The Imaginarian - John Biebel
Some encounters are set under an Unexpected sky, there are others one can imagine and others for which one is not even ready. Such was the case of our meeting John Biebel, by the most random of happenstances during a party in Esxence. Such, also, was his work - unexpected fragrances of worlds imagined, the encounter of which opened us a vast array of possibilities. We are glad that he granted us with his kindness, with his time, with his wit, wisdom and passion and agreed to be our Interview of the month.
Alexandre Helwani – John, thank you so much for agreeing to share this moment together. You are somewhat of jack-of-all trades, a plural artist I would say. What was your first artistic love ?
John Biebel – When I was young, my mother wanted me to take some lessons so I started painting since I was 6 or 7 before it became my college degree. I majored in painting and photography both actually. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Lartigue, he’s my favourite photographer and did most of his best work when he was around 10 years old. He was photographing in the 1910’s and he was one of the first to capture people jumping in the air. Looking at his pictures is a perfect capsule of a little boy experimenting with life which is still what I find interesting with perfumes as well.
A.H. - And talking about perfumes, when is it that you started experimenting with it?
J.B. - I started creating perfumes around 2014. In fact, my history with them is not as long as for other people. Some would say: “I’ve been smelling perfumes since I was a child” and I think, although I was always interested in it, I didn’t really get into it until 2012 when I started writing for Fragrantica. In fact, I had my first big opening when I smelt 1740 from Histoires de Parfums, I thought: “My God, you can do this and it’s still considered a perfume! “. It opened up a lot of avenues for my imagination and my curiosity being so big that I immediately started buying oils and I came to a point where I realised two things could happen. I could either take a small leap and learn more or making this kind of long, slow leap with a lot of learning along the way. I knew it would be a long process but I chose to take this long but fascinating route.
A.H. - Did you have in mind the goal to become a perfumer?
J.B. - You know, I have talked to people who were so set on this idea of making a perfume as a “thing” that part of me thinks they just wanted to say they’d made a perfume. My aspirations were more reserved. I liked the idea of creating something I would actually wear on my skin and it was big enough of a task as it was. I thought that if I could do that, maybe I could then expand my goal. I don’t have a long-term plan. I want to do this for a very long time but I think the people who have very ambitious plans can sometimes be trapped in them and get in a place where they have a lot of criteria they have to live up to and if they don’t they feel like failures all of a sudden. I’m at a point where I can sustain the growth of the brand in a really nice way. The model that’s managed to occur has helped me to create this oddly curated group of scents.
A.H. - Now, how did you end up writing for Fragrantica in the first place?
J.B. - It’s a wonderful story in that it shows you how life is unpredictable. I had a friend who was looking for a job and he wanted to write, so I told him: “Well, you need to start contributing your writing online, anywhere, so you can point to it “ and trying to think of something he could do, I thought about Fragrantica. I started to write there myself and I happened to leave a comment about a Guerlain event happening in Boston and Elena [founder of Fragrantica] contacted me and asked whether I could go there and take pictures for them. Then another happened in New York and she asked me if I could go again, and I said yes. And at some point she said: “You know, I really like your writing style, is there any chance you could work for us?” and I said: “Yes”. The whole attempt of this was to help my friend get a job, which he never got in the end. It is insane if you think about it. And here it is, years later and I am still working with them, editing with them. It’s been pretty wonderful and very instructive for me and had a lot to do with me getting involved in making perfumes.
A.H. – Would you say there are bridges between your world of painting and perfumery?
J.B. - There’s definitely something about colour and smell. You know, there’s a moment when I realise that the perfume I’m working on almost has a colour and it slowly becomes prominent in my brain. It is as if the perfume had a flag, an identity, and that colour start to slowly pervade my work.
A.H. – Could it be synaesthesia perhaps?
J.B. - I wouldn’t go so far as to say it has to do about synaesthesia. It is more of a texture, a feeling.
A.H. – So when you find that a perfume has such colour, do you decide to follow it or to stick to your original idea?
J.B. - I’ve had to throw away some perfumes because they split. I would love to say “Follow the perfume, let it speak to you” but the one time I did this, it lead me on an endless path and at some point I had to retrace my steps and go back to that decision point and start all over again because I was so far off where I wanted to go. At that point, one has to really listen carefully. You could do either, in the end it all depends on how muck risk you are willing to take. But I do like the idea of a perfume evolving in its own way and go off script.
A.H. – It sounds like developing a perfume can swiftly turn into a very lengthy process.
J.B. – Well, I’m not reliant on my perfumes to fund my life, I have a full-time job and that enables me to have a complete freedom in what I do. I’m taking this very slow and meandering little path in the woods where I can get distracted by a bird or something and it allows me to do what I want.
