After the Sound of Music, the smell of music?


VIENNA: The ears can delight in the music and words of an opera and the eyes can admire the spectacle on stage, but what about the other senses, not least smell? Soap may be the answer, says Wolfgang Lederhaas.

This Austrian philosophy professor gave up a successful academic career to set up in 2011 a firm that, among other things, turns literature, music and visual arts into something you can touch, sniff – and wash your hands with.

Retailing at around 80 euros ($100) in smaller Austrian bookshops, pharmacies and concept stores is his first collection: a sleek grey box of six bars, each with the “aroma” and “color” of a work of German literature.

“The cosmetics industry is often very superficial,” observed the 36-year-old. “I wanted to delve a little deeper and give more to customers.

“Literature is not just about reading. It’s about aesthetics. I wanted to make something tangible out of it, so that people can breathe it in ... It’s about enhancing mundane activities with emotions, with positive energy.”

The box set includes soap versions of novels from the 17th and 18th centuries such as “Undine” by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, “Heinrich von Ofterdingen” by Novalis – Lederhaas’ idol – and “Hyperion” by Friedrich Hoelderlin.

“Basically, just like for normal soap, I put all the ingredients into a pot, stir it and make soap out of [it],” he explains. “Everything I know about a particular book makes it into the pot – all the feelings in the novel, the colors, the herbs, the plants that are mentioned, and so on. Everything that somehow inspires me, everything that gives me a clue.”

Since “Hyperion” takes place in Greece, for example, the soap contains notes of olive oil and laurel, while for his soap of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute,” roses and cedar – both mentioned in the libretto – are evident.

“Of course, putting all this in doesn’t mean that it smells nice or works,” Lederhaas says. “It takes a lot more than that. The secret is to add something to make sure it smells good.”

Color, too, is vital, as is the use of natural ingredients, preferably organic and locally sourced.

Coming from humble, rural origins – there was no literature or Mozart when he was growing up – Lederhaas says his family thought he was mad to give up his job heading a department at the prestigious Diplomatic Academy of Vienna.

Getting the know-how was hard. He went to Karlsruhe in Germany to study the science behind cosmetics and making soap, trained to become an aromatherapist and took courses and exams in perfumery, pharmacology and chemistry.

“You can also of course buy a bar of soap for 20 cents. It also has a story to tell, but not a story that you want to hear. It involves exploitation, the squandering of resources, synthetic ingredients and pollution.”

Following the “Magic Flute” soap, a bar of which was ordered by and sent to Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the next project is a box set inspired by an as-yet-unnamed “important” contemporary Austrian painter.

Paintings, though, create their own difficulties. “I wondered, how do I do this? I sat down for days, read about the painter and what drives him and inspires him, and wondered how to make a soap.”

Thereafter the plan is for a new box set each year, as well as other products not inspired by art.

Initial customer feedback has been positive, Lederhaas says.

“From talking to customers I know how it works. They come to me and say, ‘My whole bathroom smells like The Magic Flute, it’s wonderful.’

“Another said: ‘I go to the toilet more now just so that I can wash my hands more often.”

Probably not a bad thing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 22, 2012, on page 16.