The eels, nearly two feet long and fine, slick specimens of their species, met their deaths in the scrubbed clean kitchens of Bompas & Parr, a London culinary design studio that defies pithy description. It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon and some on the Bompas & Parr team were preparing for a photo shoot for a big magazine later in the day. The theme of the shoot was "thinking differently." Thinking differently when you're Sam Bompas or Harry Parr, founders of the eponymous studio, involves eels.
"Do you want to see the eels?" asked Bompas, offhandedly excited. On the way to the kitchen – down the stairwell that has been painted to look like a mouth and throat, giant fleshy lips with giant white teeth ringing a disturbingly pink tunnel – Bompas explained that they'd had eels as "pets" in the past, although the longest any eel lasted was about a week: "Eels don't make good pets."
One eel, when we arrive in the stainless steel and tile kitchen, is already dead, a pool of thin red blood ink-spilling around its recently malleted head. Post-mortem spasms cause it to open its jaws and twitch, but it is well and truly dead – otherwise, the eel executioner assures me, it would have been flapping frantically. Which would have made the job of tying the late fish to a thin strip of lumber much more difficult. And it would have made the next part – waiting for rigor mortis to set in, untying it, and then painting it with flammable paste and setting it on fire – impossible. Bompas & Parr's vision for the photo shoot was flaming eel swords.
Of course it does. This is Bompas & Parr.
What Bompas & Parr do, and why it frequently involves eels, is difficult to explain. The last time I wrote about Bompas & Parr was five years ago, for American Way magazine (the article no longer appears on their site). Then, they were calling themselves "architectural foodsmiths" or "jellymongers", and their primary medium was jelly (in the British sense: think Jell-O). They'd started making jellies, Bompas told me then, because it seemed like the nostalgic treat of so many British birthday parties was primed for a comeback and they thought it might be fun. Bompas and Parr, who'd been friends since their days at posh boys' prep school Eton and through their respective geography and architecture university degrees, were lately loosed onto the working world and looking for something creative to do.
But what started with a booth selling jellies at a large summer festival in Regents Park in 2007 quickly led to weirder and more ambitious events. These installations and experiences drew on architecture, theatre, history, high and low concept art, and science and medicine, married in surprising ways to food. The following year, they teamed up with the London Festival of Architecture to organize an Architectural Jelly Competition, inviting a host of prestigious and obliging international architecture firms to enter designs made out of jelly (the designs were judged on, among other things, "wobble"). In 2009, they created the first breathable cocktail in the UK – a cloud of gin and tonic – as well as a 3-D map of the United States out of Jell-O, "glow-in-the-dark funeral jelly" for the San Francisco MoMA, an eight-course banquet made entirely of black food, and a lagoon of Courvoisier punch you could punt a raft in the shape of a giant orange slice across. It was all utterly unlike anything anyone – aside from food historians chronicling the culinary excesses of doomed aristocratic classes in ancient Rome and prerevolutionary France – had ever seen before. By the time I met them in 2010, they were so busy, they were turning away work.
Five years later, they still are. Their budgets are now in the millions of pounds, Bompas said, although he declined to be more specific about the company's finances. They still do bespoke jelly for parties or weddings (£800 plus VAT will get you enough jellies, in your wedding colors, to serve a large wedding); they'll also blow up your wedding cake for you, in case the point about not liking wedding cake wasn't clear, or outfit a private party with a Whisky Tornado (and a lot of really drunk guests). But more often, their clients are big names: The government of the UAE; the Museum of Sex in New York; Vodafone and the City of London; Truvia; Nike; Diageo, the boozy juggernaut that owns Baileys, Guinness, and Johnny Walker. And barring a few missteps – for example, the chocolate waterfall that was less Willy Wonka and more muddy Thames and that Bompas admitted was a bit of a nightmare to create – they've gone from strength to strength.
