Slumberhouse, an overview

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How is a brand best viewed? Comparison is easier when it’s apples to apples, but the juxtaposition of Slumberhouse to other perfume houses doesn’t shed much light.

Why does the comparison of Slumberhouse, and perfumer Josh Lobb, to other perfume lines give so little information? Take Tauer Perfumes and Parfums de Nicolai, two other niche companies that, like Slumberhouse, feature the work of one perfumer.  Is it classical training that makes the difference? Compared to Slumberhouse, Patricia de Nicloai’s line looks like a microcosm of Guerlain’s. She is deeply steeped in classical perfumery and training, so let’s exclude her. Andy Tauer identifies himself as self-taught, as Lobb is, but Tauer’s work runs parallel to tradition. He is a chemist by training and his exploration of composition has allowed him to recreate some principals of classical composition while the aesthetics of an outsider (of the perfume academy, that is) let him move beyond the status quo. Lobb’s work has taken him  even further afield. His perfumes stand on their own and are an interesting commentary on the contemporary state of the art.

A glance at the timeline will tell you that Lobb hasn’t chased trends so much as followed his own initiative. Many niche lines have attempted to emulate Slumberhouse’s success by reverse-engineering  their perfumes and then trying to replicate the results.  This is a losing tactic for any number of reasons, principally for the cheapness of disregarding process and wanting an end product without the requisite start and middle.

There are currently seven perfumes available from the Slumberhouse site.  Jeke (2008), Ore (2009), Norne (2012), Sova (2012), Pear & Olive (2012), Sadanne (2014) and Kiste (2015). Vikt (2009) is also available at the few retailers who sell the line and very limited run of Grev (2009) and Rume ( 2011) were re-released in 2015. In addition to these I have tried a number of discontinued Slumberhouse perfumes: Mare (2010), Flou (2011), Baque (2012), and Zahd (2013) from samples given to me by a generous friend. Some Slumberhouse fragrances were initially made in eau de parfum concentration, but, with the exception of Pear and Olive, all are currently extraits.

Jeke, Vikt, Ore, Norne and to a lesser extent Sova form the core of the line and seem like expressions of a similar impulse. They aren’t so much alike as they seem to explore a related set of ideas and cover a range of olfactory qualities in the resinous, balsamic, herbal, woody, leathery/smoky range. They deflect the norms of pyramidal and linear scent structures and suggest the movement of a slow orbit. Together they form a distinct olfactory vocabulary that I’ll admit I don’t fully understand but find hugely compelling.

Flou, Zahd, Sadanne and Kiste take fruit and twist it into shapes I never imagined. They hint at concentrated culinary uses of fruit—reductions, compotes, jams, liqueurs—but are aromatic rather than gourmand.

Grev, Pear & Olive, Mare stand out as the distinctive one-offs, statement pieces. Grev gives wood a floral register. Pear & Olive posits that attractiveness need not in fact be beautiful. Mare? Mare is a brined, spiced apple pie with a leather crust. I’m not sure it’s successful, but I’d like a second helping.

Lobb seems to have a fascination with materials and doesn’t want to hide them in perfume. He challenges them, though, and bends them into unexpected shapes. Self-taught, he has the advantage of approaching perfumery through the side door and neither reacts to nor obeys tradition. Slumberhouse isn’t iconoclastic per se, just different. The variable line-up, limited releases and reworking of formulae suggest that the process and the thinking behind it are as interesting to Lobb as the end products.

The Slumberhouse line’s perpetual flux tells me about the audience/market. Lobb  prejudices quality over ubiquity. While a few of his early perfumes remain in production the majority have been retired. Slumberhouse’s dependability is in the quality of the perfumes, not in the continuity of their production. The perfumer reaches to the audience and the audience must reach back. He makes you work for it.

So, the current line-up:

Jeke arises from the center of a grouping of equally dense notes. Rather than fight each other the materials form an amalgam. It is composed of a number of heavy pieces counterbalanced to make a specific shape. Although dense, it is nimble and doesn’t get weighed down. Jeke has less to do with textural qualities than some of the other perfumes in the line. The olfactory dynamics operate like gravity, and are an excellent example of the way Lobb manipulates materials without resorting to the traditional olfactory pyramid. Spray Jeke on your arm and it wears like an atmosphere. The less dense elements are further out from the center, but when you bring your nose in close it’s like coming in for a landing.

