The morning I walked to the retail space and studio of perfumer D.S. & Durga in Bed-Stuy, a fresh snow had fallen—one of those merciful city-wide cleanses that momentarily sterilized the city. But inside, I faced a wall of very non-neutral scents. They were contained inside glass bottles wrapped in simple labels with nontraditional names like Mississippi Medicine, Cowboy Grass, and Bowmaker. In back, D.S. & Durga husband and wife co-founders, David Seth and Kavi Moltz, stood in a light-filled space. It held a show-piece couch, framed art, a tall shelf packed with miniature vials of fragrance divided and alphabetized by olfactory family—florals, fruits and citruses, musks, ambers, leathers and woody things. A vintage electric keyboard was set up near the window and, adjacent to that, there was a large selection of vinyl. A turntable played Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut.” Kavi greeted me, wearing a sleek, all-black getup save for a single rose on her T-shirt. David, tall and lively, wore a thick winter sweater paired with loud plaid pants. Compared to the sterility outside, it was a sensory-heavy entrance.
“Nice pants,” I told David, admiring his bold selection.
“Thanks!” he responded with enthusiasm.
How long, I wondered, had they been set up in the neighborhood?
“We moved here a year and a half ago because we wanted our kids to go to the same school,” Kavi explained. I had a vision of five stylish babies crawling around their home. Kavi clarified there were just two. Still, this meant something: full-time entrepreneurs with a family of four, living in Brooklyn—without any outside help, which they told me had been true since they had begun their business—were doing something right.
David and Kavi began D.S. & Durga in 2008 when Kavi was still an architect and David was a touring musician supplementing his income at restaurants. He was also obsessive about figuring out how things worked, including scents. Meanwhile, Kavi, also D.S. & Durga’s creative director, was not thrilled with architecture, so she would stay late at work making labels for David’s concoctions. “At the time, no one else was making their own fragrances,” David explained. “So it took right off.”
More than nine years later, the D.S. & Durga line of just 12 scents—known for combining a-typical notes like “hot copper tubes” with soft wood (“Radio Bombay”), or ripe fig and “the wild shrill of Black Francis coming through the radio in August heat” (“Debaser”, after the Pixies)—are carried world-wide in more than 100 stores (their latest coup is the famous Bon Marché in Paris). This past season they released three new scents and a selection of pocket perfumes, but they keep their full offering pared down. “We just want the best of this idea, and the best of that idea,” Kavi explained. “We’re really proud of each one.”
David stood up and pulled a large volume off the shelf called The basic principles of chromatography. (The process, I learned, through which the component parts of a fragrance are identified.) “He wrote that,” Kavi said, referring to David, joking. “No,” said David, “most perfumers don’t know the chemical makeup of the chemicals they use.” It’s a division that is not dissimilar to a guitar builder and a guitar player, he explained: both are experts in the field, but neither necessarily knows the craft of the other. Still, David had recently taken a lesson from an organic chemist because, as mentioned, he likes knowing things.
“Just like anything, I really get obsessed with trying to figure something out, and that became fragrance,” said David—in particular, he said, in “trying to get my ideas from music into fragrance.” This puzzled me. How does one translate sound into a good-smelling liquid?
“Here’s the thing I’ve always said,” he began, as Nilsson continued on the turntable. “I’ll try to make music that sounds like 13th century Viking music, OK? But I’m still going to sound like a white guy from the East Coast who knows how to play the blues. But fragrance, you can really make it smell like the 13th century much more easily than you can make it sound like the 13th century.”
Frankly, this disrupted everything I’d believed about the purpose of perfume: To me, it was meant to signify the essence of the person who wore it. But David was telling me that D.S. & Durga scents, like any other artistic medium, are just meant to express a concept, or a different period, or part of the world.
“Perfume is armchair travel,” said David. “You can put a whole world into a package with stories, so they can travel through this world if they want.” Or, he pointed out, perfume can just be enjoyed, too. After all, it still goes on our bodies.
Given my newly radicalized understanding of perfume, I needed different instructions for selecting it. David had pragmatic advice: Just smell a lot of different things. Then, smell your shoulder in between each round (not coffee!) to neutralize your palate. Finally, don’t judge any one scent too quickly. Perfume doesn’t need to be so significant. Like any other accessory, it can be switched up dramatically with days and moods. How many of us wear the same outfit day in and day out? Most of us vary our look every day without too much agony. The same can hold true for the scents we use.
“Give scents a chance to grow on you,” David says. “It’s like any new album that comes out that you don’t like, but after your eighth time listening, you love it—you’ve given it its chance to work its magic on you.”
His next project is one that, twenty minutes earlier, would have sounded weird to me: a line of perfume for men based on Brooklyn rapper Notorious B.I.G., skate boarder Jamie Thomas, and basketball legend Larry Bird. It will be “street, and hip-hop, and sports focused,” said David. Whatever that meant, I was into it.
“I have a laundry list of ideas I’m working on,” David explained. “It’s like if you’re a chef, and you wanna make awesome cookies for your friends,” he explained, excitedly. “I have awesome cookies all the time, and I wanna share them, and not make a huge deal of it.”
1192 Bedford Ave, Bed-Stuy
Photos by Jane Bruce