Graham Bell is a South African born entrepreneur who moved to the UK in 2000. Originally from an advertising background, Graham is now internationally renowned for being the Creative Director of Firecracker Works, a company he founded in 2007 which specialises in designing and building visually stunning, functional environments for the events industry, with all production done in-house at his London-based studio. Past clients have included the London Olympics, Quintessentially, Veuve Clicquot, Tommy Hilfiger and Google, along with a whole host of private parties in weird and wonderful locations, from the cliffs of Menorca to the Scottish highlands and everywhere in between.
Off duty, Graham and his Canadian wife live in the Surrey Hills and spend all their free time exploring the world and the hidden treasures it holds.
Tessa Packard [TP]: What is it about set design or event design that inspired you to set up Firecracker Works in 2007?
Graham Bell [GB]: I found that the industry was churning out the same look and feel, event after event and I was getting quite enraged that clients weren’t getting something new and creative every time they paid for a private party or event where in fact us – the event designers – have the ability to create pretty much anything the client desires (budget permitting obviously!). Oh, and most importantly, a dear friend – my industry mentor and very special client – put their faith and trust in me enough to push me to start it. Forever grateful.
[TP]: How would you describe the ethos or brand DNA of Firecracker Works?
[GB]: 1. If you have an idea, no matter how ludicrous it sounds, try us.. together we’ll find a solution 2. We are specialists in creating and building visually stunning environments 3. We’re a team, we get stuck in and help each other out, it’s all about the family.
[TP]: In the eleven years since founding Firecracker Works have you seen changing trends in the world of set design? What are your trend predictions for the next eleven?
[GB]: It’s night and day. A month after Firecracker was founded the first iPhone was launched. With the start of the smart phone era everything has become a background for a picture, whether it’s a brand or a bride walking down the aisle in a beautiful setting, it’s an engagement of the environment that you’ve created that far exceeds the viewership of the 200 so people in attendance. In the beginning it was about the environment as a whole, then it changed to be about that one Instashot (is that a word?) that makes all the difference. We’ve always strived to create the complete look so intend to create multiple Instashots! I feel that within the next few years we’re going to start to see how we can create the ‘hidden’ environment which becomes more like an urban myth or legend than something that’s pasted all over social media. I believe people want that personal, once in a lifetime experience that isn’t shared with 1.2m viewers… I don’t know I might be a little too old fashioned to think otherwise! We have the world at our fingertips, literally, and technology is going to get smarter and more engaging which is amazing, and how we use that in the “off the grid” environment will be the success story of the future.
[TP]: In your opinion, what would you say is the secret to growing and maintaining a successful brand or company in the creative industry?
[GB]: The company is the brand… With such a competitive industry, the only way you stand out is by people knowing that you stand out. I always want Firecracker to be know as the company that is willing to take a risk, take on a challenge and go further for their clients than the next company. It’s how people talk about you and the complete experience, not just the pretty pictures.
[TP]: To date, what has been the most ambitious project you have worked on and what made it so challenging?
[GB]: Tough one. There are many for very different reasons. We’ve set up a huge beer dispensing billboard in 4hrs. We’ve created a series of platforms on a cliffside in the Balearics using almost 10miles of timber and recreated the famed ‘Pricilla Queen of the Desert’ theatre show in a clients back yard! The challenges revolve mainly around budget, timings and location. Each one has to be adhered to. Its just a matter of getting the best creative solution to make it happen… seamlessly
[TP]: If money was no object, and anything was possible, what set would you choose to design for your very own landmark party? Details of everything from the location / decor / style / food / music etc please!
[GB]: Wow, now there’s a question… it’s always been about the elements for me: where are you? What’s around you? How does it feel? What does it smell like, how do guest react to their environment etc.
We’re in South Africa, in a beautiful place called Plettenberg Bay. In a small river mouth that leads into the ocean called the Sout River. As the river twists and turns on its journey to the ocean it leaves crescent shaped sandy banks with the wildest of African fauna and flora as its backdrop. The only way to get to one of these secluded beaches is either by boat or a tough 8hr hike. Getting into the river mouth by boat is only possible if the tide is right and the swell is high enough to avoid the Jurassic like cliff face approach. Once in, and having to walk whatever equipment we have high above our heads for the final 100m in chest high water, we set up a simple floral circle of proteas, the rustic, almost prehistoric national flower of South Africa which gentle ebbs and flows in the rising tide. In the background the cry of the majestic Fish eagle mixed in with a local trio of musicians murmuring gently on their instruments. The seating is a semicircle of thick woven blankets and oversized pillows placed amongst the proteas. Cream parasols, finished with taupe crewel detailing, are the only protection from the blazing sun, one way to soften up a staunchly South African male. The food, well, the food… freshly caught Giant East Coast Tiger prawns, Karoo lamb on the spit and beef fillet medallions with a garlic parsley butter jus all cooked on a Braai (South African BBQ) with a side of local fresh produce completing the sunset dinner. As guests arrived by boat, they need to leave by boat. However, since you have to wait for the tide to be at the right level, you might as well get your fill on a few G&T’s or a little Rock Shandy and wait for your ride. This was my wedding day!
[TP]: What is the strangest or most absurd brief you have ever been given?
[GB]: Find us an Abbey that has fallen into ruin that no-one has gotten married in before… or at least within the last 100years. We found one.
[TP]: What is the greatest routine challenge that you face in your business? And what would you say is the hardest thing about operating in the industry that you do?
[GB]: Getting the brief right. It’s essential to ask the questions that complete the objective as soon as possible. The industry is so incredibly fast moving that you have to make sure each element is complete and finished in each stage of the delivery, from concept through to quoting, build in the workshop and then installation on site. If one of those elements aren’t rock solid it all becomes very painful. The magic we do in the background to produce a rabbit out of a hat is something the client is very often oblivious to. I think one of the hardest things about the industry is the word “just”. It always seems to prefix a term where something should be simple enough, doable enough or cheap enough…. surely, right? We’ve learnt to navigate around the challenge of the word “just”.
[TP]: What is the best advice you have ever been given?
[GB]: Ha, I actually can’t write it in the way it was said to me, but essentially it goes a little something like this: Be vulnerable enough for people to see you for who you really are and what you have to offer but not vulnerable enough for them to take advantage of you. Dress that how you want!
[TP]: What is your future ambition for Firecracker Works?
[GB]: I don’t want Firecracker to be the biggest Design and Production Company, but rather the one that produces the best work… globally 🙂
[TP]: What is the one company in the world that you would most like to design a set for?
[GB]: The company that gives us the trust and autonomy to create the set or stage that eventually helps them to become the best in its field.
[TP]: What’s still left on your bucket list?
[GB]: Having Firecracker USA, Firecracker EUROPE and Firecracker South Africa are still pretty high on the list for now.
ON THE SPOT
Town or Countryside? Countryside
Favourite city? New York
Your perfect dinner guest, dead or alive? David Livingstone
If you could time travel to any era it would be…? Probably somewhere around the 1700s – 1800s. I would love to see the plans of Africa and the jungles of South America uncolonised or influenced by people. I have a feeling that I might need a protective suit or something though
The best meal you’ve ever eaten is? My pre-wedding dinner…corny but true
The one essential you can’t leave home without? Either my watch or phone – both are equally important
Pet hate? A lack of awareness of actions and how that affects people around you
Biggest extravagance? Good, fresh produce
Favourite book? Pilgrims Progress
What would your gravestone read? Was all he was created to be
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