Dear Diane and Shaded Viewers,
AGONIST is the brainchild of Swedish designers Christine Gustafsson and Niclas Lydeen. Formed in 2008, their fragrance brand is focused on creating 100 percent natural fragrances inspired by Nordic culture. Presented in exceptionally handcrafted sculpture bottles and through art installations at events such as UNSCENT, their products are visually as they are olfactorily pleasing and give AGONIST its own unique sector in the niche perfume market.
Lydeen sat down to discuss the beauty of melancholy, multi-layered sensory experiences and the brand’s latest fragrance creation…
I wanted to start off by talking about the founding of your company. Your fashion and visual arts backgrounds are quite unusual. How did this idea of doing fragrances come about?
It was when me and Christine met. She moved back from Paris where she did fashion for many years and I was working a lot with graphic design, packaging and art direction for various campaigns. We met and started to collaborate on this idea of how to — via imagery, storytelling, graphic design and conceptual ideas — create a brand based on giving life to an invisible product like fragrance.
We’ve always had a love for fragrance and been very fascinated by that sensuous, individual experience. We just saw that we wanted to do this together and started to think about themes and ideas. We wanted to show another side to this perception of clean Swedish design. We were more inspired by a poetic, darker and melancholic side of the Swedish culture and heritage.
Do you have certain artists, movements or visuals that you find your brand’s aesthetic continually inspired by?
It’s always evolving, but we are quite drawn to Surrealists and abstract modern art, things that are conceptually strong and more based on an idea rather than actual decorative or figurative art. We really love music, movies and photographers like Guy Bourdin. The Swedish poet Karin Boye is our muse and we found a lot of fascinating themes in her work.
We get inspiration from a lot of different directions but it’s always things that give an experience and inspire you. That could be because fragrance for us is very much an individual experience. In fashion you can impose a trend or style that people collectively agree upon, but for fragrance it’s up to you, if you like it. It’s the same with abstract art. It’s something that the heart realises within you. It doesn’t tell you what it is, so when you experience it, it’s your own imagery and emotions. That’s what inspires AGONIST creations.
How does your background help shape the way you go about creating a perfume?
When we started AGONIST it was very much based on our own sense of taste and expressions. Agonist means two things connect and a third thing is created, two things join and a third one is awakened or two forces unite and become a third. It was the same with Christine’s background, my background and the way our creativity meets. But I think we are quite experienced and sure of what we like and have the possibility to express that in the packaging and visuals.
When we then get into this abstract world of fragrance, we find our concept and then have different skills to express ourselves surrounding that. Our background makes us quite secure in what we want. When we started, we saw all these perfume brands just packaging in ordinary bottles, everything looked the same and people didn’t really use the other dimensions of a fragrance experience. You have the fragrance and then you have all these layers of communication surrounding it. It think we found something there that really made all our other expertises connect.
For your sculpture bottles the aesthetic is quite a modern look but the company you work with was founded in 1742. It brings together something very traditional with a modern vision of fragrance. How do you see that relationship between the scent and how you are going to visualise it?
We always thought about creating something based on the quality of raw materials and a sustainable approach. Our initial idea was to create a perfume bottle that you would never throw away. Today with the mass market packaging, people are buying it, then throwing it away and buying a new one. We wanted to started with this more old school point, these refillable flacons which you have in your home that your kids will inherit. Hopefully when you find a fragrance you love, you really want to cherish and keep it.
When we started thinking about the bottles, we knew that we had this fantastic heritage of Swedish art glass. The material is so beautiful, we thought that it was the optimal possibility to try and push that traditional way of glassblowing. We approached Kosta Boda and one of the artists, Åsa Jungnelius, had the same idea. She is a traditional glassblower but still has this modern aesthetic. We met up with her, started to collaborate and really connected. We started to create ideas that she could in turn translate to the glassblowers and help us realise.
Now after a few years, we have found a unique way to approach glassblowing, which is also based on the quality of raw materials and process. We wanted to create handcrafted bottles so that no piece looks the same. When you buy an AGONIST sculpture you know that it is only yours, so it is about connecting all that individuality.
What is really interesting as well is this aspect of sustainability because that is never really addressed in perfumery. On the whole your fragrances are natural, so I was wondering where you stand on the natural ingredients versus synthetics debate?
