Experience Café: Cooper Hewitt Museum 19 April 2018

violaleeblue had two tickets for Experience Café, which she could not use and rtb and I snapped them up. The event was to call attention to a current exhibit — The Senses: Design Beyond Vision — at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. It’s an interesting museum that I have only seen a little of years ago, so I was looking forward to seeing more of it. For many years, I did sound for a summer concert series in their courtyard. Since the courtyard is on the corner, it was interesting to work there because it was open to the sidewalk/public on two sides.

I got there just as the speakers in the front lobby were wrapping up and they were assigning people to groups (named after fruit) to see five presentations. I thought it was going to be more of a free-for-all and was not expecting to be rushed off because everything was timed so that different groups did not overlap. Just as I was about to leave for one group, I saw that rtb had arrived and was at the coatcheck. I told two of the women in charge that I was waiting for her and one brought us up to the third floor (and many stairs) to join with Group Plum, which was already listening to the first presentation.

Elia Life Technologies and San Francisco’s Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired had, like everyone else, a fascinating presentation. Braille is difficult to learn, especially for those who become blind later in life. Elia Frames are learned in hours instead of months and are read faster than a raised Roman alphabet. Housed in a circle or square are a few lines or dots that are similar to the familiar Roman alphabet. But the best part was the technology. A regular HP printer has been converted that using special paper will print the Frames so that they are raised. There is also a keyboard cover with the Frames.



Using the same printer and technology, maps can be created. At this point you can only have one point of interest (raised point on the map) and the streets are raised on the paper with the names of the streets at the edges so that they do not interfere with your being able to move along the streets with your fingers. You can connect two points with a line but the technology is not at a place where you can have multiple points of interest on one map (which would be of use to rtb).

After a few questions were answered, we were rushed downstairs. The lecture hall was still occupied, so we went to the other room, for a presentation on cross-modal correspondences – senses that overlap. Bruno Mesz (Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero, Argentina) mentioned synesthesia, which is different. Cross-modal correspondences are nearly universal while synesthesia affects a small percentage of the population and affects each person differently. For example, he showed how two famous composers, who associated certain notes with certain colors, painted two totally different circles of colors while listening to the same piece of music. An example of cross-modal correspondence was showing us two blob drawings – one with rounded curves and the other with sharp points. Asked which drawing is named Kiki, everyone in the room agreed that Kiki was the blob with sharp points. rtb and I did disagree with the crowd when asked if a piece of music was sweet, sour, salty, or bitter – rtb said salty, I said sweet, and the group said sour, which is what apparently most people say. We did a test (and I’m sure I threw the results out of whack), where he played four pieces of music and for each we had to pick up a piece of chocolate (in order), chew a bit, let it melt on our tongue, and answer some questions – whether the chocolate was sweet, sour, salty, or bitter and whether it went with the music being played. It seemed like chocolate pieces 1 and 3 were similar and 2 and 4 were similar. It turned out the pairs were exactly the same. Yet, I did not answer the same because they each tasted slightly different to me. Was it the music? I do not know. Bruno did not really discuss real-world applications except for one – music in restaurants. Specifically pairing music with wine. He showed some photos of people drinking wine where both the wine and the people were hooked up to a piano and each sip would play different notes. I especially liked this presentation (and not just because I found Bruno charming and cute) because I am very conscious of sound and music around me and it definitely will affect me in different ways.

