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Adventures in Food Design: An Interview with Sam Bompas, Jellymonger

In which Bompas talks to GOOD about playing with food, being a jelly entrepreneur, and a gigantic cake for Will & Kate's royal wedding.

No offense to GOOD, but if I could work anywhere else in the world, it would probably be at Sam Bompas and Harry Parr's south London jelly factory*. [*NOTE: Jelly is known as Jell-O in the U.S.]

Sam and Harry launched their own company, Bompas & Parr, in 2007, with an architectural jelly banquet that included a wobbly Millennium Bridge designed by Norman Foster and ended in a food fight, during which someone hurled a jelly St. Paul's Cathedral out of the window.

Since then, they have curated a range of spectacular culinary events, including flooding a building with punch so that you could row across it in a boat, setting up the world's first temporary artisanal chewing gum factory in a shopping mall, and creating a breathable, walk-in cocktail.

Bompas & Parr's playful experimentation is yet another kind of food design, and so, as part of my mini series of interviews exploring the topic, I asked Sam Bompas what he thought food design is, and could be. You can read our conversation below.

GOOD: What does food design mean to you?

Sam Bompas: It’s a difficult thing to define. A lot of industrial, processed food, like McDonalds, is very elaborately designed. In front of me right now is a Tate and Lyle's Golden Syrup tin, which is a great bit of food design in terms of packaging, and dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. Meanwhile, humans have been engineering food—breeding animals and cooking vegetables—for millennia.

The term food design has only really gained traction recently. In the past, for example, at Tate & Lyle, the person dealing with the food product itself would be a food technologist, and the person dealing with the packaging would be a graphic designer or an industrial designer, and then the person optimizing the sugar cane would be an agronomist.

Nowadays, you have a synthesis of all these kinds of food design, as people look at food more holistically. As much as anything, I think that synthesis is symptomatic of today's zeitgeist. With information and tools much more easily available, it's possible for people to think about and do things that would previously have been in separate spheres of specialist knowledge. People today wear a lot of different hats, so they can design food at the molecular level, but they can also be a food stylist, and then they can also design the delivery systems—plates and forks and so on. And even if you can't do something yourself, it's easier than ever to get in touch with someone who can, and work with them.

GOOD: Why, as designers, do you and Harry choose to work with food rather than something else?

Bompas: We came to food and drink through jelly, which is a magical substance. It's something that everyone gets excited about. You can give almost anyone a jelly and they’ll love it. They'll have a jelly story from their childhood, they'll make it wobble, and they'll most probably smile. The funny thing about food in general is that it is such a central part of human existence. Everyone has a relationship with food, whether they like it or not.

GOOD: If humans have been experimenting with redesigning food for millennia already, what’s your sense of the possibilities that remain?

Bompas: Harry and I have only been at this for a few years, and we’ve already found that there are an enormous number of things you can do with food that aren't really being done currently, and that give people an enormous amount of joy. We both have non-food backgrounds, so we innovate by applying techniques and methods that are common in the field of architecture and design to food, where they’re not so common.

GOOD: What are you hoping to achieve by redesigning food?

Bompas: Basically, we want anyone who comes to one of our events or installations to go away so overwhelmed that when they try to tell their friends about it, they can't even really describe it.

GOOD: One of the threads that has emerged from the conversation thus far is an underlying hostility toward food design—lots of people immediately assume the term refers to evil corporations manipulating our food for profit. Your work puts some fun back into the idea of tinkering with food, and perhaps even reclaims it as a vital part of human culture.

Bompas: I think that's really important. There is such a thing as bad food, but Harry and I think that there's a time and a place for pretty much every food. We're just keen to get people really enjoying their food. I think if you enjoy your food and actually pay attention to it, then that's the first step in having a healthy relationship with it.

Even though we’re designing a sensory, visceral, playful experience, we are also, I hope, helping people relate to food more consciously and adventurously. If we could do what we do at a much larger scale, then I think we could make a significant impact in that way.

