Back Chat: Sam Bompas of Bompas & Parr on why creativity can be taught

From the showman PT Barnum to Salvador Dali’s cookbook, we find out what inspires architectural foodsmith Sam Bompas as he dreams up increasingly outlandish flavour-based experiences.

Photography by Ben Ottewell

What’s been keeping you busy?

The first thing is Alcoholic Architecture, our breathable cloud of gin and tonic. It has an albino python in the ladies bathroom and you can drink from a real human skull as well as breathing in this cloud of gin and tonic which intoxicates through the lungs and eyeballs. It’s a self initiated project – effectively an experiential marketing activity dressed up as a bar. There’s a compelling case within that for brands to do powerful experiential activity and actually make money rather than just a good way to spend their marketing budget.

Also, we have another agenda – our higher calling is to open the British Museum of Food [opening for three months from 23 October]. The problem with museums is they don’t make an awful lot of money, so we thought we would open a bar and cross-subsidise the museum with the bar revenue.

The first exhibition is an interactive journey along the alimentary canal in which you are the chewed up bolus of food and you go along the gastrointestinal tract in one of those awkward massage chairs you see at the airport. It’s trying to find that universal commonality between us relating to food, with the understanding that the gastrointestinal tract actually has more brain cells than the head of a cat, so you should really trust your gut feelings.

Who is your biggest inspiration?

I love the showmanship of PT Barnum, the fact he was able to take two mangy buffalo and turn that into a spectacle that attracted tens of thousands of people.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the work of Edward Bernays. I like his techniques rather than maybe his ethos as some of his work is pretty dark. To get more people to smoke Lucky Strike he made green the most fashionable colour of the season. He’s the chap that can be held responsible for persuading ladies to smoke at a time when they didn’t in public, by getting débutantes and linking smoking to the women’s rights movement by rebranding cigarettes as torches to freedom.

Where does your inspiration come from?

We have an epic gustatory library. I’ve got a network of antiquarian book dealers up and down the country so they come straight to me whenever they have anything really rather unusual – wondrous books like Sophia Loren’s cookbook or the White Trash Cookbook, which has surprisingly good photography. We’ve got Salvador Dali’s cookbook, which is bonkers and brilliant. All of this is go-to creativity for us whenever we start a project.

Which project do you wish you’d worked on?

I’d like to scale up some of the stuff we’ve done, such as cooking with lava – a banquet for 500 people for a sort of lava party including music acts duetting with seismic activity. You can use lava to do other things like heat hot tubs – it’s very exciting and looks like the apocalypse is happening as you do it.

Any gripes at the moment?

There are two words in the ad industry that make me angry – one which is brave. Asking if the client is going to be brave, is for me like asking if they’re going to spunk their money on something that’s probably inappropriate for them. It makes it sound like we’re selling snake oil where it’s not needed.

The other is creativity. We are constantly told, gosh you’re so creative. But I don’t come from a creative background. I studied geography and I used to work in financial marketing. There’s this strange enshrining of so-called creativity, which I think can be very hobbling for many people.

Creativity is something that can be taught, something you can learn very easily. Creatives in ad agencies actually don’t often make real things and it means that their creative vision is so divorced from the practical reality, so the results often aren’t that impressive or they’ve very abstract. If you’ve only got to make an advert, it doesn’t really have to be real.

How can marketing change the world?

I almost see brands now as the major patrons. You look back at some of the greatest artists throughout history and marvel at their skill and practice, and what we tend to forget is that they had patrons too, the power mongers of the day. Given that it’s the brands that now have the wealth to commission the work, I always look at brands to be those creative patrons. Perhaps in many years’ time that will be the work that remains as a testament to our culture. One of the things that’s wonderful is that brands are able to make things happen that make people’s lives delightful, which is wonderful.

Sam Bompas is one half of Bompas and Parr, alongside Harry Parr. The studio first came to prominence through its expertise in jelly-making and has since gone on to create immersive flavour-based experiences, from an inhabitable cloud of gin and tonic to the world’s first multi-sensory fireworks.

Back Chat is a regular feature published at the back of The Drum's fortnightly print issue. This article was first published in the 14 October issue. Photography by Ben Ottewell

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