Creative Businesses Series-Featuring Architects of Air

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Okay, I admit it, the luminaria created by Architects of Air from Nottingham, England, are one of my very favorite things. I am a totally amazed by them. So, it is not surprising that my first piece in this series of articles on successful creative businesses is about Architect’s of Air. Hopefully, you were lucky enough to get to experience the luminarium, Mirazozo, when it had its world premiere at Artsplosure in Raleigh in May, or to see Levity III, when it was in Raleigh for Arts on the Edge in 2008. As evidenced by the pictures, being inside them is an amazingly beautiful experience…with the play between the light and shapes. Then there’s the experience of walking through the structure, which feels a bit like a living thing the way it changes with its environment and seems to “breathe” as people move through it. It is accessible to all ages and abilities, and all are able to experience it in their own way. It is calming and transformative….I could write an entire piece just on the experience.

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But this series of articles is not about the art experience, but about the art of business. What can we learn from Alan Parkinson and his company, Architects of Air (AofA), about how to transform your creative passion into a business? I had a chance to talk (well, via email) with Alan to get more insight

First, a little about the company. As noted on the company’s website, www.architects-of-air.com, Parkinson built his first walk-in inflatable in 1985, collaborating with local dance and theater companies who developed activities for inside the environments, as well as working with groups for people with disabilities on collaborations. One such collaboration led to the building of Eggopolis in 1992, which toured the UK performing for audiences with disabilities. Its first exposure to the paying general public at an Edinburgh festival in 1992 created quite a reaction and AofA was created the following year.

As often seems to happen in creative businesses, the beginning of AofA seems to have been a case of Alan just seeing the opportunity and running with it. As he says “I think circumstances played a big part in the move from project to company. The project had reached a maturity where it had become bigger than its true function – it had evolved a product that connected more with the wider public than it did with its social work context. At the same time, the project was struggling to maintain its charitable status due to lack of community involvement in its management. So the project had to fold, I was out of a job, but able to buy all the material of the project. So I set up as self employed and said ‘yes’ to every bit of work that came along – and there was a lot of work that really was not the work anyone with artistic aspirations would want to associate themselves with.”

AofA is based in Nottingham, England and employs 5-6 people, sometimes more during construction and usually builds a new luminarium a year. John Gatt, with AofA, who was in Raleigh with Mirazozo, explains that Parkinson designs each structure “without a computer…. working backwards” in that he designs the outside, then does the math to figure out how to cut and glue the PVC plastic to create the designs. (More information about the design process here: http://www.architects-of-air.com/about-aoa/design.html). Hardboard templates are used to cut the plastic and then they are glued together, there is no sophisticated equipment used. The plastic is created specially for them by a French firm and used exclusively by AofA, as it won’t let light through, but reflects light and, according to Gatt, “picks up the color and mixes it together inside”. As noted on the website, “one of the exciting things about inflatable making is not knowing exactly what you’ve got until you blow it up. After several months of building the luminarium is hauled off to a local sports hall and there we get to find out what’s worked and what hasn’t.” A luminarium will last for about 300 days of exhibition spread over about 4 years before it is cut into pieces to be recycled.”

In the case of this successful creative business, passion trumps skills or training. Parkinson admits he had very limited training in arts or business. As he explains, “I don’t think I had a vision of what I’d need when I started – I just wanted to generate enough revenue to be self-sufficient. You have to work with people and have a good judgment the people you choose to (work) with you.” He adds that, “Since starting the company I have had no training in business. I am responsible for the running of the business though I tend to deny it is a business, as I don’t see my motivation as being wealth generation. I tend to think of myself as poorly adapted to the responsibility for a business but actually found myself just recently producing, entirely of my own volition, a 10-year vision document.”

AofA has been largely financially successful, although there have been lean times. “Within the first year of operation I was self-sufficient and the bank account has just about stayed in the black ever since. Where there were any cash-flow problems friends provided funds to tide me over,” Parkinson explained. “I’ve been fortunate in that I have not had to invest amounts of funds in anything speculative. I’ve not been in the position to need start-up capital to fund a dream. I don’t think I’d have the will to see that kind of endeavor through.” Parkinson adds that “The incremental nature of the development of AofA means that, in building a structure that will cost us over $120,000 to make, I can go ahead with reasonable confidence that there will be enough work to justify the outlay. In recent years there’s only been just enough work, but we are managing to break even.” But passion and beauty keeps Parkinson and AofA going. “I continue to find these structures beautiful and I feel I have more work to do in developing the architecture that frames the experience of light. “

Regarding competition, Parkinson says, “I’d like to see more people entering this field of work as I think it’s worthwhile and there is certainly a demand. I’d also like to see people making structures that give me ideas and maybe inspire a sense of competition. Unfortunately, despite our being pretty liberal in sharing info about materials, design, methods etc. it’s just not happening. I think that one reason there hasn’t been a commercial exploitation of these structures is that essentially they are places for people to share an experience that, for it to be worthwhile, has to be framed in the right way. Someone doing it for the money would not have the necessary values. “

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3 Comments

Hi,
Great photos and happy you enjoyed the Architects of Air experience.

We will be back to North America (cHicago) in September with Amococo.

Best, Mado

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