Where design meets food

Food was the theme of the latest edition of thread, a series of creative events in Bristol curated by Fiasco Design. Over the course of the evening, in between trips to the pizza van and making tortillas in mini kitchens, there were three talks about food, design, and how they can work together. 

Australian food stylist Peta O'Brien, aka POB, talked of how long it takes to soft-boil an ostrich egg  (47 minutes), Tom Hovey revealed why he always draws in red and blue when illustrating for the Great British Bake Off ("‘cos it makes me feel like I’m a fancy architect and not just someone drawing cakes all day,”) and Sam Bompas from sensory experience curators Bompas and Parr showed the audience how gherkins can make “really rubbish lightbulbs,” before passing round ‘lightning vodka’, which he described – quite accurately – as “horrible.”

But we weren’t just stuffing our faces. What did we learn from the night? Here are our favourite tips from the evening:

01. Don't be afraid of seeming 'weird'

Some of Bompas and Parr's books on food

Some of Bompas and Parr's books on food

When you’re a food stylist, and you have to do things such as demand 300 identical mackerel from your local fishmonger, you can't worry about being different. “Everybody whose anybody is vegan, I’m not, I really like meat,” said O'Brien, as her slides jumped between offal and liver. “This liver is 7.3 kilos in weight,” she said animatedly. “I took it out of its vac packed bag and it was like holding a baby.” O'Brien attributed this passion for flesh to her days as an oral surgeon's assistant. “I love flesh. And I love stitching things back up,” she revealed.

When Bompas was starting out, “food wasn’t cool.” People used to ask him why he didn’t get a ‘real job’, but he pursued a career in using food to make experiences that people will love. This has led to projects such as an ‘architectural jelly banquet’, cooking steak with lightning, and exploding wedding cakes (as bad as it sounds, apparently).

02. Stay focused

Precision and patience are key in food styling, especially when working with models

Precision and patience are key in food styling, especially when working with models

Hovey has created over 2,000 illustrated bakes for the Great British Bake Off. Perfecting this art has enabled him to move on to his own personal projects. “If you do one thing over and over again you get better and then you can do other stuff,” he said.  

Bompas agreed that focusing on one task or element of design is the answer: “If you really focus on one small thing you can really take it quite far,” he said, before demonstrating his gherkin lightbulb for the crowd (see below).  

In the world of food styling, it’s especially important to be precise, focus on details. and be patient while in bizarre situations. “For this shoot (above), I had to tweezer sweets into the model’s mouth one by one, and tell her not to swallow," said O'Brien. "She held it for so long she had a mouth full of saliva, which is what the photographer wanted because he wanted it to be wet. And just before she drowned...we got it.”

03. Take opportunities

The 'gherkin lightbulbs' before they were (dimly) lit

The 'gherkin lightbulbs' before they were (dimly) lit

“Within a month of being in London I got my first illustration gig,” says Hovey, who had moved to the capital after spending more and more time there doing street art murals. He soon landed a non-illustrating job on a new TV show called the Great British Bake Off, but the producers realised “it was hard for viewers to visualise what was going on." He was asked to come up with a new way to help viewers see what was going on, and has been the show's illustrator ever since.

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” he said, quoting Seneca.  

04. Know when to readjust work-life balance

Just some of the illustrations Tom Hovey has done for GBBO

Just some of the illustrations Tom Hovey has done for GBBO

That luck and opportunity doesn’t stop work being hard or life getting in the way, though. “My girlfriend would wake up pretty often and I’d be face down in biscuits,” said Hovey.  

On going digital he said: “I felt like I’d drawn with pens and pencils for my whole life and by removing them, I was removing part of my soul. But with my daughter being born, I knew that I had to get rid of wasted time.”

He also added that there’s no point stressing too much about your own work: “No one’s really paying as much attention to your work as you are. They’re on screen for like six secs even though they might take three days to draw. Basically, no one cares.”

After 35 years in the industry, O'Brien is also choosing her projects wisely: “I just don't have any sense of fun if I’m doing something ghastly,” she said. “So I don’t do anything ghastly anymore.” 

05. Pursue side projects

Peta O'Brien's personal project was inspired by a breast biopsy

Peta O'Brien's personal project was inspired by a breast biopsy

Hovey admitted he’s become much happier since pursuing his own projects. “Self-initiated work is really important and if you put yourself out there hopefully people will ask you to do more of it, and then you’ll make money, which is the most important thing,” he grinned.

For O'Brien, personal projects have helped her work through personal issues. After having a breast biopsy, she had to create something: “The only way I can process shit like that is to turn it into a project. It really put it to bed for me,” she said.

“Now, I found that I’ve just got this whole creative surge going on. And I’m kind of thinking it’s ‘cos I’m at the end of my career and I want to get out everything out there. I’m doing shitloads of personal projects. So watch this space.”  

For Bompas, bizarre experiments with food and design are part and parcel of his everyday job. “We’re lucky as we live in a time where we’re getting food for pleasure. What we try to create is another form of entertainment,” he said.   

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