When Barbara Milo Ohrbach travels, she carries a sachet of potpourri in her purse to ward off offending odors. At home, she slips bundles of lavender between her linens, fills an apothecary mortar with dried orange peels and dabs scented oil on pine cones to burn in her fireplace. As far as Ohrbach is concerned, beauty is in the nose of the beholder.
Ohrbach is a self-made expert in the art of scenting and decorating with dried herbs and flowers. When she sat down to write a book about the subject last year, she figured it would attract a small, special-interest audience. After all, how many people know, or care to know, the difference between a tussie-mussie and a pomander? (The first is a nosegay, the latter a clove-studded piece of fruit.) Yet it seems there was an overripe market. In little more than a month, Ohrbach’s book, The Scented Room (Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., $17.95), has sold a phenomenal 50,000 copies.
Ohrbach has a nose for success. She and her husband, Mel, own Cherchez, a tiny home-accessories store on New York’s Upper East Side. The aromatic establishment is known for its antique linens, decorative objects, scented goodies and recherché clientele, including Woody Allen, Mario Thomas, Candice Bergen and Diane Keaton. Taste is something Ohrbach, 44, has never been without. “I was a prissy little girl,” she recalls. “Everything was just so. I wouldn’t go out of the house if my socks didn’t match my dress. I still think it’s the right way to be.”
The Scented Room reflects these standards, looking more like a coffee-table tome than an artsy-craftsy how-to. Recipes and step-by-step instructions for making sachets, potpourris, floral waters, scented pillows, herb wreaths, door bouquets and other nose-pleasing decorations are accompanied by lush color photos. The book also includes a list of places where Ohrbach buys her essential oils, dried herbs and flowers.
Ohrbach discovered the world of sachets and potpourris when she and Mel were traveling in Europe in the early 1970s. At the time, both were overworked executives—she a vice-president at Vogue/Butterick Patterns, he a VP at the Vera company. Born collectors, they loved spending their vacations abroad buying antiques, especially old textiles, such as Victorian bed linens and paisleys. They began to take notice of something: “Every time we’d go into somebody’s house,” reports Barbara, “whether it was a little apartment or a big country home, there would be a bowl of dried flowers that just smelled beautifully.” When Ohrbach got home, she and Mel made their first batch of potpourri in the living room of their Manhattan apartment.
In 1973 they decided to quit their jobs. “One day,” remembers Barbara, “we just said to each other, ‘We’ve had it. We’re vital. We’re young. We can do something else.’ ” They planned to move to Europe, but first they decided to sell some of the merchandise they had stockpiled at home. Wanting the store to smell enticing, Barbara made potpourri and sachets to sell. “I love to walk into places that smell beautifully,” she says. “I think your whole mental attitude changes.” Soon after the shop opened, it was featured in Vogue, Mademoiselle, the New York Times and Women’s Wear Daily. Like her book, the store’s success was surprising. “That Christmas there was a line of people wanting to get in the door,” she says.
In 1975 the Ohrbachs bought a carriage house in Upstate New York. Today a visit to the house is an olfactory odyssey, with subtle whiffs of flowers and herbs emanating from each room. Not far from their 20 acres of land they built a small factory to make their own products, which they ship to specialty stores in America and Europe. Their line has since expanded into other ways to scent the home: room sprays, candles, drawer liners, hangers and scented acorns.
At the rate The Scented Room is selling, it may turn into The Joy of Cooking for home decorators. “If you’ve gone to the trouble to make your home a beautiful place and it doesn’t smell pretty, it’s just not finished,” Ohrbach declares. “Scent should be a part of your home. You don’t have to make it; you can buy it. But you should incorporate it into your life-style.” Great advice for con-scenting adults.