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Austria: after the 'Sound of Music', the smell of music?

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

AFP, Wednesday 22 Aug 2012
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Views: 1167

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 cosmetics 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 "colour" of a work of German literature.

"The cosmetics industry is often very superficial ... I wanted to delve a little deeper and give more to customers," the 36-year-old told AFP at his company's sweet-smelling workshop in Vienna.

"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's 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," Lederhaas explains enthusiastically.

"Everything I know about a particular book makes it into the pot -- all the feelings in the novel, the colours, 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, it takes a lot more than that. The secret is to add something to make sure it smells good," Lederhaas says.

Colour, too, is vital, as is the use of natural ingredients, preferably organic and locally sourced. For "The Magic Flute", for example, the soap had to be "bright and orange, not shining yellow but orange," he says.

"That was the starting point," he says, taking a chunk of soap off the shelf and offering it around to smell. "It has lots of citrus fruit notes -- lemon, orange, lime, mandarin, grapefruit and so on."

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

And 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 legendary Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the next project is a box set inspired by an as-yet-unnamed "important" contemporary Austrian painter, he says.

Paintings, though, create their own difficulties, he says.

"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 but still organic and made with the same passion, such as skincare line due in 2013.

"I can turn anything into soap," he declares. "Maybe the cities of the world, New York, Paris. If I did a bar of soap representing Vienna it would have to smell of marzipan and Sachertorte (a famous cake) with lots of cream."

It is early days for Lederhaas Cosmetics but initial customer feedback has been positive, he 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."

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