LDF16 | In Conversation With Zuza Mengham

Transforming the fragrances of Laboratory Perfumes into a multi-sensory ‘Sculpting Scent’ exhibition, artist Zuza Mengham has translated four of the perfumery’s signature fragrances, and its new eau de toilette ‘Atlas’, into unique resin sculptures that capture scent in visual and physical forms. Zuza’s beautiful creations will be exhibited in the windows of The Conran Shop Marylebone as part of our London Design Festival event and available for purchase in-store.

We spoke to Zuza about her design process and the inspiration behind each sculpture in this exciting collaboration. 


Zuza Mengham 'Sculpting Scent' in the studio
Zuza Mengham ‘Sculpting Scent’ in the studio


Tell us a little bit about your background in art and sculpture.

I did my degree in sculpture at Wimbledon College of Art in 2008, during which time I spent three years pretty much constantly in the metal workshop making large steel sculptures. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to work as a technician for some incredible artists and galleries over the last eight years. A big part of that was wanting to learn as many crafts with as many materials as possible, so that I could get to the point where materials and processes were in no way an obstacle, but an influence and motivation for exploration.

My work has always been seated in a deep preoccupation with materials, how things work, why certain materials react the way they do, what you can create at a material’s point of volatility, fragility, and capturing the momentary. I think working in metal in the past was deeply tied in with these ideas. Steel needs to be manipulated quickly under immense heat; you have a small window of time and then the outcome is very permanent.

This same interest in the momentary point of permanency is also fundamental in the way I work with resin, which I started seriously experimenting with around a year ago. I like that there are no secrets with it as a material, it offers itself and its process up freely and reminds you of the different material states it has evolved through. I think the reason I was previously drawn to metal was its deep tradition and the brief moment of malleability and its subsequent permanency, whereas resin presents itself with permanency, but with very little tradition. I don’t feel as predisposed by imagery.


Zuza perfecting her sculptures in the studio. Courtesy of Alberto Lamback ©
Zuza perfecting her sculptures in the studio. Courtesy of Alberto Lamback ©


‘Sculpting Scent’ presents an entirely new way of experiencing fragrance. How do you go about translating scents into tactile objects?

I started with the scents themselves. I made a conscious decision not to read the descriptions, but to smell them all and see what I could decipher from them first directly, taking notes and ideas. After I matched them up with their descriptions, I made a series of drawings with watercolour overlays, building up the colours and patterns until I was happy that they translated in a way that felt appropriate. Because of the size of the pieces, a certain degree of planning is necessary as they are each around 7 kilograms of liquid resin; having said that, they served more as a guide to refer to. Sometimes I find the volume or shape of one tone doesn’t work with another anymore, and I have to use a degree of intuition with what feels right to balance it out again. If an area feels too intense, it may need levelling out with a gentler saturation and level of detail, or vice versa.


Zuza Mengham in her studio crafting a piece. Courtesy of Alberto Lamback ©
Zuza Mengham in her studio crafting a piece. Courtesy of Alberto Lamback ©


Your series of beautiful sculptures are crafted from resin. What inspired your material choices for this series?

The fact resin is a liquid and sets solid was pretty significant in this project, as capturing movement and lightness in the material seemed essential in the translation of a scent. There needed to be a level of gesture to suggest the scent’s transition through the notes. Blocks of colour were also useful to create definitive edges and punctuation for the bolder ingredients.

Generally, I try to curb the natural characteristics of resin to my advantage. Each one is completely unique, made with a specially designed one-off mould. I try to employ various different ways of utilising the science of resin. The liquid has to be catalysed to create the reaction it needs to harden into a solid state. If you catch the right moment, as the resin starts to catalyse, there are various effects you can create: making soft waves; introducing lots of tiny trapped air bubbles; creating glassy clearness, marbling and colour fades. The potential outcomes are endless.

Samphire, which is hugely reminiscent of the sea, was a wonderful opportunity to show what the effects of layers of clear resin can create. Building up these tinted clear layers gives a sense of depth, while allowing the light to pass through, creating a water-like effect. With Tonka, whose name comes from one of its ingredients, the Tonka bean, I wanted to represent the beans and peppercorns. To do this, I made a big sheet of dark resin and added slate powder. Once cured and broken into pieces, the natural weight and density of the slate meant it would sink to the bottom and reveal itself as a dappled surface.


