Bompas & Parr Interview
'Come in, come in – you’ve got to see this.' Sam Bompas and Harry Parr have just finished their photoshoot for Frame, and Sam wants to show me the rushes. As we scroll through the shots of him alternately admiring, kissing and eating a jelly version of Harry’s face, Sam bursts into laughter and high-fives photographer Jasper Clarke in delight.
Why jelly? Over the seven years that Sam and Harry have been in business – as Bompas & Parr – it’s become their signature dish, as I should well know, having been a guest at their very first event in 2008, the Architectural Jelly Banquet. It featured a variety of jellified replicas of buildings designed by luminaries such as Richard Rogers and Sir Norman Foster, plus activities – would you believe jelly wrestling? – and special cocktails. Sadly, I didn't cover myself in glory that evening but in jelly. Sam’s reaction to my role at the banquet is, nevertheless, heart-warming. I inadvertently heckled Heston Blumenthal? 'Great!' It was two of my friends who started the food fight? 'Amazing!' Nici and Hannah, all is forgiven.
Sam recalls talking to someone from The Guardian at the event, when ‘a massive piece of St Paul’s Cathedral slapped down between my feet. The journalist was mortified to see the jellies being desecrated, but I thought it was awesome. It was exactly what we wanted. We learned a lot about how people behave that evening. They see jelly and think: why not have a food fight? They see a jelly-wrestling ring and jump right in.’
This is what Bompas & Parr does: creates entertaining, provocative, glorious events that people talk about for years to come. Exploding wedding cakes, the world’s first flavour conductor (a full-sized church organ that combines light, sound, taste and smell within one mighty machine), whisky tornadoes, chocolate waterfalls, lava barbecues, snake-oil lube, a bouncy castle made of breasts: Bompas & Parr has done it all and more. Their invariable success has seen the pair established as the first port of call for anyone – from New York’s Museum of Sex (where the booby bouncy castle can be found) to Louis Vuitton – looking for a riotous visual feast to titillate the senses.
From starting out as two people concocting jellies at home, Bompas & Parr has grown to become a studio with more than ten full-time employees. As well as a burgeoning reputation, however, the increasing scale of the activities gave everyone involved a considerable problem: they didn’t know how to explain to people at the pub what it was that they actually did.
After sifting through titles and rejecting suggestions like 'jellymongers' and 'food artists', Sam and Harry finally settled on calling themselves 'experience designers'. 'It fits everything we do,' says Sam. 'We work with everything from food to sex and drugs. We recently did some workshops with Kew Gardens on intoxicating plants. No matter whether our work appears in a gallery, a theatre, a restaurant – or up a mountain – there’s always a fine line between delight and disgust. We want to provide experiences that are extreme or that people wouldn’t normally have, because that’s what will make it memorable. If it’s an everyday thing, nobody will remember it. Our aim is to give people [Sam adopts a portentous voice] the best day of their lives.'
It's to Harry and Sam’s great credit that his statement doesn’t sound completely ridiculous. After all, these are two chaps who can justifiably claim to have improved a spectacle the size of New Year's Eve in London by producing the world’s first multisensory firework display. As red pyrotechnics erupted in the sky, strawberry-flavoured clouds enveloped crowds watching along the banks of the Thames. 'An event like that is going to be fun no matter what. "Fun" is a really important word by the way. All we add is an extra layer of creativity – to give people something they can engage with on an intellectual or purely sensory level.'
This is just one (modest) approach to conjuring fantastic schemes. A more flamboyant route is to seek out neglected – some might say eccentric – pleasure troves and to put a unique spin on them. 'Think about boating lakes. There are nine in London, all offering a good day out, but they don't register within the city's cultural sphere. But put one on the roof of Selfridges and get Studio Toogood to do the design; have the hottest bar of the moment, ECC, make the cocktails; ask Rare Tea Company to brew up some of its products and Caravan to provide the coffee – and you’ve got a Mount Olympus of London talent. Suddenly a boating lake is the place to be.'
It's a typical Bompas & Parr success story: come up with a good idea and give talented people the space and opportunity to execute it to the best of their abilities. The same applies to Harry and Sam, whose roles are clearly demarcated: Harry handles the technical and design side of the business, and Sam looks after words, writing and people. As if to illustrate the fact, while I'm in the studio Harry doesn't move from his computer, and Sam does all the talking. It's a role he's born to play. He's possessed by a restless, infectious energy that renders almost any flight of fancy credible. As he makes tea, he pulls out a couple of books from their impressive collection. One's a Sarah Ferguson (Duchess of York) diet book; the other is a guide to shamanic egg cleansing. The next minute he's hatched a plan to get Sarah's daughters, Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, to perform egg massages as a wheeze to promote the UK. It sounds like the best idea in the world – and in his hands it might even work.
'I love showmanship. A great hero of mine is Alexis Soyer, the Victorian Jamie Oliver. He was totally awesome – the greatest chef of the day. Soyer received an invitation to do the catering for the Great Exhibition [the first World’s Fair] in 1851, but he turned it down because he wasn’t allowed to serve wine. He opened a food theme park instead. It included a grotto with a waterfall that parted as soon as anybody entered and a rudimentary lightning show above people’s heads. A whole ox was roasted every day – it was just amazing. Not only that, he invented gas cookery and designed a stove that was used by the British army for the next hundred years. He had a philanthropic side, too. He opened soup kitchens in East London, was sent by the British Government to sort out the Irish potato famine and worked alongside Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War.'
