a fan making workshop on Sunday 6th November. To apply please e-mail Tel: 020 8305 1441 (more info in PDF below and at )

[HR][/HR]About the author

Lila Das Gupta is a London based journalist with an interest in all things olfactory. You can follow her on Twitter - @liladasgupta

She runs Perfume Lovers London

  • Share this

About the author: Lila Das Gupta

Lila Das Gupta is a London based journalist with an interest in all things olfactory. Lila also organises the Perfume Lover's London meet-up group.


Advertisement — comments are below


    • Belinda Cook | 9th October 2011 02:35

      What a fantastic idea, with absolutely stunning designs. I think this would be an incredible exhibition.

      Belinda Cook

    • Marc Anthony | 9th October 2011 12:25

      When reading articles like this makes me feel like I'm living in a cultural & artistic backwater. What a wonderful idea, I wish I could see and smell this event.

    • Persolaise | 11th October 2011 11:35

      Thanks for this very enjoyable article. Now, if only Greenwich weren't so far away...