Perfume and contemporary art

One of the most interesting aspects of working with the GoMA collection is finding unusual links between the artists. For this collection musings, we have been inspired by the artists Niki de Saint Phalle, Andy Warhol and Ettore Scottsass. These artists all at one point in their art careers illustrated, designed or made their own perfume.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

Warhol is probably best known for his Marilyn Monroe screenprints or his Campbell’s soup can series, which we have a screen print of in our Gallery 2 show “Taste”. Warhol, however, experimented with a variety of artistic genres. He made many films, founded ‘Interview’ magazine, managed the Velvet Underground and even coined a phrase, “15 minutes of fame”, still in use today.

His work with scents is probably one of the least known. Warhol had a real affinity for smells and scents, which even brought him to create his own “Permanent Smell Collection”.

“Of all five senses, smell has the closest thing to the full power of the past”.


Warhol began amassing his collection of semi used perfumes in the early 1960s. His journey into his love for perfume, however, began in the 1950s, when he was living as an illustrator. He won several advertising awards but became renown  for his exquisite, beautiful illustrations of perfume bottles for Harper’s Bazaar. One of his most iconic illustrations was his drawing of a bottle of Chanel No.5.

“Another way to take up more space is with perfume, I switch perfumes all the time. if I’ve been wearing one perfume for three months, I force myself to give it up, even if I still feel like wearing it, so that whenever I smell it again it will always remind me of those three months”.


Niki de Saint Phalle (19302002)

Niki de Saint Phalle is a French American sculptor, painter, filmmaker and perfumer. Over 30 years ago the late Niki de Saint Phalle agreed to design a perfume to finance the realisation of her Tuscan tarot garden.

“I dreamt of building a monumental sculpture garden, but nowadays there are no more great art patrons. So I thought to myself, “Why not be my own patron?” And I designed a sculpture for a perfume. With the money I earn from the fragrance I can fund the garden.”


It all started with Carlo Bilotti, who from 1970 to 1987 developed and managed Jacqueline Cochran, Inc.  He owned several artworks by Saint Phalle and admired her Nanas, so he thought that a perfume designed by the artist would attract a significant audience. Saint Phalle initially declined, worried of compromising her reputation as a serious artist. However, she finally agreed to design the perfume if guaranteed total control of the product – ‘It had to be as good as a work of art’, she said.

Thanks to this commission, Saint Phalle was able to raise a third of the $5 million needed towards realising her personal project The Tarot Garden in Italy.

The bottles, which you can observe in Gallery 4 at GoMA, are cobalt blue and present some golden elements, either on the lid or on the bottle itself, in the shape of two intertwined snakes.

On the launch, Niki wore a dress by Marc Bohan, artistic director at Dior, and a tiara with twisting serpents, recalling the motif on her bottles. For the event, Cochran had a New York street blocked off to introduce Niki together with some live snakes. It was a real performance including an acapella group called The Dream and it ended with a party at La Coupole, hosted by Andy Warhol.

Ettore Sottsass (19172007)

Ettore Sottsass was an Italian architect and designer. He designed elegant, statement furniture and fittings for the domestic environment. The striking bookshelf and three of the glass works in display at GoMA were acquired for the opening of the gallery in 1996 and shown in Gallery 4, then named the Air Gallery.

Sottsass was the founder of the Memphis Group, a provocative Postmodern design group of the 20th Century.

“When I was young, all we ever heard about was functionalism, functionalism, functionalism. It’s not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting.”


His body of work included furniture, jewellery, glass, lighting, home objects as well as many buildings and interiors.

Ettore Sottsass, Adesso Però, Deneh, Sirio and Sol, 1990s

Sottsass’ coloured glass sculptures, vases, and bottles have always captured my imagination. They look like they could hold potions, devilish liquor or the most heavenly perfumed exotic scents.

Issey Miyake used Scottsass’ designs in a collaboration in 1997 to launch the limited edition perfume “L’Eau d’Issey Ettore Sottsass Edition”. The perfume was encased in Sottsass’ hand blown glass sculptures.

L’Eau d’Issey Ettore Sottsass Edition

We hope you will be inspired by these artists as we have been, imagining the amazing and divers scents enclosed in these beautiful, elegant bottles. You can also try and make your own perfume bottle in this activity, part of our Make@GoMA programme.


 Erika Wolf, Andy Warhol Loved Perfumes So Much, He Created A ‘Permanent Smell Collection’, Mental Floss, March 2016

Tama Janowitz, Warhol’s Bazaar Years, Harper’s Bazaar, February 2017.

Eric Troncy, The day a Nikki de Saint Phalle’s perfume paid for a sculpture garden, Numéro.

Memphis at a Glance, Port, August 2017.

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