Aside from Soyer's gift for flair and spectacle, perhaps the most interesting facet of his influence on Bompas & Parr is the way in which his inventions, while fantastic, were rooted in reality, not sleight of hand. 'One thing I impress on everyone in the studio is the importance of "realness". I hate it when stuff is just set dressing. I'd much rather tell you a real story about something that’s amazing in itself, not because of a theatrical production around it. I’ve just had a skull cup made, and it’s a real human skull. I'm quite excited about that. We recently worked on Symphony in Blue for Johnnie Walker. It's their best quality whisky, so you don’t mix it with anything apart from ice. How can you make it more wonderful? Get ice that formed before the dawn of civilization, before anyone had ingested alcohol. After a couple of days on the phone, we eventually found a Danish company selling ice that’s caught as it falls from glaciers into the sea. That’s real 10,000-year-old ice – and it comes with an eco-certificate.'
As Sam's new skull cup suggests, it's not always sunshine, lollipops and rainbows in the world of Bompas & Parr. The day before the interview I go to the Sloane Museum ('a national treasure', according to Sam) to visit Monumental Masonry, their vision of the future of funerals and mausoleums. 'We have a long-standing interest in death. When Michael Jackson died, I was fascinated by the way the news spread throughout the world. As a quick response, we made pyramid-shaped black cherry and champagne jellies that waiters served with one white glove. A while later the director of the oldest funeral firm in Australia invited us to give a talk on funeral food – in a funeral home. Nobody knew how to behave. A hearse was there, as well as funeral attendants. It’s a place where all they do is funerals, so they sat around looking funereal, and everyone had to sign the book of condolences. Nobody knew whether to laugh or cry. But as the talk began and people from lots of religious backgrounds discussed their funeral traditions, the atmosphere lightened up. In the end, it was a very celebratory event. It inspired us to curate Monumental Masonry – and, strangely enough, my mother is now speaking to a stonemason who was involved in our project about commissioning her gravestone.'
This mix of coincidence, tradition and fascination for the foibles of the modern world is a recurring theme in Bompas and Parr's modus operandi. They have a great respect for history, whether it’s the deeds of Alexis Soyer, classic recipes, or their republication of a long-lost Victorian book on gastronomy and biology told from the viewpoint of a stomach.
'History's important because a lot of it's about storytelling – and good stories stick. If something delighted people 400 years ago, it will probably still work today. And if something is still used after a few hundred years, then it’s probably really, really good. We have a big library and read quite a bit to generate ideas. Every creative gets ideas from other places and adapts them, but if you use an idea from three centuries years ago and adapt it, nobody complains that another designer did the same thing last year. In fact, because the original source of inspiration is so unexpected, the historical piece legitimizes the final outcome. And because we use modern tools and techniques, we invariably arrive at something quite different.'
Having said all that, Sam doesn't give the impression of being terribly worried about people poking holes in the things he makes. He's far too busy throwing himself into his work. 'I enjoy life. I love what I do, and we have a lot of fun. Harry and I were at Harvard recently to give a lecture on how taste and architecture intertwine. 'Temple of the Tongue' it was called. Afterwards, we went to the one decent bar in town. It was really boring: people were chatting each other up with maths books, and we saw one girl drink six cups of hot water in a row. It was so sad. So we started sending loads of weird drink orders to every table, and it wasn’t long before the place erupted; people started mingling and became really festive.'
That's probably the best thing about Bompas and Parr: they have no pretensions. What they've got, they want to share – whether it's good times or knowledge. They don't want to be what Sam calls 'blessed beings' on a pedestal, and they're refreshingly open about the uncomplicated nature of their work. 'Anyone can do great creative work with the right support and parameters. The whole point is that if you want to do something, do it. After giving so many lectures, I realized that nobody really gives a shit about what we're saying. What they want to hear is that you can do something absurd like make jelly full time. Those lectures are about influencing people in a positive way.'
In the short term, such thoughts might lead to an unusually serious business book, which would convey the lessons these two have learned during the past seven years. (Sam's putative title is 'How to do something absurd and make money from it plus have fun all day', so maybe it won’t be that serious after all.) In the long term, well, Sam is thinking very large scale as usual. 'We've got some big plans – unfortunately, I can't tell you what they are – concerning something quite major along the lines of education and policy-making. As we get older, our audience does too, and you start getting interested in things other than good parties. Politics is about as rock'n'roll as it gets when you're 50, and we want to age with dignity. We’ll be moving into more serious areas as we grow up.'
This interview originally featured in Frame #103 Mar/Apr 2015. Check out the latest issue, Frame #104 for more interior design inspiration.
To bring the Bompas & Parr story to life, Sam Bompas shares the story of what it took for Bompas & Parr to realise the world's biggest jelly. Stay tuned for the extended interview Sex Drugs & Jelly, soon to be unveiled exclusively for our online readers.