For Barnabé Fillion, Fragrance Is a Multisensory Affair

Despite nearly drowning in a pool when he was 3 or 4, the perfumer Barnabé Fillion tries to take a swim in Paris, where he’s based for part of each year, whenever he feels a headache coming on. “Water, for me, is a way to transform,” says Fillion, 41, who has synesthesia, a condition in which one’s senses are cross-wired: In Fillion’s case, he experiences images and sounds as textures. “If I’m really saturated, water will help me. There’s something about it that makes me feel light and happy and fuzzy.”

The bottles used for Fillion’s brand, Arpa, come in glycerin casings that can be used as soap for washing.Credit…François HalardThe idea was for the casings to feel like time capsules of scent preserved in resin.Credit…François Halard

His latest scent, Manta, is meant to evoke the sensation of being underwater. It’s the fourth fragrance from Arpa, the brand Fillion launched last year, its offerings recognizable by their colored glass bottles, which are handblown by the artist Jochen Holz. Unlike the line’s other scents, however, which were inspired by memorable destinations to which Fillion has traveled — the Dallol region of Ethiopia, a Belgian forest and the hot springs of Kyushu, Japan — Manta came out of a vision he had while in a meditation class. “I had the impression that there was a manta ray flying over me and I felt time going slower, the sounds of the sea being different, the light changing — so many sensorial moments extended to maybe two or three seconds,” Fillion recalls, speaking one recent afternoon in his studio, set in a converted factory in the Paris suburb of Pantin. He passes me a blotter so I can smell it: First, there is a clean, green hit of petitgrain, an essential oil extracted from the leaves and bark of the orange tree, followed by the warmth of frankincense and some smoky, resinous notes that make me feel as though I’ve just dunked my head in a fragrant bath and emerged refreshed and renewed.

Fillion’s studio features (clockwise from left) an oil painting by Nathalie du Pasquier titled “A 3D Perfume” (2020), a Jean Arp etching and aquatint called “Précipice” (1960) and a chair by Gerrit Rietveld.
Credit…François HalardIn a temperature-controlled room that functions as Fillion’s laboratory, the walls are lined with bottles of ingredients.Credit…François Halard

In a way, Arpa amounts to a reset for Fillion, who has an ongoing relationship with Aesop, having created for the line such noteworthy scents as the smoky floral Rōzu, the herbaceous Karst and the spicy Marrakech Intense. He’s also designed perfumes for Paul Smith and Le Labo. His new venture, by contrast, is intended as a purely creative exercise uninhibited by trends or commercial briefs, one that sparks ritualistic and multisensory experiences. “I don’t have any targets,” he says. “I made the choice to take this freedom.”

Fillion collaborated with the Paris-based architect Jean-Philippe Bonnefoi on the studio’s design. The entrance hall features aluminum-clad doorways and khaki green walls.Credit…François HalardIn a corner of the studio, a Western Electric speaker dating from 1929, which Fillion sourced from Seoul, hangs from the ceiling.Credit…François Halard

Fillion didn’t set out to become a perfumer. After leaving school at 16, he spent time modeling and worked as an assistant to the photographer Helmut Newton before shifting his focus to homeopathy and phytotherapy and finally retraining as a nose. “I don’t have a career mission,” he says with a shrug. But he does have a vision for his new brand, which he considers not just a fragrance company but an “institute of synesthesia” ripe for free-form exploration of the phenomenon and collaboration with creative minds. A book of essays about synesthesia is in the works, and Fillion teamed up with the French musician Buvette on “I Saw the Manta” and “Sparkles,” two compositions that will debut in conjunction with Manta in June via a vinyl record that comes with each purchase. (An exclusive playlist that was curated by Buvette and includes the two tracks can be downloaded on Arpa’s website.)

A structural pillar was wrapped in green leather and surrounded by a travertine table. The fiberglass cupboards house part of Fillion’s extensive collection of speakers and turntables.Credit…François Halard

Fillion’s interests extend from music — he’s currently restoring a rare JA Michell Transcriptor Hydraulic Reference turntable, a model famous for playing Alex’s beloved Beethoven in the film version of “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) — to philosophy and art and design, and he brings all of this to Arpa. The brand’s name is polysemic, deriving from the ARP 2600 modular synthesizer, the Greek word for harp and the work of the German French artist Jean Arp. What’s more, Holz’s bottles come in translucent cases made of glycerin soap, with the accompanying records (there’s a playlist for each perfume) packaged in sleeves that feature sections of an original painting by one of Fillion’s friends, the artist and Memphis Group founding member Nathalie du Pasquier. Fillion has also commissioned a series of sculptures to pair with each perfume as part of a collaboration with the artists Anicka Yi, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pedro Reyes and Mario García Torres. The idea is that each sculpture will have an olfactory element — Yi, for instance, has adapted a lantern made of kelp originally exhibited at the Venice Biennale to function as a diffuser.

The flacons for Arpa are handblown by Jochen Holz and layer different colors of glass.Credit…François HalardEarly design references for the studio included Brutalism, the Italian manufacturer Olivetti, the Memphis Group and Italian Futurism.Credit…François Halard

Fillion’s studio, which he designed with Jean-Philippe Bonnefoi, Aesop’s in-house architect, is an artwork itself. A giant 1929-issue Western Electric speaker sourced by Fillion from Seoul hangs from the ceiling in one corner and serves as the perfect industrial foil to a leather-clad column and daybed, a hulking travertine stone table, a Gerrit Rietveld chair and various Charlotte Perriand lamps. (Determined not to be too tied to Paris, where he grew up, Fillion’s currently in the process of renovating Casa Möbius, the Brutalist-style former Mexico City home of the architect Ernesto Gómez Gallardo, which will serve as a second headquarters for the brand’s institute arm and a meeting place for creative exchange. A third location is slated to open in October in Kyoto, Japan.)

Then there’s his laboratory, a temperature-controlled space that sits behind an automatic glass door and is covered with yellow tiles. On rows of shelves, little brown bottles are filled with his favorite raw materials and essential oils — he sources them from all over, with Manta containing elements from Paraguay and Namibia, as well as Grasse, in France. On a counter are samples for three more upcoming scents that he hopes will spark curiosity, sensation and dialogue. “What I like,” he says, “is not becoming narrow, narrow. It’s more like opening, opening.”