What interested Bompas and Parr in food and what has made them so successful is how quotidian food is but how exciting it can be. You need food to survive; but you don't necessarily need glow-in-the-dark ice cream or a steak cooked over molten lava – that's just fun. Said Bompas, food is so "very universal to human experience, that if you do something a little bit different, you could grab everyone's attention and get them excited about it."
"Profound, provocative, entertaining, food is really good at that. Literally, if you put a lot of sugar, fat, and salt inside someone, all these pleasure centers in the brain light up, people feel great," he continued. More than that, food is a brilliant framework for architecting an interactive good time. "Food's interesting because it's an arena that lets people be the heroes," said Bompas. "And when we're designing stuff, whether it's an installation or a meal, it's 'How do you create those moments where people can forge their own narratives?' Because that's often more interesting."
We're back upstairs in the officer conference room now, leaving the eels to their grim but glorious fates. The conference room, with its hyper-lurid neon chairs (mine's pink) and glossy white table, is a first for the company, and an indication of how much it has grown from its first home in a registered chemical laboratory that was also Bompas's apartment. This studio, on a backstreet in Southwark, is an open plan office – several rows of long, cluttered white tables serving as desks – equipped with a library of remarkable titles: White Trash Cooking, 500 Years of Tea, The Book of Symbols, Molecular Biology of the Cell, The Hungry Scientist, The New Encyclopaedia of Aphrodisiacs, The Encyclopaedia of Psychoactive Plants, Dune. It feels familiar, like the relaxed creative aesthetic of a small, quirky ad agency, but for the profusion of artifacts from past Bompas & Parr events, the collection of bespoke jelly moulds, and the faint scent of chocolate coming from the ornate, Rococco Cabinet Luxe that recently contained a cloud of vaporized chocolate.
Down the esophageal stairs is even less familiar. There's the stainless steel professional kitchen where the eels died, and a workshop packed tight with the tools of their strange trade: One wall is all green bins labeled "Various Paints", "Wax & Clay", "Adhesives Fillers/Sealers"; next to the garage door is the vacuum form machine, picked up on the cheap from a school that was no longer using it, that they use to make all of their jelly moulds. The enormous plaster head of an iguanodon, an homage to the famous Iguanodon Dinner Party of New Year's Eve 1853, stares up at the ceiling from atop a stack of boxes. He's leftover from that time they, in partnership with Courvoisier, transformed a huge Belgravia mansion into an "experiential meal" covering 730 years of food history, from the flooded, eel-infested basement to the carbonated grapes on the roof. When I visit, a member of the team has opened the garage door and is cleaning the industrial grade vaporizer, a cloud of aggressively artificial banana billowing into the car park.
A row of red boiler suits in varying states of paint-splattered deterioration hangs next to the door of the workshop. "There was a time you could see who'd been working the hardest, doing all the stuff. So Harry's [boiler suit] is covered in stuff… mine is, like, pristine," Bompas laughed. "You could see who did the work and who did the talking about the work."
He's joking, but it's a little bit true. Bompas is more the eccentric showman, Parr the reserved partner; this division of labour seems to be in keeping with the grand tradition of entertainment partnerships. When I interviewed Parr back in 2010, I found him obliging and engaging, but I didn't get the impression being interviewed was an experience he enjoyed or cared to repeat; I didn't speak with him this time around. Bompas, on the other hand, cultivates a more outgoing, even eccentric persona. (For example, he uses words like "scads" in earnest, is fond of bow ties, and when I visit their studio, he's wearing what I'm beginning to think of as his trademark excitingly printed trousers, because he was wearing them the last time I saw him, too; you can see the trousers here, at his talk at Wired2014.) He is an amiable host, and genuinely enjoys talking about their work and the ideas behind it, often pulling out a pen and his small black notebook to doodle an illustration of what he's talking about, or, winningly, to write down something you've just said that interests him. Bompas acknowledged that their roles have increasingly diverged, noting, "Harry is much more technical process, Harry does a lot of the financial. I'm more people, end result, experience."