A.H. – If perfume is not your full-time job, then what is?
J.B. - I work in User Experience development for software design. I manage a team of about five people and we create better experiences for people who are using software devices for learning. It is a pretty fascinating work. One topic I’m really interested in is Human Factors Design. It’s essentially figuring out how humans work in the world. There is a wonderful psychological space there and perfume is so interesting because it breaks barriers. It is a physical object, it comes in visually interesting packaging, it is experienced through the nose and through so many sensory levels. How it’s held, what it feels like, what it feels like on the skin etc. It’s a very interesting idea to approach it from a UX perspective.
A.H. – It sounds like in all your life, you like to map the unmapped…
J.B. – I do like the idea of drawing uncharted territories, there’s a slightly analytical side to it that I like. I would love to work on a perfume that would just be about that, pushing ingredients to their limits. Some materials are so interesting, and present so many challenges. I’m really compelled to see how far I could push them. There are a few substances that are of no end to fascination, like jonquil. Some aromachemicals as well! Cashmeran has admirable possibilities. It’s a complicated, comforting smell in many ways. One I struggle a lot with is the smell of violet because it isn’t terribly familiar to me or to any American in general.
A.H. – You do like a good challenge, then?
J.B. – Probably. Hans Hendley said I like to take some ideas and twist them around and I think I do end up doing that. I don’t set out with the idea that I will be a bad boy. It’s just that there are combinations some people have done very well and I don’t want to explore them more. I just like it when you’re at that critical early stage of putting together two blotters, going back and forth and thinking: “Damn, there’s an interesting dialogue between these two somewhat opposed materials”.
A.H. – Speaking of materials, what is your relationship towards naturals and synthetics?
J.B. - I realised there probably are synthetic materials that have properties I haven’t even dreamt of. I like this idea that synthetics may reach parts of your olfactive brain you haven’t even imagined and that it could create aspects of smell that aren’t even mapped yet. When I do end up making my formula in the end, I’m really surprised at the proportion of naturals because they are so strong and they carry a lot of the weight of a perfume.
A.H. - It would seem like imagination has a lot to do with your work...
J.B. – And I would agree. I think people really discount or don’t take nearly as much advantage of imagination as a method of working. I guess we’re not encouraged to do it anymore. Imagination was a bit of an escape to me, usually through books, and I often saw going off into other worlds as a hopeful relief from stresses. I’m always curious about things that have no memory trigger and I like that process of the brain racing through memories to try to figure them out. That is when your imagination kicks in and you start to build something to match the smell. I started building a little world and it has become a reference point for some smells.
A.H. - Is perfume your new way to escape?
J.B. - It’s close to that. I’ve noticed that the place where I lose track of time the most quickly is when I make perfumes. I get caught in this non-verbal state of thinking, smelling, hearing… I’m so often stuck a state where my brain is so frantically busy but I’m relatively calm. The only problem is that it involves a lot of solitude but that might be necessary.
A.H. - Is perfume close to martyrdom then?
J.B. – Well, I suppose there’s a bit of a demand you’re putting out to the world. There is that almost invisible time when I shut off phone and I’m in the labspace working and I don’t wish to disconnect from people but I can’t really connect either. There’s a tiny bit of it but I suppose it’s just due to its practical nature.
A.H. – Speaking of nature, your perfumes all have a somewhat botanical feel to them…
J.B. - My father was a landscaper so I grew up smelling a lot of botanical things and I became familiar with how things smell.
A.H. – Is this whence the name January Scent Project came?
J.B. It has a specific reason. When I was in high school, we were designing a calendar and decided we would each take a month and I remember my instructor saying: “Be careful about the month you use, some months are going to be challenging. January for instance is the most boring month in the year but it’s the first as well, so it has to be interesting” and I was absolutely amazed at that challenge. So of course I took that as my month. And I loved this idea of transforming something potentially so boring and making it the first thing, the most interesting thing. It struck me as something really compelling. I have an interest in the mundane in that it can be really beautiful. One of my favourite filmmakers is Ozu. His films have no camera movements and he has to direct everything so it happens within the frame. I’ve always been so curious about that because what you do see in the frame suddenly becomes more important. So if you have a shot where everything is grey except for a little red teapot in the lower corner, well the teapot suddenly takes on this epic visual importance. You can take some pretty pedestrian things and transform them into something very extraordinary. That philosophy pervades everything that I do. I think you can take some fairly ordinary ingredients and make some remarkable works out of them.
A.H. – Why not just January Scent then?
J.B. – The word Project is important to me.
A.H. – Why?
J.B. – Because it feels like it will never end…
Interviewed by Alexandre Helwani