Bridgewater Studio | Chris Wilson & Eric Cup on a new chapter … – blooloop
As Chris Wilson starts his new role, blooloop finds out what is in store for the design & fabrication company
Words: Charlotte Coates
| 15 min read
Bridgewater Studio is a Chicago-based design and fabrication company that specialises in branded art installations and themed environments for museums, trade shows, retail venues, brand experiences and more.
The company was founded in 2015 by Eric Cup, Patrick Justice and Chris Cleek, and has since grown in both size and reputation. As the company continues to flourish and expand, its latest hire is Chris Wilson, an experience design and production expert fresh from the role of director of planning and design at the Obama Foundation. He moves into the position of chief creative and operating officer at Bridgewater Studio this month.
As the company embarks on this latest chapter, blooloop caught up with Chris Wilson and Eric Cup to find out about Bridgewater Studio’s journey so far, Wilson’s new role, and the pair’s plans for the future.
Bridgewater Studio has worked on a diverse array of projects over the years, from a unique interactive marketing campaign for Shedd Aquarium, which saw giant frog statues descending on Chicago, and a permanent interactive exhibit at the Adler Planetarium, to brand activations for household names like Nike and Adidas, as well as a national project with McDonald’s.
On the company’s origins, Cup says:
“My partners and I, we’ve all worked in this industry for most of our careers. Our goal was to create the company we always wish we worked for, and to be able to choose the work that we find engaging and exciting.
“It started very small. It was Patrick and myself in a 35 square metre studio. We got some work and then referrals for other work. We grew very rapidly. In those six years, we went from two people to over 50 people.
“One of the core tenets of what we do is that we do quality work at a reasonable price and we’re easy to get along with. You rarely find somebody that does all three of those consistently. So, when we get a customer, we tend to retain them. We have a high customer satisfaction rate.”
Talking about the work that Bridgewater Studio does, Cup explains:
“The work that we do is, basically, scenery for the real world. It is about creating environments, creating experiences, creating these emotions that you encounter in your everyday life, that engage you and cause you to look at things. It could be engaging people with a product in a retail environment. Or it could be creating a space for employees to feel better about their workspace or connect with the company differently.
“It’s difficult for me to single individual projects out because they’re all unique. It’s why we do this work. Every project is beautiful in its way and has its own challenges, the things that get our creative juices flowing.”
“As a company, we’ve been very technology-focused. We have been using the latest equipment with regards to 3D printing and machining and doing things like that. So, projects that involve those kinds of components we always find engaging.
“In the past few years, we have done some really large sculptures. For example, we did one for Graduate Hotels, working with iconic Chicago artist Hebru Brantley. We fabricated a 13-foot Flyboy sculpture for the hotel lobby of the Graduate Roosevelt Island [pictured, top]. The entire team loves it because it’s the perfect blend of artistry and mechanics. We made a custom lightbulb out of neon that looks like a larger one. So, it’s kind of this beautiful blend of art and technology.
“The retail projects that we’ve been working on recently are another great example of our work, for example, the Nike stores.”
Bridgewater Studio has now grown to the point where Cup and his team want to diversify and expand into additional markets:
“We want to take on even more interesting projects with higher levels of complexity. Part of the growth structure that we have mapped out is to bring more talent on board.
This is where Chris Wilson comes in.
“I’ve known Chris for a long time,” says Cup. “We’ve worked together, we’ve worked for each other and we’ve worked competing against each other. I’ve always had a high degree of respect for his craft. So, it was a natural progression as I wanted to expand our depth of creative talent to find someone like him, or ideally, him!”
“I’ve known Eric for over 20 years,” adds Wilson. “When I was at the Museum of Science and Industry, Eric was instrumental in the success of the Mythbusters exhibition. After that, when Eric and Patrick formed Bridgewater, I was still at MSI. I immediately saw them as a resource and the first project I gave them was an immense success.
“Their attention to detail, ability to internalise the science behind the exhibit and the learning goals therein and their relentless pursuit of quality was exactly what that project needed.
“So, when Eric called me late last year to discuss the growth of the company and how I might figure into that equation, it didn’t take me that long to make up my mind. I knew that this would be my next adventure.”
Wilson will be taking on the role of chief creative and operating officer. This is a new position that the pair crafted together with him in mind. In the role of chief creative officer, he will be responsible for all creative oversight, and for building out and expanding the design capacity at Bridgewater.
As chief operating officer, he will also oversee the day-to-day operations of the business. Meanwhile, Cup moves to the role of CEO and Justice moves to vice president of production, where he will focus on front-line production and shop operations.
This new structure is designed to be nimble. It is structured for success in the dynamic markets where Bridgewater aims to thrive.
“As an entrepreneur, as somebody who starts a small company that then grows, one of the things you have to learn to do is divest responsibility,” says Cup. “Finding the right people to scale the company yet again is challenging.
“Chris’s technical expertise is tremendous, and then there is his creative talent as well. I thought, wow, I can take this huge chunk of responsibility that I’ve been doing and give it to someone and not only have them be successful but have them excel at it.”
“I’m excited about it. I think it speaks to the breath of my capabilities perfectly, and I think it is a unique role within the design and fabrication realm,” says Wilson.
