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The lobby of the Oben Flats apartment building, designed by Superkül.

Tom Arban

Nina Ber-Donkor lives in an all-rental apartment building called Oben Flats, just above the shop she owns and runs in Toronto’s east end, Black Rooster Decor. Although rental properties aren’t typically the paragon of inviting cozyness, Ber-Donkor looks forward to the minute every evening when she can step into her building. “Even after living there for the past couple years, I still get that beautiful feeling of ‘I’m home,’” she says. “I don’t even have to wait until I get to my unit. I feel it as soon I pass through the front doors, into the lobby.”

Oben Flats instills this idea in part because the lobby is particularly nice. Designed by noted Canadian architects Superkül, it’s all cool whites and greys with contrasting warm woods. The smell, though, is also essential to the strong sense of place. Before building it three years ago, developer Julian Battiston commissioned a custom scent for Oben Flats’ common areas, one with a base of Bulgarian lavender, which tends to be calming, and notes of lime (property management gives each residents a candle infused with the scent that they can burn at will in their suites). “I wanted to take away the stigma around what a rental building is,” Battiston says. “I wanted to show how design can up the experience.”

To many people, the idea of scent as a design element is unorthodox, as it’s not tactile or visual, such as paints, wall patterns and pillow cushions. However, our sense of smell is deeply tied to the way we experience our spaces, and can be carefully calibrated to enhance how we feel – even how we perceive colours – as we move through our homes.

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But it’s not that most of us ignore scent entirely. Collectively, we seem obsessed with things that tickle our noses. According to Statistics Canada, 71 per cent of Canadians use at-home air fresheners. And, according to a 2016 study from market research firm Kline, North America’s home-fragrance market is worth more than US$6.4-billion and growing.

Few homeowners, though, sit down with a scent designer and map out the olfactory experience of their abodes. Instead, it’s a lot easier, and much cheaper, simply to buy generic scented candles or perfumed plug-ins.

Whiffloves candles, created by scent designer Trace Pepe.

Whiff

Fortunately, scent-savvy experts are increasingly producing off-the-shelf solutions to pair with home decor. Brampton, Ont.-based scent designer Tracy Pepe, owner of Nose Knows Designs, customized the scent for Oben Flats, in addition to scents she’s created for big brands such as Samsung and the Intercontinental Hotel. Her bespoke work can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but she has also recently introduced a consumer line called Whiffloves with scents averaging $15 to $36 that vivify the colours of a room, and instill a certain vibe.

Her Orange has a spunky, lively scent the instantly brings fiery citrus tones to mind. Her Blue, which has lush, earthy undertones, works well with serene hues and helps instill a sense of intimacy. It might sound airy-fairy, but a 2016 study of scent at Wilfrid Laurier University confirmed those perceptions to be common among a sample of 193 undergraduate students at the Lazaridis School of Business.

Aside from Pepe, earlier this year, Vancouver-based celebrity designer Jillian Harris released a line of three essential oils ($35 each) for Canadian scent brand Saje. “I have always said the aroma of my home sets the mood,” says Harris, whose Spa Spirit is designed for relaxing, and would work well in an en suite. “If you know me, you’ll know my love for taking some me time while away on work or vacation and hitting up a spa. This blend is really grounding,” she says.

Jillian Harris's Happy Place scent, released by Canadian brand Saje.

And for something more sensual (and bedroom worthy), Calgary interior design Amanda Hamilton has made the Virility Candle ($49). Its masculine, spicy undertones are reminiscent of rolling over on a partner’s pillow and breathing in their lingering aftershave, body wash and whatever else. Hamilton also points out that because it’s a candle, it doubles down on the romance. “I like that it creates ambience, and fills the space, in more than one way,” she says. “I like how the light flickers in a room.”

There are important health considerations when it comes to scenting spaces, though. While air fresheners can improve a room’s smell, they can’t cleanse a space of its underlying, odour-starting toxins or contaminants. If mould is resulting in a musty sniff, it’s best to hire a contractor to remediate the issue – not to simply mask it.

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There’s also the question of what exactly you’re breathing in. “Some people hear the term essential oils and think it’s something good for you,” Pepe says. “But that’s not necessarily true. Essential oils simply refer to raw materials for fragrances. They aren’t necessarily natural, organic or pure.” Plus, even all-natural products can be dangerous. “Rattlesnake poison is natural,” Pepe says. “So is poison ivy. That doesn’t mean people should use either.”

It’s important, then, to not only be aware if you, your pets, kids or spouse have any allergies – vanilla might be lovely, but not if it makes you wheeze – but also to research what potentially harmful ingredients might be hidden within the scent. Many oils, for example, are diluted with alcohol, even though it’s a common irritant, because it’s an inexpensive way to help carry the scent through the air.

Looking at the details also matters when it comes to the diffusion method. Some people avoid candles, say, because they find them smoky. But all-cotton wicks with soy-based candles, the kind used by designers such as Pepe, burn clean compared to synthetic, dollar-store alternatives.

For someone such as Ber-Donkor, the renter at the Oben Flats, living in a space with such irritant-free scents is paramount. “I personally am not usually drawn to scents as a design element,” she says, “because often, when it’s too strong or smells artificial, it gives me headaches. The scent in my building, though, is really light. It’s almost hard to describe what it smells like to me – other than clean and fresh.”

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