This interview is part of a series featuring the presenters participating in this year's Core77 Conference, "Now What? Launching & Growing Your Creative Business" , a one-day event aimed to equip attendees with tangible skills and toolkits to help produce and promote their products or services.
By now, everyone is probably familiar with what we're calling the "Ice Cream Museum phenomenon"—you know, those outrageous environments designed strictly to look good on people's Instagram feeds. As our phone and social media obsessions grow, many artists and brands have been turning towards this form of immersive marketing to capture our attention, but London-based multi-sensory design studio Bompas & Parr has always aimed to do more since their founding in 2007. Their mission of actually educating the public about food through their immersive experiences has made Bompas & Parr pioneers in their field and has set them apart from competitors since day one. Since their founding in 2007, Bompas & Parr has brought a variety of noteworthy experiences to life, including Alcoholic Architecture (an inhabitable cloud of gin and tonic), a multi-sensory fireworks display for London New Year's Eve 2013, the Taste Experience for the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, the British Museum of Food and more.
Jelly Parlour of Wonders: Before focusing on more immersive experiences, Bompas & Parr started off as a small stand in a market, specializing in making jellies in unique flavors and shapes
How exactly did Bompas & Parr become the influential design studio they are today? We'll leave that dynamic story for Harry Parr, Co-Founder of Bompas & Parr to tell during his keynote presentation at the 2018 Core77 Conference, titled "Have Your Cake and Eat it Too: How to Create a Business You're Actually Passionate About". In the meantime, we sat down with Harry to learn more about Bompas & Parr and their mission to educate and inspire through immersive food experiences:
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What are some of your favorite projects that Bompas & Parr has worked on over the years?
In terms of scale, probably the fireworks that we did in London in 2013. Multi-sensory fireworks are actually amazingly simple—you see a red firework in the sky and you smell strawberry, or perhaps you see gold fireworks and edible banana confetti rains down from the sky. But there were so many different considerations involved. Some of them went into the world of new age scientists, about how people experience flavor. When we started the project, we wanted to do a deconstructed English trifle as our flavor to go with the fireworks, but then we realized that would be a bit complicated. If you're in an open environment and suddenly these flavors are coming at you, how are you going to know what they are? So we thought we'd use fruit instead, which is something quite universal.
Machine used to create multi-sensory fireworks
Using this basic strawberry flavor was fine, but then we had to work out how to reinforce this flavor. So, we projection-mapped a picture of a strawberry a hundred feet high onto building across the river so people could see a picture of the strawberry when they saw the red fireworks. We also had a scratch and sniff program to remind them what strawberry smells like. It sounds crazy, but without visual references, you wouldn't really know.
On the same level, how do you put flavor into the mouths of a quarter million people? What about allergies? What about alcohol potentially evening the taste out? There was a whole load of work, including re-engineering a bunch of flavors that would be suitable for this. Clean-up was another consideration. The non-eaten confetti needed to be cleaned up somehow, so we made a special edible confetti that would biodegrade within a certain timeframe. There was also pollution of the river to consider. So it was really a project where everything had to come together seamlessly.
Notice the strawberry projected onto the building on the left!
Then on a smaller scale, I'd been speaking to this artist in Syracuse for years who makes lava artificially, but he had never cooked on it. So one time, we were in New York and thought, "let's go to upstate and see if we can cook over lava". We just made really simple, good steak, but it was amazing because there was no burning flavor. It's actually pretty unlike grilling meat on a hot grill, a gas grill or a barbecue because there's no smokey flavor. It was just pure heat, which created an incredible flavor.
As someone with a design background, and now a food background, when did you start realizing that working with scientists to accomplish your goals was necessary?
I think that the nice thing about working with scientists is that they have very particular areas of interest. They don't necessarily know how to communicate in a way that people are interested in—they're often a bit dry. But I think when you combine the kind of work that we do, with the work that, say, neuroscientists are doing, there's a whole platform to experiment with. And the subject matter's fun because it's food, it's drink, it's real people having these experiences. I think together, you can do interesting work.
How your work evolved, or not evolved, based on people's increased social media use?
It has changed hugely in terms of the way people approach things. We've always been interested in praising work that people learn from. We often work with collaborators who are very interested in historical stories. Some work in science, or a similar industry, where there can be a whole layer of information that informs a project. We like to explain this to people, but not force it down their throats. So the information is always there if they're looking for it.
