It’s impossible to describe what duo Sam Bompas and Harry Parr exactly do. They are globally recognised as a leading expert in multi-sensory experience design creating everything from edible architecture to a 9-hole mini golf course capturing a utopian vision of London made of cake on the rooftop of the iconic Selfridges store. Their practice is rooted at the intersection of weird and wonderful research, technical expertise and extreme health and safety. Together they have created some of the unique and memorable experiences of the last decade.
Here, we chat to Sam about their creative journey so far.
How did you and Harry meet?
We are old friends and have known each other since we were 13. We first met in an orchestra for kids who couldn’t play well, as our parents desperately wanted us to do something. I played violin and Harry played the cello. Our interests grew together through music and then into food and drink.
What drew you to food as a medium?
It’s been 11 and a half years of working with food. We didn’t have any formal training; we are more like back door intruders of the culinary world. It was passion and interest, which drew us to the medium. We never set out to make this our full-time career; there was never any foresight, people would often ask ‘what’s your business plan?’ and we didn’t have one.
Harry and I both loved food and loved the idea of starting a jelly company on the weekend. It all began with creating artisan English jellies. It moved very quickly from there into full catering, installations, artwork, event planning and all sorts of things. We are not fussed about the definition of what we do, the work operates across all sorts of arenas, and the only thing we are really interested in is real people’s experiences of the work.
When your colleagues ask you on a Monday morning, ‘What did you do at the weekend?’ You get to tell one story. We want our experiences to be that story for people.
What’s your starting point for a new project?
We have a vast research library at the Soyer Memorial Library. Its an archaic taxonomy of ideas. When using it, we are not looking for the big idea, were interested in the strange, serendipitous parallels. I like library’s like a physical manifestation of falling into a black hole on Wikipedia. Our research points are around death, drink, duelling, magical plants and mysticism. There’s a whole section of world fairs that we love, old food and drink and even a weird section on extreme diets which includes everything from information on what Jesus would eat, to the champagne diet and slim while you sleep.
We encourage everyone in our studio to do some proper research at the start of every project.
Over the years, your projects have got more and more technically complicated, how have you evolved the studio to encapsulate the ever-growing skill set required?
We have an extensive network of co-collaborators, everyone from molecular biologists to people working on immortality to chemists to pyrotechnicians. Just today I was sharing a list of magician contacts we’ve built up over the years. It’s when these different ideas and knowledge start to intertwine is when new ideas come together.
We like to create a scenario in our studio where people can learn. Our studio motto is ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’ a quote from William Blake. Our focus is on trying to treat everything you do as a learning experience, how can you do better? What would you like to learn? This year on a personal note, Harry is doing some extreme health and safety courses, and on the flipside, I’m qualifying to become a stage four pyrotechnician which gives me access to the 25-kilo black powder charges. As always with Harry and I, ones learning compliments the other.
How do you handle the pressure as each project escalates in scale and complexity?
Our comfort zone is when there is a tension point between what you can do in your stride and an opportunity to push yourself. That’s always exciting.
One of the things that are quite challenging is that sometimes you have vast budgets and sometimes you have barely anything, but we still need to create a compelling experience. Finding new and resourceful ways to work has been crucial.
How do you find working with commercial clients?
We’ve never had a problem. Weirdly, we’ve found artistic commissioners are more conservative as they need to remain within their curatorial strategy, whereas commercial clients tend to want something that’s never been done before, which is added pressure but exciting. The turnaround times can be super tight, but we enjoy working like that.
We see brands as the creative patrons of the 21st century! A lot of Renaissance artwork was commissioned by the Medici’s who were highly commercial entities. We don’t see brands as working against creative; if that’s the case, then you just haven’t come up with a good enough idea.
Our latest project The Lost Lagoon in collaboration with Captain Morgan. The brand is producing an elaborate bit of theatre based around a boating lake. Our interest in creative aligns with the brand’s ethos, and everyone has a definite role to play.
Which project has had the most significant impact on the studio’s development?
I think it’s the on-going eruptions of development. The first one was the architectural banquet where we worked with esteemed architects like Lord Foster to design architectural jellies, resulting in an exhibition that fused food and design. The second was the cloud of gin and tonic, which garnered global attention.
Sometimes it can be a simple idea with a minimal build that can change everything. We did an exhibition at the Museum of Sex in New York. We had an installation called Jump For Joy, which was essentially a breast bouncy castle. For the first time, it put the museum on the front page. We had the New York Times head art critic come and bounce around on there, and he’s often very serious. We are excited about creating an environment where people can let their boundaries down.
Health and safety is at the centre of your practice. Can you talk a little about this?
We are really into extreme health and safety, due to our pursuit of danger. The difference between perceived risk and actual risk is important, and we want to create unique experiences. We did a project with the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in London about psychoactive plants. Guests got to do a tasting including trying psychedelic lotus tea which was used by the Egyptians and can essentially let you see other peoples auras with something like that we like to push the project but in a safe way. We worked with our toxicologist, Kew’s toxicologist and the NHS head toxicologist to make sure everything we were doing was safe, but still provides people with exciting experiences.
What keeps you motivated after achieving so much?
Living in a city like London is extraordinary. There is always something new and some phenomenal practitioners and cultural experiences to discover. I try and read a lot and experience a lot. However, I do believe there is only so much you can consume, after a couple of hours I’m always keen to get back to the workshop and start making things.