A conversation with 'The Nose of Ann Arbor'

Michelle Krell Kydd leads 'Smell & Tell' classes at Ann Arbor District Library

Courtesy: Michelle Krell Kydd

ANN ARBOR – Michelle Krell Kydd is a mesmerizing person. 

The breadth of knowledge she has of the science of smell and her passion for the sense is spellbinding. 

I sat down with her recently to learn about how she got into the fragrance industry and how she began her classes at the Ann Arbor District Library.

A marketing and communications specialist by trade and a New York native, Kydd worked for companies like New York Magazine, Microsoft, Clarins and Estee Lauder. 

By chance, she was invited to a fragrance training event for retail managers designed for the launch of the Individuel perfume by Montblanc.

Attendees were given a fragrance pyramid of undeclared perfume notes. The top notes evaporate quickly, the middle notes less so and the bottom notes act as an anchor for the complete formula. Participants were asked to identify the character of each of the notes before identifying them. 

"I identified 20 out of 23 materials," said Krell Kydd. "The instructor called me over to the back of the room at the end and said, ‘You need to go to school.’ And I said, ‘You know I’m too old to be a perfumer by industry standards. They hire you when in your twenties to begin training. And I don’t speak French.’ I’m coming up with all the reasons it wouldn't be possible, which was insane. He continues to promote the idea and said, 'Listen, you’re working in the industry and anything that helps with your work and gives you a better understanding of yourself, is something you need to do.'"

She took his advice and took two semesters of coursework at Fashion Institute of Technology. Some of her teachers were perfumers and through a connection, she was able receive additional training at Givaudan, the world's leading fragrance and flavor company.

"Scent colours your life; the smell of herbs in the kitchen, rain in the summer, festive treats, soft baby skin… In our world, the sense of smell is not the forgotten sense – on the contrary, we see the world through our noses. We think about smell all day, every day." - Givaudan 

"When I said yes to fragrance evaluation training, I said yes to a future that had been incubating since childhood," she said.

"Secrets from a Trained Nose" was the topic of Krell Kydd's Ted Talk in 2015 at TEDxUofM (Credit: Tedx Talks YouTube Channel)

Kydd used her fragrance training to create compelling ad, packaging and website copy for beauty brands, some of which included Thierry Mugler, Jo Malone, Tom Ford, and Lisa Hoffman Fragrances (wife of Dustin Hoffman). Her ability to describe what is sensed, but cannot be seen also extends to flavor work -- she wrote container copy for Ciao Bella Gelato when their products were introduced to supermarkets. 

By chance, just like many of us experience, she arrived in Ann Arbor to work at the University of Michigan.

Her first "Smell & Tell" classes at the Ann Arbor District Library took place in June 2012, and were designed for children. Some parents would stay and watch and were so intrigued they told her she should do classes for adults. 

As of July, she will have done 75 presentations with the AADL, University of Michigan, Hamburg Township Library and 826 Michigan, where she held her inaugural "Smell & Tell" classes.

"What I like to do with 'Smell & Tells' is I like to combine the art and science connection in smell with other disciplines because then it makes (things like) history and politics and all kinds of cultural fragrance traditions come together in a way they normally wouldn't," Kydd explained. "Sort of in a way that transpires when you look at the meeting point between two concentric circles and you keep adding them (circles) until it’s like a flower where you still have the center point where everything connects." 

So why did she start these classes?

"I always say that the sense of smell is the bastard stepchild of the senses," she said. "It’s considered a lower animal sense and always has been this way in Western culture. In the process of breathing, our noses are doing two things. The first thing your nose does is protect you from danger. So you have to breathe to get oxygen, and anything that would impede that, if it was smoke or something toxic, you would know it and avoid that area of danger.

"The second purpose of the sense of smell is pleasure, which extends to eating, drinking and procreation. You have to teach people how the brain works so they can appreciate the sense of smell. We’re programed to feel and remember smells before we can articulate them. You want (people) to talk about their memories, talk about their emotions, and then in a kind of zen way, step back and go into the middle space and say, ‘What is this thing? What does it mean?’ And that’s when the words come out. And you’ll see this, especially in large groups of at least 20, that people start saying things and then other people who are less brave will step in and say something making everyone more comfortable talking about smell. It’s a very visceral sense. The sense of smell is memory and memory is identity. So it’s hard not to get hit like that and want to say something."