GOOD: Over at the Glass House Conversation site, you suggested that “In its current manifestation, “food design” is more happily placed within the arts sphere.” Does that mean that you see food design’s only real value lying in arts and culture?

Bompas: That comment came from my impression of the state of food design at the moment, based on the people who self-define as food designers. My impression is that, whether you think about them as designers or not, a lot of scientists working at major corporations wouldn't necessarily describe themselves as food designers, whereas a lot of the self-defined food designers working now share an ethos with the art world. I don't think that the arts sphere is the only place where food design is important, but that's where it's largely active at the moment.

Artists often deal with issues like education, health, and politics, but usually in the form of commentary rather than recommendations or plans, and that's also where self-defined food designers are operating right now. But I do think that food design has the potential to do much more, down the line.

That said, Harry and I don't really bother with these kinds of boundaries and definitions. The most important thing is doing good work. That means that we do stuff working as artists, in an arts context, we do stuff working with galleries as their caterers, we do stuff working for private companies commissioning us as artists, and we do stuff for private companies in a more straightforward business context.

One model that could be useful if we want to encourage exploration of the true potential of food design is the Wellcome Trust, which funds projects that contribute to a public understanding of the biomedical sciences. They have scientists working on pure research projects, they have artists working on purely artistic projects, and then they have collaborations and things that are somewhere between the two. Perhaps what we actually need is some big corporation like Kraft to set up an equivalent to the Wellcome Trust that can use a massive endowment to fund food design projects across the arts and sciences, in the public interest.

GOOD: Earlier, I spoke with Derek Yach, PepsiCo's Senior Vice President of Global Health and Agriculture Policy, and he suggested that food R&D could learn a lot from the pharmaceutical industry. Interestingly, the Wellcome Trust was endowed by Burroughs Wellcome & Co., a massive pharmaceutical company that is now part of GlaxoSmithKline.

Bompas: Well, there you go. That would be brilliant. Maybe Pepsi are the people to take the lead and endow a non-profit trust. I'm sure they would see a return in terms of creativity.

GOOD: It seems, nonetheless, as though you and Harry can always find the funding to make your ideas real, even if they’re as crazy as flooding a building with punch—you just have to be a bit more flexible.

Bompas: That’s an attitude born of desperation, actually. But I would say that whenever we have been in dire, dire straits, we've just called people up and found that they are actually interested in getting involved and helping us pull it off in the end.

We get more letters of rejection than we do anything else, and an enormous number of our emails go unanswered, but the payoff for the ones that do work is immense.

There's one rejection letter up on the wall at the moment from the Queen, saying that she can't come to our jelly banquet, and that she's very saddened by this. She would have come, but she'd already made a prior arrangement for that day, apparently. So that was touching.

GOOD: Maybe you'll get to make a wedding jelly for Will and Kate instead.

Bompas: We're keeping our fingers crossed! We haven't received a call yet, though…

Weirdly enough, we were just asked if we could make a Will and Kate celebratory cake that was large enough so that you could have two people standing on top at the same scale in relation to the giant cake as figurines would be on a normal sized cake. They wanted it to be all proper edible fruitcake. Then they asked how much it would cost and we said, “Probably about a quarter of a million pounds [approximately $385,000 dollars].” The thing is, it would be enough cake for something like 80,000 people. I don't think we're going to be making that one.

For more opinions on the different futures we might create by redesigning food, as well how we should fund and direct food design research to make sure that we end up with the version of the future we actually want, don't miss my earlier interviews with Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, Derek Yach, Senior Vice President of Global Health and Agriculture Policy at PepsiCo, and Anthony Dunne, of design provocateurs Dunne & Raby, as well as all the comments and ideas captured on the Glass House Conversation website. Sam and Harry's first book, Jelly with Bompas & Parr, is also well worth checking out.

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