Next, we went next door for a presentation on anosmia by the Monell Chemical Senses Center. Anosmia is the lack of the sense of smell. Some people are born that way and others lose that sense because of an infection, disease, or injury. Is being able to smell important? Very much so. It plays very much in our social interactions. For instance, I cannot imagine not being able to smell a romantic partner – not to be able to sniff the pillow after he’s gone to work and let all the emotions and feelings from the night before flood my brain. Smells brings back memories – whenever I smell wet grass, I am instantly transported to my mother’s hometown in Puerto Rico. And when I smell something burning in the distance, I am taken back to Managua in the early 80s when there was infrastructure so people burned their garbage in the gutter. But you also need to be able to smell if your odor is offensive, like if you have just come back from the gym. Or dangers like smoke, a gas leak, or rotten food. It also affects your taste. For this experiment, we were given four jellybeans – two licorice and two banana. Now I hate jellybeans. And even more, I hate licorice or anything that tastes remotely like licorice. But I was game, so I put on the nose clips, closed my eyes, and popped one jellybean in my mouth. All I could taste was sweet. This was not too bad. Then we removed the nose clips and the taste of licorice was immediate and overwhelming and I spit it out. I knew taste and smell were related but I had no idea how much you needed smell in order to taste.


The other experiment sent a small fright through me. First we smelled some beads that contained an element found in raspberries and Pinot Noir. Not everyone can smell it and I could not. The next small bottle contained beads that would smell like a gas leak but I could not smell anything and neither could rtb. They asked who smelled anything and I did not notice if anyone raised their hand. Surprise! It was a trick. The last bottle did smell like Sulphur and it was strong. So Yay! I can smell a gas leak. Some things that they are developing are fabrics that will tingle and let the asnomic know that they need to change clothes.

Then a chef in the back of the room had two amuse bouche for us to try. The first was a pasta with melted anchovies. The second was candied lemon pie. Both were big on texture and strong flavors. The chef had lost her sense of smell because of a respiratory infection and she has developed recipes that are appealing for asnomics because the food is acutely flavored and/or the texture is appealing. Also, it is food that has a long shelf life.


It was back upstairs for International Flavors & Fragrances and a perfume presentation. Senior perfumer Laurent Le Guernec (fragrances developed) and Anahid (cannot find last name) talked about scents. We were given two scents that Le Guernec had developed – the first was very neutral and had been used for a hotel smell. The other, which had a lighter smell, immediately brought to mind the woods to me and he said it contained musk and a woodsy smell. I have forgotten who it was, but there is a group of people (island? tribe?) who have a lot of words for different scents. They are trying to develop a more extensive English vocabulary for scents. One of the questions was about a library for scents, which they are also trying to develop. One of the problems is that many scents are volatile and do not last long. As in the previous presentation, scents bring forth memories, which is why there is a unique Maserati leather smell. Everyone knows “new car smell” and that scent is used in old cars before they are resold. Le Guernec complained that Millennials all want cotton candy smell so that is why it is ubiquitous nowadays. They also talked about synthetic scents and how much better they are – for instance, many people are allergic to natural scents (flowers) and you increase the life of a scent by using synthetics. Le Guernec smokes, which Anahid scolded him for, but he says that it does not affect his nose because he is used to the smell. Just as we do not smell a perfume we wear all the time.

Part of their exhibit were some pillars, where you pressed a button on the side and it would light up and a scent would arise that matched words written on top. I only got a chance to smell two of them and they did not smell like much. Plus the sentences did not make a lot of sense to me – not exactly this but something like “a broken heart left in the woods.” First of all, I know what a broken heart smells like – old sweatpants, salty tears, and Ben & Jerry’s – and the scent did not say broken heart to me.

The last presentation was by Skylar Tibbets from MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, a woman from Steelcase, and another woman from Designtex. These were programmed materials and the most surprising thing to me was that none of them had really thought much about the applications despite one working at an office furniture house and the other with a textile manufacturer. When one application was suggested by someone in our group and someone else in another group, they marveled at the ideas. Tibbets especially seemed to enjoy research and invention for its own sake and did not look to see how his invention would work outside of the lab. The materials – somehow fused with another material like leather – would curl or twist in heat or the pores would open with moisture. It was very cool to look at and we passed around small squares of some of the materials to touch. Tibbets put a hot lamp over one paper with small squares and each opened slowly, which rtb captured on video.

The evening was a lot of fun and I may even trek up to Cooper Hewitt and look at the entire exhibit, which features a lot more experimental works and over 65 design projects.

By Carene Lydia Lopez