When Kevin Peterson moved to Detroit to work as an automotive engineer, it seemed everyone he met told him to quit his job — his very good job.
He didn’t. But that urging from enthusiastic entrepreneurs got him thinking.
Peterson still spends his days doing high-speed imaging of gasoline engines. After hours, however, he retreats to his Detroit loft, where he opens a rolltop desk and concentrates on 150 intensely aromatic ampoules. Peterson is the “nose” of Sfumato Fragrances, a company he and his wife, Jane Larson, founded. Their scents are sold online and in a dozen boutiques from Oregon to New York.
Curious about that rolltop redolent of exotic places, I visited Kevin and Jane at home in a converted piano warehouse in Corktown.
In the softly lit main room, two house cats prowled. Amber-colored glass vials in the vintage desk glinted beneath a lamp. And through the window, Motor City Casino’s light show cycled through its rainbow display. “It’s my lava lamp,” Kevin says of the view.
Kevin lifts the top of a stereo turntable and lowers the stylus to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The three of us settle in at a table and, as we begin talking, Kevin spritzes a square of brown paper and silently slides it my way. With it, comes an aura of mossy mystery.
He also sprays Survival, one of four Sfumato scents, on his wrist and asks me to inhale an initial impression. “We’ll check it again in an hour,” he says.
Fragrance, they say, unfolds like the origami constructions they both liked as children while growing up in different towns in Minnesota.
Kevin draws a graph illustrating the evaporation rates of scent molecules. Mandarin-orange oil molecules are mostly small in comparison to other ingredients, for example, making its aroma a more quickly evaporating top note. The resulting graph inspired the logo for Sfumato. Jane, a web usability auditor who serves as the “eyes” of the company, incorporated that design into their packaging.
Much of what they do, however, involves the intangible. Scent, they say, exists on the sublevel of consciousness.
“Kevin says everything is through our eyes these days,” Jane says.
He adds: “I like that you have to be present [for fragrance]; you can’t get it through a phone or a screen.
“It’s so visceral and most people don’t talk about it.”
When they do, it often transports them to their past — their personal past, as well as the deep history of humanity. Man has been breathing in grass, rain, and forests for centuries.
Among Kevin’s early scent memories is his grandmother’s kitchen in a small town Kevin likens to the fictional Lake Wobegon, of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion.” On Monday nights, the family dined at his grandmother’s house and he recalls the aroma of cardamom that emanated from the Norwegian desserts she bakes.
“I liked coming in the door and trying to guess what was for dinner based on the smell,” Kevin says.
Jane’s early aromatic memory is of the roses and honeycomb her grandparents bought for her at local farmers’ markets.
Kevin’s attention to aroma was honed when he attended culinary school and worked in a high-end French restaurant. The couple, who met at a private Minnesota college, came to the University of Michigan where Kevin attended graduate school and she worked at U-M’s ArtsEngine.
During that time, Kevin began blending fragrances for himself as a sensory counterpoint to his academic focus on graphs and equations.
“Initially, I never wrote formulas down. That was just my escape,” he says. “I wanted to keep numbers out of it.”
Now, they maintain specific scent recipes for a business set in a city more associated with car exhaust than elixirs. And as they say on the Sfumato website, “We are constantly asking ourselves, what does the world look like when we look through our noses?”
Kevin diligently exercises his fifth sense.
“In the morning, I wake up, read a book, play a little guitar and smell some smells with my eyes closed,” he says. “I try to imagine smells.”
One fragrance the couple recall clearly is the custom blend Kevin created for their 2014 wedding. Each guest received a sample so that all who witnessed their vows would associate a fragrance with the day.
“We don’t smell it that often,” Kevin says. “You don’t want to associate it with paying bills or cleaning cat litter.”
The name of their personal perfume? Bliss.
These days, Jane is likely to wear Sfumato’s Epiphany or Siren Song. Kevin, she says, “tends to smell like whatever he’s working on.”
In addition to their all-natural, hand-blended fragrance business, they stage occasional pop-up olfactory dinners. In October, they hosted a culinary event at Revolver, the table d’hote dining space in Hamtramck, where guest chefs prepare and serve a revolving schedule of dinners.
The Sfumato evening, which was designed to highlight the intersection of scent and taste, featured five courses paired with infused beverages and fragrance samplings. They scored the evening with a playlist chosen to match the aromatic mood. Selections ranged from Ravi Shankar to the Velvet Underground.
To begin the evening, the 38 guests were invited to smell jasmine petals in a vial on each table. And Kevin introduced each course with snippets, such as, “Cleopatra was rumored to have doused the sails of her barge with rose when sailing to meet Mark Antony.”
As the courses progressed from potato-leek soup enhanced with coriander, cardamom and nutmeg, to a dessert of mixed berries with black pepper and candied rose petals, guests were gently enveloped in Sfumato scents spritzed on their cloth napkins and emanating from the herbs and spices in their drinks.
When the diners parted, they took with them the lasting vapors of a new scent memory.