"It doesn't really matter what you do, as long as you're passionate about it. Frankly, you just need to work harder than the next person. If you're not willing to do that, then you won't get anywhere."
Historically, our work has always been about the moment, the reveal, when people come to an event—that wow factor when they see something they don't expect. That sense of awe ties quite nicely into people's current obsession with taking photos of everything. So of course we've designed with that in mind. Now it's more important than ever, but it's always been there. For us, it's more about trying to make sure we don't lose the interesting narratives and the research that goes on behind our projects, and trying to get people interested in that information again. Many people have forgotten that there's more to things than taking photographs.
What are some techniques you use to try to remind people of the deeper context behind your work?
Besides the subject matter, whether it's working with actors or staff, it's all about having people at our events who are really passionate about them. We try to do lots of things that are interactive. Whether it's making or experiencing something, it's about trying to force people slightly out of their comfort zones and giving them a reward for doing so. When we design, risk and reward are really important factors that we think about.
You and Sam Bompas also founded the British Museum of Food in London. How did this project come about?
The Chewing Gum Factory in Dubai, where visitors were able to make their own chewing gum
Over the years, we've been interested in education and entertainment. We were putting on these immersive events that were unusual and different, but that also had the flair of study and research behind them. It's also always struck us that there was no museum of food at the time. There wasn't one in the UK, and there really aren't any in the world. Of course, just recently, in New York, you have your Museum of Food, but it's really coming from the same point: Why are we not celebrating food and putting it in the right context?
Food is some of the post popular, frequently posted content on Instagram, but I think people need to really learn more about the food and have a more balanced opinion about it. We tend to get quite led by sights and sensations, diets and so on with food, but I think people that really immerse themselves and have enough information are able to come to the right conclusion about things. So the education aspect, making people aware of all the different approaches to food, is important. It's not about what's good or what's bad, it's about saying, "This is the world of food, it's wonderful" We're all consuming, all the time. It's just, we should know more about what we're doing and have more views on it as well.
So our idea with the museum, really, is to make it a modern museum. It's much more about having an experience, and exploring things from a different angle. It's not about huge bits of information, and so on. It's really about opening people's eyes to the world of food and letting them have the space to come up with their own conclusions and thoughts about things.
That's what we're doing with our ice cream show in London at moment, SCOOP. The Museum of Ice Cream is huge in the States, but this is different because it's not just an Instagram museum. It actually starts with a historical collection of 14,000 objects, and then we use those to tease out subjects that are relevant to people now. It's a different context.
Bompas & Parr has grown from two people to around 20 people over the years. What has scaling up been like, and how did you decide it was time to expand your team?
It's been an adventure, really! I think it's more about trying to do as many different projects as possible and being exposed to different experiences. So for us, we just needed a larger team. But we also want people to be able to contribute to the company as well. It's not like Sam and I come up with all the ideas—we try to share things around as much as possible. It's all about innovation, doing things that are new, and testing ourselves all the time. That way we can always do something difficult that someone else wouldn't try.
What do you think is one of the most common misconceptions people have about starting your own business?
I don't think anyone thinks it's easy, but of course you have no idea what the challenges might be. You have to be quite resilient. The tricky thing is, as you grow, you become more removed from the actual reason why you started the project in the first place. It's hard to keep growing while also keeping your wit and keeping things challenging. It's not particularly easy! But you can choose what to do everyday, so that's good.
Is there anything you in particular wish you had known before getting into this?
No, I think not, because Sam and I have enjoyed being totally naïve about all sorts of things. Because otherwise, we wouldn't have done all the projects that we've done. We would have thought, "That's impossible for the budget," or, "Technically that's too hard," or, "That's not how it works." Growing up with the business has been beneficial.
Do you have any words of advice, especially young people, looking to start their own business?
You can do anything—just try it out, and people will be interested. You can see what works. Really, most of our projects just start with having an idea and persuading someone to give us the space to do it. Then we go, "Oh shit, how are we going to do it?" And then we work it out. Having the event date as a deadline, or any deadline to help get stuff done, is important. It doesn't really matter what you do, as long as you're passionate about it. Frankly, you just need to work harder than the next person. If you're not willing to do that, then you won't get anywhere.