Jeke demonstrates an interesting characteristic of many of the perfumes in the line. The progression of classical perfume’s pyramid is rather like a striptease. The volitile topnotes fly off the skin first. The more stable heartnotes notes follow, and the final reveal shows off the basenotes. A similar progression occurs with Jeke in space rather than time. As an extrait, its real effect is felt up close. What you smell in Jeke walking past it is different than what you smell when you have it on your wrist under your cuff, which is different from what you smell when you put your wrist to your nose. It is coherent at each juncture, yet at a distance it smells like an imaginary dried herb. Closer it smells like strong tea. Closer still it smells like smoke. It’s like wearing a magic act.

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Sova changes over time more than the other Slumberhouse perfumes. Over the course of 12 or so hours, smelling Sova is like hiking to a destination along one path and returning via another. Different perspectives give different information and over the course of time conclusions change as new information is revealed.

Sova is distinctive and isn’t likely be confused with another perfume. I’m told that this is due to the sweet clover which is the primary note of the fragrance. Still, enhanced by other notes such as tobacco and honey/beeswax it can feel like a bit of a tease, with suggestions and intimations that lead you in a direction only to be uncertain how you got there. Mind you, it’s not demure. It’s a huge blunderbuss of a tease.

I wear Sova often. Each time my experience is somewhere between OCD and repetitive motion syndrome. I can’t stop drawing my arm to my nose to sniff it over and over. I never come to a firm conclusion about Sova. I can’t quite make sense of it but I can’t keep myself away from it. It’s an endless cycle of infatuation.

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A snow-covered forest smells muffled compared to the the forest at any other time of year. We assume that the snow cover is what keeps us from smelling the leaves, the roots, the branches, the soil. We assume that we’re not smelling the forest gestalt simply because it’s blanketed in snow. But dig through the snow and you won’t smell it any better. Dry winter air robs scent of its richness and reach.

Vikt uses the sweet chill of licorice or anise to produce the same effect. The scent of compressed forest floor is filtered through frost. (Yes, I know. Norne is the forest perfume, but that’s another season.)  It smells less dry than freeze dried. The freeze-dried quality accents the terseness. It doesn’t feel dense so much as very efficiently packed. Potent, but not effusive.

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Composed entirely of botanical materials, Norne is like an olfactory panoramic plein air painting. It’s less a slice than a synopsis of the whole forest. Having known this, my fear was that the perfume would read as an exercise. After wearing it for a few times I realized that it’s not so much an exercise as a test. It’s conjecture on my part but I can imagine Lobb setting these parameters as a challenge for himself. Norne’s evergreen forest includes the composting floor, the sap, the bark, the moisture. It’s all coated with the scent of resinous green. Norne is Oregon’s Vent Vert.

Norne stand apart from the rest of the line not because the olfactory tone is so different than the others, but because it differs in concept. Slumberhouse perfumes, if they share a characteristic, seem to present their ideas through olfactory imagery. There is no implicit narrative and though they might suggest a setting or tone, they don’t portray. They don’t refer to specific notions or concepts outside themselves. Norne, on the other hand, is an olfactory depiction of a forest. All depiction is a reduction of a larger picture to a smaller frame, though Norne is not a simplistic image by any means. The complexity necessary to convey an entire environment via scent is disguised by the success of the verisimilitude.

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I approach Ore very cautiously. It is Slumberhouse’s dare. It is the cautionary tale, the genie who grants dangerous wishes, the slapstick banana peel. It’s a gourmand, but, though not fruity in the least, it’s the poison apple. Want a gourmand perfume? Be careful what you wish for. Lobb gives you the treat and the trick in the same bottle. Set against a standard of cheap gourmand perfumery where flavor is mistaken for scent, Ore has a cocoa so dry I feel the need for a sip of water when I smell it. It also subverts my senses. It smells like the grey area between an herbal tincture and a glass of whiskey at the same time that the cocoa powder coats everything in dust. Dehydrated whiskey?

