Entrepreneurs: Meet Stufish, the architect behind the world's biggest rock concertsComments Off on Entrepreneurs: Meet Stufish, the architect behind the world's biggest rock concerts
In the best of fantasies, beauty accompanies the beast. So it’s apt that London’s real-life dream factory is crammed behind an old Unwins off-licence in a greasy street off Russell Square.
Welcome to Stufish, the architect behind the world’s biggest rock concerts, live events and theatrical shows. Name an event at which you’ve been transported to a higher plane by magical sets, props and lights, and the chances are Stufish was behind it.
U2, Madonna, the Rolling Stones, the London and Beijing Olympics, Pink Floyd, Cirque du Soleil — these jaw-dropping shows have emerged from Stufish’s 20-strong studio team.
Between brainstorming on Madonna in Miami and Catherine Tate in Cardiff, chief executive Ray Winkler spares me an hour to chat about the business he calls “entertainment architecture”.
Quiet, neat and precise, Winkler is not the mad genius I’d expected. Could this really be the guy whose team got Bono and the U2 boys to emerge from a giant motorised lemon on their PopMart tour?
Well, yes. Winkler started at Stufish after graduating from London’s Bartlett architecture school in 1996, and PopMart was his first gig, quickly followed by the Rolling Stones’ Bridges to Babylon feast of fireworks. In those days, rock tours were there mainly to market albums. It seemed money was no object in the name of promoting fat-margin music sales.
But the industry’s struggle to make money in the download era totally changed the dynamic. Now, it’s the tours themselves that must turn a profit. Furthermore, for the old acts like the Rolling Stones, there often isn’t even an album linked to the gig: just dollar signs from ticket sales.
So Stufish’s act is as the juggler: create the most spectacular set a rock star can imagine while making it as cost-efficient as possible to pack away and set up in the next city a day later. That means relentless planning, not just in the upfront design and build costs, but the logistics of touring it around the world. A show requiring 100 technicians needs to sell a lot more tickets than one needing 50.
Technology has made a huge difference, Winkler says, from advances in steel engineering to LED lighting improvements that allow beautiful imagery to be spread on vast screens for big arenas. Anyone who caught U2’s Innocence + Experience tour this year was treated to a magically intimate show where the giant screens became like a fifth member of the band, featuring images and cartoons that reacted to, and even played with, the musicians. In the past, that would have been too heavy, too expensive and too draining on the National Grid.
Winkler says: “We don’t have a house style because every client and every problem is unique. Someone like Madonna is a single act but with a large band and even bigger entourage of dancers. She’ll want a very different approach to U2, who are four people: vocal, bass, drums and guitar.”
Stufish, short for Studio Fisher, was founded in 1990. It has always been rooted in rock — late, lamented founder Mark Fisher made his name creating the vast, inflatable menagerie accompanying Pink Floyd’s Animals tour in 1977.
But in 2000, it took a new turn when it landed the Millennium Show at what is now the O2 Arena.
Unlike a touring stage set for the Rolling Stones, this was a fixed, sit-down affair. It was also a major success, burnishing Stufish’s credentials in a new, more architectural sphere. The show led to gigs designing some of the most elaborate sets ever for Cirque du Soleil’s permanent residency at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Others followed, and a new revenue stream was born.
The next hit came from Stufish’s work on the Beijing Olympics ceremony in 2008. That won it contacts and contracts in China, where it has since been working with clients including property giant Dalian Wanda to run touring gigs and sit-down spectaculars, and to produce shows itself.
It now even designs whole theatre buildings there. Whether shaped like vast Chinese porcelain cups or clusters of curved bees’ nests, they’re whacky, futuristic and fun. Winkler calls it “putting rock ’n’ roll into architecture”.
The greatest challenge was the sudden death of Fisher, aged 66, in 2013. For years, he was Stufish. His music contacts opened every door. But as well as chucking a bomb at the business, it was a huge personal blow for Winkler. “He was a friend and he was a mentor. Everything I know about the industry, I learned from him.”
Fisher’s portrait looks down benignly on the team of designers at rows of desks in the airy studio today.
The company survived his passing, and has actually grown since. “Stufish exists because he instilled an ethic and cultural passion into our studio’s design mentality that would survive the single-point failure of a man passing away prematurely,” says Winkler.
So, what’s next on the Stufish playlist? Winkler makes only this prediction: “Bread and circuses have always existed — they seem to be human requirements. We’ll keep catering for the circus part of it, whatever that may be.”