While architects are generally in the visual business, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s design for a new show at the Museum of Arts & Design privileges a less tangible sense — smell.

'The Art of Scent 1889 – 2012' is an exhibition dedicated to perfumes that represent an aesthetic or innovatory leap forward for the art form — ranging from the Victorian-era 'Jicky' (Aimé Guerlain) to the smoky, metallic and compelling 'Untitled' by contemporary perfumer Daniela Andrier.

'It was an exercise in self-restraint,' says principal Elizabeth Diller, who worked on the project with the curator of MAD’s new Centre for Olfactory Art, the former New York Times scent critic, Chandler Burr. 'How to make nothing, but make it beautiful.'

DS+R has a history of experimental projects; Diller previously worked on the Blur Building — a temporary pavilion made of fog designed for the 2002 Swiss Expo. The other challenge, says DS+R project leader Ilana Altman, lay in exhibiting intangible art in a museum context.

'We were interested in the convention of a white wall. The technical challenge was to figure out how to make it atmospheric, and how the surface could give a holistic display but still appear to be empty.'

Twelve identical dimples set seamlessly into the walls have space for one visitor’s head, which triggers the release of a dry version of each perfume, dispensed by hidden, high-spec technology so far only found at trade shows.

In the adjacent 'salon' a glass table holds the same perfumes in liquid form, into which visitors dip blotters and then add their 'smelling notes' to the online database projected onto a nearby wall to build up a vocabulary of scent criticism.

'Tresor', the 13th scent, has been broken down into its five constituent stages to reveal its design process, each version delivered automatically on a card with a peel and sniff panel through slots in the wall similar to a car park ticket machine.

Each perfume is exhibited without packaging, and is attributed to the perfumer (rather than the brand) through small pieces of projected text that fades on and off. 'The visual sense is dialled down,' says Diller. 'We considered audio, but decided it would just be a distraction.'