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If Ore was the taunt, Sadanne is the laughing “Screw you!” For those who think that Slumberhouse is overly serious and lacks irony, Sadanne reveals that what might have appeared unsmiling is in fact a great poker-face. As if to incite anyone derisive of Slumberhouse creating a floral fragrance, Lobb competes mano a mano with celebu-scents and whole walls of Sephora designer scents armed with a gargantuan fruity-floral. Sadanne presents a clever trap for the perfume snob. If you try to dismiss the opening strawberry compote in order to appreciate the seriousness of the perfume, you’ll miss the fun and the beauty of Sadanne. In established Slumberhouse form, the strawberry that smacks you in the face at the opening of Sadanne isn’t a top-note per se. It is the lead-in to a jammy, boozy darkening rose, but it doesn’t go away. It evolves but remains present throughout. Sadanne has precedent within the Slumberhouse line. Flou’s grape note and Zahd’s cranberry show how Lobb works with unabashed fruit notes to create sweet, resinous perfumes.

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Further messing with the notion of fruit, Pear & Olive, the only Slumberhouse perfume without a fabricated name, puts the fruit right out front, and then performs a sleight of hand. With a twist on the logic that a tomatoes and avocados are fruits, Lobb gives us a new vegetable, the pear. Pear & Olive suggests the grainy texture of pear flesh, but is devoid of the sweetness that constitutes so much of the taste of a pear. The disparate notes of savory olives and unripe pear creates a lactonic, woody sort of coconut scent. Pear & Olive is a dense, looping perfume that suggests a cyclic folding-in on itself. The repetitive pattern is more of a meditation than a rut. Like the sound of singing bowls or a mantra, the repetition serves as a focus. Pear & Olive is one of the few fully linear fragrances from Slumberhouse. 8 hours in, it smells like a quiet version of the first spray.

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Slumberhouse perfumes can be difficult, conceptually and practically. Ore isn’t an easy ‘daily wear’ and Jeke would make a demanding signature fragrance. Slumberhouse perfumes take backbone to wear and I inwardly gird my loins when I put on Sova or Sadanne. They aren’t simple or easy.

If perfumer Josh Lobb’s goal is to play with our expectations as much as our desires, he’s succeded. Kiste isn’t simple, but it is effortless. I can surmise the work that must have gone into making this perfume but I don’t feel it. Peach, sweet-tea, bourbon, tobacco, hay. The Southern connection might be in the notes, but it’s also in the pace of the experience. Kiste is a sippin’ whiskey of a perfume. Potent but smooth, satisfying from start to finish.

Ease is not a lack of ambition. Kiste is the reflection of a mid-career artist stretching his legs. It covers a lot of ground in a golden, lustrous range of late afternoon tones. The allusions to fruit, honey, old-fashioned ‘miracle elixirs’, tobacco and liquor swirl around you. There is a lot of movement in the first few hours of Kiste, but it fine-tunes into a goldilocks ‘just right’ drydown that is less sweet and more medicinal than the top and heartnotes lead me to expect. Complexity reads as intricacy rather than complication.

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Slumberhouse diverges from the mainstream in any number of ways, but the differences can be captured in two broad categories: the perfume itself and the social/commercial experience that surrounds it.

Slumberhouse perfumes are fundamentally different from those made by perfumers at the Big Five fragrance manufacturers Givaudan, Firmenich, IFF, Symrise and Takasago and the contrasts are apparent at the first sniff. They have different dynamic patterns and perform differently in both the short and long term. Josh Lobb can’t have invented a new chemistry. He uses some of the same materials available to perfumers at the Big 5, though I’ve heard he also commissions some of his own materials. Is the fundamental difference simply the amount of money spent on the raw materials that compose the juice? Does Slumberhouse’s artisanal model simply include the use of more costly and higher quality materials?

Lobb has given the occasional interview but he remains largely out of the public eye and his professional social network presence is nil. This deliberate anonymity and small marketing footprint separates him from mainstream perfumery even more than his perfumes do. Eschewing the constant pleas for attention implicit in any industrial PR denotes confidence and has none of the subtext of desperation of most perfume campaigns.

The more important question goes beyond the price/quality ratio. It goes to meaning and intention. Does Slumberhouse speak with a different accent than mainstream perfumery or is it in fact saying something fundamentally different? The work has an implicit statement of artistic intent that it at odds with the industrial model of bell-curve market saturation and the timid product design strategies of the majority of niche perfume houses. Whether it is Lobb’s intention or not, Slumberhouse poses and implicit threat to the mainstream virtue of unambitious, unsatisfying blandness that maintains a river of new perfume releases.

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