Design rarely ventures into your nose and onto your tongue. Or, at least, not design as most of us recognize it. An exhibition at Brooklyn’s Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) Lab explores how flavorists—essentially specialized chemists—have been simulating natural tastes and smells for generations, dramatically shaping our collective palate in the process. (Read our initial coverage of the exhibition, dubbed Flavor: Faking It and Making It, here). But how did Brooklyn-based creative office Labour and MOFAD create a physical exhibition around the ephemeral sensations and nervous stimuli that creative flavor? MOFAD’s Program Director Emma Boast sat down with Labour’s Ryan Dunn and Wyeth Hansen in a discussion moderated by the MoMA’s Paola Antonelli to explore just that.
“Flavor is the synthesis of smell and taste,” said Boast, and the exhibit caters to both with multiple flavor pill dispensers and tubes that blow flavor molecule-scented air into your face. In the educational spirit of the exhibition, these smell stations reveal how they work: small glass jars of labelled flavor concentrate are in plain view when you lean into the nozzle. Dunn, Hansen, and Boast wanted to avoid more conventional scented paper samples. Or as Dunn put it, “It had to look bonkers.” They contacted a neuroscientist who helped Labour and MOFAD Founder, President, and culinary maestro Dave Arnold develop the smell puffer technology. The consoles are easy to approach and fun to use, in no small part thanks to some familiar design elements. “The brief said it has to have arcade buttons,” Dunn said.
When partaking of the smell tubes and flavor pills, there is an inherent leap of faith. When you eat a seaweed umami pill, or inhale a molecule used to simulate lemon flavor, you can’t be entirely sure what will happen. And that’s very much by design. “Disorientation as a means to discovery,” said Hansen, was a core idea in designing the exhibition. The lenticular wall graphic that adorns the exhibition interior similarly disorients visitors, forcing them to decipher its dual meaning. In fact, MOFAD’s inaugural exhibition, which traveled around New York City, was even more disorientating: MOFAD deployed an early, industrial cereal “cannon” that popped grains into breakfast cereal with a thunderous, shotgun-like boom. (The machine is on display at MOFAD Lab, but not in use.)
The cereal cannon, which predated the MOFAD Lab, set a high bar. “The lineage we’re trying to follow,” said Hansen, “it’s not easy.” While crowds could naturally gather around the cannon, the MOFAD Lab would have to work harder to create a shared experience among visitors. The MOFAD Lab had to be equally democratic: “Food is something we should all be excited about, not just the foodie elite,” said Dunn. People do easily mix among the smell machines, and pairs or groups can step up to sample the flavors together. The design “emphasizes community: friends, strangers…it’s more intimate,” said Hansen.
Antonelli quizzed the trio towards the end, asking if there were crazy ideas for MOFAD Lab that didn’t pan out. One such idea was a “tongue theater” that would’ve projected footage taken from within a chewing mouth onto the walls of a small room. Antonelli and this reported lamented that it didn’t come to fruition, but MOFAD one day hopes to inhabit a larger, permanent space, so there may yet be hope.
In the broader context of global food culture, which can range from militant nutritionists to daredevil gourmets, Flavor: Faking It and Making It invites visitors to pause and question our idea of flavor. And critically, it’s visceral and not some vicarious television experience. As Antonelli put it, “If I see another white guy chewing on stuff around the world….”