Zuza perfecting her sculptures in the studio. Courtesy of Alberto Lamback ©
Zuza perfecting her sculptures in the studio. Courtesy of Alberto Lamback ©


The LAB collection of scents – Samphire, Tonka, Gorse – are named after elements of the outdoors. How did you go about conveying nature with a man-made material?

I spent quite a while compiling a plethora of photos which focused on form and colour from natural imagery: coral, plants, moths, naturally formed minerals, lichen, stone, even milk. I think it’s easy to forget how vibrant nature is, especially when you live in the city. But there’s an abundance of natural creative influence to draw from and it was easy to get a palette established to work with. The main wall of my studio was plastered with all of the photos, so I could keep referring back to it and create the subsequent sketches and eventual sculptures. So, throughout the process,  the work is all deeply tied in with the natural ingredients that comprise the perfumes.


Light shines through the 'Atlas' sculpture in the studio. Courtesy of Alberto Lamback ©
Light shines through the ‘Atlas’ sculpture in the studio. Courtesy of Alberto Lamback ©

A closer look at 'Tonka'. Courtesy of Alberto Lamback ©
A closer look at ‘Tonka’. Courtesy of Alberto Lamback ©


Your sculptures blend stunning colours. Would you say each colour represents a specific layer of scent?

Yes, the colours certainly tie into the major elements of each scent. Colour plays such a vital part in people’s visual recognition and all of the LAB Perfumes scents have a level of complexity, which meant I was pretty spoiled for options. Most perfumes have three distinctive ‘notes’, which describe the fundamental blueprint that comprises the scent. Amber is a good example; it has top notes that are fresh and grassy, developing into centre notes of rich woodiness. The base notes are the richer, deeper elements, which bind the scent, and Amber’s base note matures with a balmy ambergris. I wanted to try and represent this development through the junctures, as it felt important to the visual description. I used a clear green tint with pale chalky marbling at the top for the lighter leafy notes and, as I moved down, the green became more of a browny burnt red to accent the deeper components.

Gorse was an interesting one in this respect, as it smells like zesty coconut from the infused gorse flowers, but using a white-and-brown coconut colour scheme wouldn’t describe the character of the scent effectively, so I decided to focus on clear yellow for the citrus element and soften it out with pastels in pink, grey and milky white to try to characterise its qualities without going too literal. Others are slightly more direct; Tonka has pink pepper and tonka beans, and I felt like it needed to be energetic and exotic. Various hues of orange and pink describe the mandarin and pepper and by keeping the majority of the sculpture clear, it enables the light to pass through and keeps the orange fiery and luminous.


Sanding down sculptures in the studio. Courtesy of Alberto Lamback ©
Sanding down sculptures in the studio. Courtesy of Alberto Lamback ©


What kind of environment do you work best in, how does your studio inspire you?

My studio is incredibly important to the process of making work. It’s taken a while to create a space that supports the various processes and their needs. It has to be somewhere you can happily spend huge amounts of time, so for me light is really important; being in a fresh space, but also so you can see how everything looks in natural light and how surfaces and finishes are taking shape.

I love having my own detached space on the top floor of the building, I have a very bright studio overlooking tree tops. I prefer to work alone most of the time, it needs to be free from distractions and have enough space for me to alternate and shift between tasks fluidly, without the thought process being broken or interrupted. It takes a while to plan the pours of the work and sometimes you have a 10 second window to work with to create a  certain effect, so being distracted could be lead to ruining a piece of work at the last leg.

I do, however, really enjoy working collaboratively in the studio for photography shoots of the work, it’s always interesting to see what happens with an alternate perspective and how it pulls a different point of focus into the work that I hadn’t expected.


Zuza Mengham 'Sculpting Scent' in her studio. Courtesy of Alberto Lamback ©
Zuza Mengham ‘Sculpting Scent’ in her studio. Courtesy of Alberto Lamback ©


Which is your favourite of the LAB fragrances?

I’ve been happily wearing all of them in rotation, but my favourite is Samphire. It starts out really fresh and crisp and then becomes deeper and richer over time. For me, it’s lively and contemporary, but somehow equally seasoned and comforting.


The new 'Atlas' fragrance from Laboratory Perfumes
The new ‘Atlas’ fragrance from Laboratory Perfumes


Unfortunately London Design Festival 2016 is now over. However, you can find out more about The Conran Shop’s events and LDF19 activities here