Following the interview, Kydd gave me some scents to screen. The first one was absolute of Rose Leaf. As soon as I smelled it I was transported to my grandmother's vanity where she kept her perfume bottles. As a child I would sneak into her bedroom and smell her fragrances. If these are the kinds of feelings and memories people experience during "Smell & Tell" classes, I can confidently say it works.

She had a similar experience on a recent Scent Hike she co-hosted at County Farm Park with the park's naturalist, Shawn Severance. 

(Courtesy: Michelle Krell Kydd. Photo by Shawn Severance)

For each day, Severance made a different herbal tea using ingredients found in nature. One of the teas used lemon balm, a scent that formed one of Kydd's first childhood memories with smell in New York City.

She told me that in fifth grade, she and her classmates went to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden to visit a garden for the blind. She found herself reading a plaque both with text and braille describing lemon balm, but she was confused because the plant was green. Curiosity got the best of her and she picked a leaf off the plant to smell it.

"I smelled it and my brain exploded," she recalled. "I couldn’t wrap myself around the fact that I could see something green that smelled yellow. It was almost like a form of cognitive synesthesia."

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when Severance presented her with the tea.

"I had no idea Shawn was going to make a tea that had this memory trigger for me," she said. "I didn’t think I could feel a sense of newness about something that was so profound so many years ago, it was as if I was forming a sister memory to my childhood. And that’s what happened to me. It’s so emotional, profound and beautiful, and reminds me that there are more things to be discovered in things you already know."

Plants used to make the herbal tea on the Scent Hike: Chamomile, catnip, lemon balm and sage (Courtesy: Michelle Krell Kydd. Photo by Shawn Severance)

Beyond triggering memories and a sense of "newness," as she puts it, these activities have a physical benefit as well.

"These exercises increase plasticity in the brain, which means they increase your ability to smell well as you get older, because you lose some of that capacity just like you need glasses or a hearing aid as you age," she explained. "Evaluating scents is very powerful self-authenticating tool, it's a catalyst for knowing who you are and being comfortable with that." 

One thing I noticed very quickly about Kydd is that she is incredibly drawn to each person's experience with a certain smell. It's not a one-way communication where she is teaching at you; she is learning with you. 

"After each 'Smell & Tell' event, I always ask, 'What sort of things were powerful for you? What things would you like to know more about?'" she said. "And people who are curious are not shy, especially at the library – it’s like a mecca, a sacred place for learning. The Ann Arbor District Library is incredible. I’m from New York and the libraries I knew when I left NYC in 2011 did not have the dynamism that this library has. Its responsiveness to the community, its care for the people who live here is incredible. I think it reflects a lot of the open mindedness present in our community culture." 

Looking to the future, Kydd hopes to see the study of smell implemented in classrooms in elementary schools, high schools and universities. Not because it is something she has a deep interest in and knowledge of, but because she's seen the profound effect it has on her students in every olfactory exercise she facilitates. And they are always asking to learn more.

"I want to reach as many people as I can," she said. "You have to break barriers. If you really believe in what you’re doing and it helps people, and it helps the world ... if it improves human interaction and communication, you’ve definitely done something good. And that sets off a chain reaction. That’s how you build community. 

"Ann Arbor is just an incredible place. Could 'Smell & Tell' happen in New York? With fanfare it could be commodified, I don’t know. I’m more into universal truths that can be interpreted at different entry points. It's not about a flavor of the moment. When you want to take a trip somewhere there are many ways to arrive at your destination. If you want to discover who you are, in relationship to the world around you, study the sense of smell. It will get you there faster than any other sense. There's a kind of peace in that."

To learn more, follow Michelle Krell Kydd's blog.

Upcoming "Smell & Tell" classes at Ann Arbor District Library:

July 12: Smell & Tell: Tincturing Memory
July 18: Nosetalgia: The Smell of Old Books and Aromatic Passages in Literature