We’re quite humble because our aim is to create products that will last, and in the biggest regard possible take care of nature. One hundred percent natural is very difficult to achieve. For us, it’s more about if we are able to achieve what we want create with natural ingredients. We are not militant with other brands that create with only synthetics, but we believe so strongly that when you hold the sculpture and smell the fragrance, you really appreciate the difference. That’s the important thing.
Five of our seven fragrances are a hundred percent natural. Two of them are like 90 percent, it’s just a few synthetics that we needed to add to fixate an ingredient. For us it’s about creating quality products. It’s also in the way that the packaging is made. The sculpture, the artistic qualities and all the details together create a product that is as unique and as special as possible.
Obviously each scent is completely different, but what is the underlying theme in the fragrances that you create?
Very much connected to the AGONIST fragrance experience is that it always includes several dimensions. We try to find a complex composition that changes all the time, that is definitely very unique in our fragrances. We want to tell a really strong story with every fragrance that we create and that is also told in the composition.
For example for ISIS, the new fragrance that we just launched, our idea was based on the exact moment when winter ends and spring begins, that energy exploding when new life begins. It’s also based on a poem by Karin Boye. That’s why we wanted to have this fresh top where you have a really distinct new energy, but at the same time you still have the history, so it’s quite deep in the base.
When you feel it the first time you get this mandarin, tangerine, ginger kind of top. We really wanted a shock in the beginning, so it’s quite fresh and then after a while it gets more sweet with notes of anis and a bit of caramel. In the base you have amber, vanilla and some deep musk. So you have the fresh beginning, the kind of sweet body and the base of low tones and dark depth. That’s very similar in all of our fragrances: they start off very clear and direct and then give you something else in their depth. They always change in a very interesting way, all the fragrances are really telling a story in the way that they are layered.
One of the things about a great fragrance is when it develops like a story on the skin. You can end up somewhere completely different than from where you started.
Exactly, that’s also something we try to look for. When we create a fragrance we do trials for a long time because we need to evaluate all the evolvements of the scent, how they grow on you and how they react throughout time. When we are satisfied, we know that we can guarantee quite a unique experience.
You recently did an installation at UNSCENT in Milan. What made you decide on that artistic form of presenting your fragrances and how did the whole installation come about?
We try to create a 360 degree experience. We want express the fragrance in as many dimensions as we possibly can, that’s really our art and what we love to do. We try to create things that resemble the vision that we have inside our heads.
AGONIST comes from an artistic background. When we started we were more in galleries and art exhibitions, collectors bought our sculptures and we did a lot of limited editions. We put a lot of effort into the way that we give life and shape to the fragrances, and the experience that we want to give to people.
The idea for the ISIS was based on the exact moment where the plants are bursting and blossoming. We created this tension inside the glass bottles so that they were cracking during the installation. Then we wanted to add this audio experience, so we had a frequency playing in loop, as well as these recordings of the glass breaking.
It was really intense if you had the fragrance in your nose, the sound in your ears and this visual installation. We wanted to create something that encapsulated the fragrance with all the senses. I think to create this art installation with fragrance in this olfactive experience is a beautiful dimension, suddenly your memories connect with the people who experience it. It’s really fun to create more than just a fragrance.
Your brand is comprised of a sculpture line and a more affordable spray line. How you see this idea of balancing the artistic and commercial aspects of your work?
We enjoy the idea of the haute couture and pret-a-porter version, just like in fashion. The sculpture piece is the mothership of the fragrance where the scent comes to life. We had always planned for a way to have people experience the fragrances and not have to buy these really expensive sculptures. It took us a lot of time to figure out how to create this balance.
When we finally came up with the concept of our spray line, we created these bottles which are colour-coded to connect with each sculpture. When stores are presenting AGONIST they usually have the sculptures and the spray line, so you see and experience the whole brand. If you are in love with the bottle of the fragrances, you perhaps buy the spray and then after a while gather some money and get the sculpture because you want it as an art piece. We have different customers relating differently to it.
What are your future plans for the brand?
The future of Agonist is to keep on working with fragrance as a starting point for artistic expression. We’re also exploring other materials and ways to distribute the fragrances. We will launch one more fragrance in the autumn of this year, which we’re working on now. I can’t really tell you much about it yet, but I will say its not as fresh as ISIS, it’s going down another type of route. We have some projects going on beside that, which will perhaps be launched later this year or at the beginning of next year. We’re working on different ideas on how to expand the collection and the story.
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