Their roles have necessarily evolved with the company, which has grown significantly. Bompas & Parr is no longer just Bompas and Parr, but a team of 13 full-time designers, chefs, producers, and makers. They still don't have a business plan, exactly, but they do have a management structure, time sheets, and status reports, said Bompas, all in service of making things easier to do. And they now go by the blander but more elastic and accurate moniker "experience designers."
"We were quite vague on what we were for quite a long time, but we didn't mind because we knew inherently what we were," Bompas explained. But as the company grew, it became apparent that no one else did: The people they worked with often had difficulty explaining what exactly Bompas & Parr did. Why "experience designers"? "The most important thing with everything is you've got an audience and they want something to happen to them," Bompas said. "'Experience designer' was the simplest… It doesn't sound, like, super glamorous, but I think the important thing is that it puts the audience first."
It's also a descriptor that reflects some of the other changes that the company has undergone since 2007 – their medium is no longer entirely food. "Over the last year or two years, we've been looking at some of these other things that are important to us, what makes us human… other things that fit that category are sex and death," said Bompas. "Everyone's going to die, most people have some sort of interest in sex. And then it's taking it and doing it in away that is luxurious, putting it into the entertainment sector."
Perhaps most obvious is their recent foray into sex, with the summer 2014 opening of their Funland exhibition at New York's Museum of Sex. Funland was an erotic carnival, making explicit what some argue is implicit in the "innocent" fun of the funfair: A bounce house fashioned from giant, squishy breasts, a climbing wall made of penises and bottoms, vaginas and noses, and a mirrored labyrinth that eventually led to the ever-elusive G-spot. Bompas & Parr's Snake Oil Lube, heralded as the greatest tasting lube on the planet and offering notes of "cotton candy", "showman's hair pomade" and "lurid showground paint", was on sale in the gift shop. Death has been more of a continual presence in their work, with "funeral jellies" and black banquets; and then there's the near-universal human quest for intoxication, another area that people "galvanize around", Bompas says, and one they frequent.
So far, Bompas & Parr have managed to stay ahead of the innovation curve, balancing on the profitable edge of outré and accessible. Part of that is in how they execute an experience, which comes down to a kind of formula: First, cultivate anticipation leading up to the event. At the event, deploy a distancing mechanism to divorce the participant from their quotidian life; a coat check and a request to silence phones help, a cocktail helps more. This, in combination with a wait or a queue in a well-set scene, primes participants for enchantment. And then, the big reveal, the wonderment, the action, and it had better be good (although, confided Bompas, "You can make anything exciting by having it on ice, on fire, in space.").
But then, you can't just spit people out on the pavement and toss their coats after them. Part of what makes the experience successful is giving participants ample space and time to savour what just happened. "With a formula like that, you can give people extraordinary experiences," Bompas said.
One of their more recent events, back in April, hewed to that formula, with what I felt were extraordinary results. The Spirited Dinner was a séance followed by a dinner, hosted at the Andaz Liverpool Hotel, a fine railway hotel of the Victorian red-rick and cream-stone variety built in 1884 and the lodgings of the fictional vampire hunter Van Helsing in Bram Stoker's Dracula. The event began in the lobby of the hotel, where we were asked to wait until the "Spirit", a figure in a heavy green hooded cloak, came to escort us up the rather mundane hotel elevator to the cocktails.
After the cocktails and mingling, we were led to the Gothic heart of the hotel – the Masonic Temple (and part-time cinema). Installed in 1912, the Masonic Temple is all Italian marble, mahogany paneling, gilt accents, arcane symbols, overlooked by the bronze bust of the Grand Master, HRH the Duke of Connaught, and lighted by flickering candles; a huge gold starburst ringed by gold Zodiac figures decorated the sky blue ceiling, the floor black-and-white checkered marble tiles. Heavy, dark wood chairs lined the walls and in the centre, directly under the Zodiac, four more chairs faced a large, wooden throne. It was like the set of National Treasure and I mean that in the best way possible.
