Meet STUFISH: the world’s leading entertainment architects

DesignCurial speak to two partners at STUFISH, Alicia Tkacz and MAciej Woroniecki, about the studio, its ethos, and what ‘entertainment architecture’ really means.

Founded by the late, great Mark Fisher, STUFISH is a studio that has produced award-winning, monumental structures on a global scale. Able to name-drop clients including the likes of U2, Madonna, Pink Floyd, Beyoncé and The Rolling Stones, the studio is recognised world-wide as the leading practice working in permanent, touring and temporary entertainment architecture – and an extensive project list shows why.

Recently, STUFISH has completed work on the set design for Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On The Run II tour, which opened at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium. Finding them in a moment of downtime, DesignCurial spoke to two STUFISH Partners, Alicia Tkacz and MAciej Woroniecki, to find out more about this unique practice. Both qualified architects, the pair begin by sharing how they became involved with STUFISH.

“I started [at STUFISH] after my part one,” says Tkacz. “I’d always wanted to do set design, but at school I was told I should study architecture because it would give me a more solid foundation to do any kind of design. I met Mark after I’d done my degree – I was adamant I wasn’t going to carry on studying architecture – and I thought he would say ‘Don’t bother, just come and work here’ but he said, ‘No, I want you to keep going’. His ambition was that we’d all be qualified architects. I think that was important to him because it gives the projects professionalism - it gives us an edge, I think.”

Woroniecki found himself at STUFISH under very different circumstances. “I never wanted to work in a place like this,” he laughs. “This was my twelfth practice after graduating. Everywhere that I worked [previously] was very architectural. Then I heard about this guy, Mark, through a contact; I looked at [STUFISH’s] work and it was so different. I instantly fell in love, instantly looked at architecture a different way. Architecture doesn’t have to be complicated, highbrow stuff. It can be honest, exciting and entertaining. I thought I loved architecture but then I realised I actually fell in love with architecture here.”

Creating everything from permanent buildings to live productions, touring shows and exhibitions, STUFISH has broadened its portfolio as the studio has evolved. But why is it important for the studio to work in so many typologies? “Very few people call architecture entertaining, to begin with. As if that’s a bad thing, a faux pas, it’s almost an insult,” says Woroniecki. “But everyone wants to be inspired, or entertained, so we should do that in every aspect [of our projects].”

“For shows, as well, although you’re designing for an artist, you’re really designing for the person watching them,” Tkacz mentions. “We’re designing for the audience as much as we’re designing it for the client. I also suppose [our variety] sets [us apart] – we can say that [our projects] are mini pieces of architecture. They may not be permanent, they may only exist for a year, or a day, but they are structures."

While STUFISH have branched out into other areas, set and show designs remain one of the studio’s biggest markets. Discussing a typical show design project, Tkacz says, “The interesting thing about shows is before and after the show; the show itself is only two hours - it’s almost an irrelevant part. It just happens, and then everyone takes it back down again and loads it into trucks, which is really interesting from the logistics side.”

“If someone says it’s a twenty truck show, we have to make sure our design fits in the trucks to get to the next place," continues Tkacz. “How quickly [the set] can be built, the understanding of how things are fabricated; it gets packed up, travels to the next place, gets built again, and on it goes… It’s massive, there are hundreds s of people involved in building the show before the artist comes on stage. It’s an undiscovered world.” 

Though the STUFISH team pride themselves on being qualified architects, they have had to adapt their skills to work on set designs. “Architectural education isn’t about learning the skill, it’s about learning where to find the answer,” suggests Woroniecki. “Every day here, we’re learning something; there’s always a question posed that we don’t know the answer to. You ask a question to find out, because the point is to find out and have an informed response for the design. Every day we’re asking these questions and finding the answers – if you’re not learning, you’re just repeating and not doing anything interesting.”

The nature of STUFISH’s projects – many of which are large scale – means the teams constantly have to collaborate. “We work really closely with fabricators and people who are actually building [the set], we have really strong ties with them,” says Tkacz. “Together, you’re almost inventing something new that’s going to be made to make the job better. When we design things, they get used and we get feedback about how they’re used and what works and doesn’t work.”

Interesting, clients can either play a big part in creating their designs, or be almost absent from the project. “It depends on the shows,” shrugs Tkacz. “Some artists are really involved and have really clear ideas of what they want to show. Some of them have a creative director or a team, who they trust, and the artist might not be involved at all. The promoter usually has quite a big say; they’re selling the tickets, and the bigger the stage and the more space you’re taking up, the less seats there are. That’s normally a big part of the discussion. You’re trying to keep different people happy in different ways, technically and artistically… We sit in the middle of getting it to work, and getting it to look good and be good for the client.”

Acting within what some would see as a ‘niche’ area of architecture, STUFISH often work on the boundary between permanent and temporary structures. Woroniecki gives the example of the ‘claw’ used for U2’s 360 tour in 2009 to explain how the typologies aren’t as different as they seem. “It was incredibly interesting, structurally,” he says. “It was so clever the way that the claw itself was stabilised with water tanks. That has the same kind of analysis and information put into it as any permanent building. Structurally, they’re different from each other - in that they’re acting differently - but they are, in effect, the same kind of diligent level of input.”

Perhaps the most interesting move forward for STUFISH over the year is the team’s use of tech. “Screen technology, lights, everything is changing by the months,” Tkacz remarks – and reveals that STUFISH use VR systems on a regular basis. “Everything we do is about the spatial quality,” explains Woroniecki. “We make all these views, we create all these set ups, put them into the head gear and start to analyse our own work critically. [For example, looking at] site lines in an auditorium - it’s something as simple as that.”

So what advice do these two partners have for those who have yet to stumble upon STUFISH? “[Entertainment and architecture] completely complement each other,” suggests Tkacz. “We can make better architecture because we can design shows, and we do better shows because we’re architects. It works. I think you have to be interested in entertaining people, and understand that it’s not just a building, it’s something else. It’s about experiences.”

“I think I would like people to know that STUFISH does architecture,” laughs Woroniecki. “It’s proven - our defence is there. Other architecture practices do incredible work and it’s not that everything has to be entertaining – that would be chaotic – but everything comes down to a balance. What we’re more interested in is how you can liven something up, or how you can misuse something. It’s in misuse that you discover that unknown or unexpected. Once the concept is there, it’s diligence and seriousness all the way through - but if you’re not having fun, you’re not going to have a great product at the end.”

All images courtesy of STUFISH Entertainment Architects

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