I was directed by our spirit conductor for the evening, illusionist Philipp Oberlohr, to sit in one of the four chairs in the centre. I blushed. The air in the room was charged with awkwardness and excitement; the roughly 50 of us there were all a little giggly with anticipation. Oberlohr made me put away my notepad and pen. I blushed even more.
I can mostly remember what happened next, although perhaps owing to the pre-séance cocktail, it's a little hazy. Oberlohr led me to the front of the room, where I was tasked with sorting a stack of black and white photos of people I'd never seen before into a "good feeling" and a "bad feeling" pile. As it turned out, all the "good feeling" people I chose were alive. All the "bad feeling" people were dead – it said so on the back of their photo, which I could not see while sorting. How I, an acknowledged unbeliever, managed this act of mediumship was down to Oberlohr's skills as an illusionist. The rest of the séance continued in this vein – Oberlohr "contacted" the spirit of Edna Maythorpe, who, he told us, had been a medium frequently employed by the Masons who built the Temple. Armed with this gently eerie fiction, Oberlohr, respectful and funny, performed feats of mindreading and physical "magic". Though I never once believed that we were actually in the presence of a helpful spirit, I wanted to.
After the séance, we were led – via the bathrooms, thankfully – to the dining room, where we sat at long tables, with mounds of melted wax and guttering candles as centerpieces. Zenner cards (the kind Dr. Venkman used in Ghostbusters to test the effect of positive reinforcement on ESP in that hapless be-fro'd undergrad) were under our dinner napkins and a real, live fortune-teller was on hand for readings. But conversation was already inspired, even without those props; I found myself talking spirituality, religion, and kids with the women opposite me, women I'd only just met. Dinner was theatrical and delicious – fois gras in the shape of a bone, roasted birds served from a cart spewing dry ice smoke and nag champa incense, a vanilla blancmage in the unsettling form of Harry Parr's face for dessert. At the end of the evening, we were all given the opportunity to drink a shot of something highly spirited from a goblet made from a human skull. It was very not boring and gave me a good story to trot out for weeks after.
The event also highlighted something else about Bompas & Parr experiences. The Spirited Dinner was, by Bompas & Parr standards, quite intimate, but nearly everyone who attended must have shared something about it on social media, judging by Twitter and Instagram (a lot of pictures of the blancmage Harry Parr); my own posts about it satisfyingly piqued my friends' curiosity. This is what Bompas & Parr are designing for now: Not just the immediate experience itself, but also how participants represent it to their friends and followers on social media.
"That has become such an important signifier of identity, which is where we've sort of lucked out with food because food has become, like, the most photographed thing on Instagram apart from cats," Bompas explained. "People are looking for interesting things to use to perform their sense of identity, in the way they would have once done with fashion labels, for example." Bompas & Parr now put together installations with an eye to the Instagrammable moment: "We design everything for the phone, we just sit there with an installation… and look at it through my phone. If it looks great, that's good… because that's ultimately how it will be remembered, how people will actually view it."
This isn't to say that the experiences are shallow or somehow reduced by the fact that they are designed to be socially shared. "You still need real world experiences for people to feed as content. If anything, this is the ongoing performance of people's lives, the ongoing autobiography, it means they constantly need new content… which suits our business model because we just do new stuff all the time," explained Bompas.
And they do. It feels like a rare thing that a company that started off just doing fun, exciting things is still, nearly eight years later, doing fun, exciting things, and even more rare, that after the necessary business-ification, everyone involved still enjoys it. "You're sitting there, 'I'm really stressed,' but you're stressed about the most absurd stuff. 'Today's stress: Can I get a bath in to fill it with jelly?'" laughed Bompas. "It's fun. They're good problems to have in your life."