“It’s smart because it allows the roles of creative oversight and day to day operations to be housed in one office. I think that’s critical. There are so many opportunities for inefficiency and miscommunication when those two roles are siloed, which is the traditional structure. I’ve suffered through that dynamic plenty of times as a client. So, I’m eager for the opportunity to forge a new path.”
Wilson joins Bridgewater Studio from the Obama Foundation, where he held the role of director of planning and design at the Museum of the Obama Presidential Center since September 2018.
During his early career, he used his experience as an automation programmer, electrician, rigger, welder, woodworker and pyrotechnician to build a reputation as an accomplished artisan and technician. He also worked with David Copperfield for a period in the 90s, during which time he was nominated for an Emmy in the category of Outstanding Achievement in Special Visual Effects.
For the latter part of his career, Wilson transitioned into the museum world, with over a decade at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) as well as his time with the Obama Foundation.
While on paper it seems to be a diverse career, Wilson says there are a few threads and key lessons which have taken him through what he feels is a linear journey.
“If you want to understand me and my career, it’s important to understand that I had a much older brother, he was 14 years older than me, who was a contractor. I do not remember a time before I was on job sites,” begins Wilson.
This theme of building and technology and storytelling, that’s where I’ve always been. I’ve never really left that spot. I just have expressed it in a million different ways!
“He was dragging me around on job sites in semi-rural Ohio when I was six. He taught me how to drive a bulldozer when I was 10 years old.
“I was also bitten by the theatre bug. I appeared in my first production as a youngster. Then, not long after that, I fell in love with this new-fangled machine called the personal computer. I built my own from a kit and started coding software, developing games. In retrospect, this theme of building and technology and storytelling, that’s where I’ve always been. I’ve never really left that spot. I just have expressed it in a million different ways!”
After attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, Wilson started working in production and eventually moved to Chicago. Here, while working in production he travelled with a few tours, most notably The Magic of David Copperfield.
“I had a lot of fun being involved in several things when I worked for David Copperfield, but that is all classified,” he says. “I’m credited as pyrotechnician on the 1991 Television Special, which earned me an Emmy nomination, but my business cards said, “Illusion Mechanic”. I recently ordered a pin that says: “All of My Best Work is Under NDA”. In part, I ordered that pin with Copperfield in mind.”
On returning to Chicago, Wilson spent some time freelancing, leveraging his experience in special effects to work on several film and TV projects, before returning to his scenic fabrication roots with stints at Chicago Scenic Studios and Hawkeye Scenic Studios.
“I then spent 11 years at the Museum of Science and Industry,” he continues, “leaving there as director of exhibit project management and operations, with a lot of really impactful work under my belt and having built a nimble and talented team.”
In 2018, Wilson moved over to the Obama Presidential Center.
“It was a fascinating opportunity to help build out that team and to be part of the development of a new institution,” he says. “The Obama Presidential Center will be a landmark cultural institution. So, being involved in any way at all was interesting to me.
“But what is really fascinating about creating a new cultural institution is that the team is doing all of the things all the time. Everything has to happen at once; creation of policies and procedures, designing the inaugural exhibitions, recruiting and hiring, strategic planning, ensuring that the entirety of the visitor journey is as inclusive and seamless as possible. All while developing the infrastructure needed to support all of that work. It was amazing to be part of that process.
“Helping to guide the planning and design of that project in my own small way over the last 46 months has been a singular honour. I’m so grateful.”
On his career, he adds:
“Looking backwards, it feels linear to me. But when I step back and look at it, it’s very serpentine!”
One of the key lessons that Wilson says he has picked up on this winding career path is the importance of treating everyone with kindness and respect. This ethos will set him in good stead with Bridgewater Studio, which, as Cup points out, prides itself on forming positive and long-lasting relationships with its clients.
Any fool can deliver a project on time and on budget. Can you do it without hurting anyone? If so, we can be friends.
“Kindness always matters,” says Wilson. “Any fool can deliver a project on time and on budget. Can you do it without hurting anyone? If so, we can be friends. Some people think that being tough and exacting is the same as being mean. It isn’t.
“My ascent to leadership was organic. I worked my way up from working on fashion shows in New York, to eventually managing large crews across the globe, and eventually the design management and execution of large projects for premier institutions.
“It’s been an interesting journey because I’ve gone from boots to suits. The project executives that I respected when I was young were the people who treated everybody with respect.”
Another value that Wilson shares with his new employer, Bridgewater Studio, is that of accessibility and inclusivity. He believes that “inclusive design is better design for everyone,” and says he first became aware of inclusive design when he was at MSI.
“We had a weeklong set of sessions with leading industry experts across several verticals in the realm of inclusive design. Up until that deep dive, I felt like I had a pretty good understanding of accessibility in the built environment. But I realised quickly that that was because I was only focused on physical accessibility. And even then, I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought.”
“So, I learned as much as possible. I talked to as many people who are experts in the field as possible. I immersed myself in it – I still do. Once you realise that there is a way to think about design, where in every moment during the creation of a visitor journey, you’re asking yourself: who am I excluding from participating in this experience right now? Ideally, you keep drilling down on that question and keep working until you get to the answer, ‘nobody’.
“It’s on us, as creators of experiences, to think about inclusion across the entire spectrum of human difference.”
On the topic of inclusion and diversity, inclusion in the workforce, particularly in creative roles in location-based experience and the cultural sector, is something that is always front of mind for both Wilson and Cup.
Wilson is a founding executive council member of the Big Break Foundation. This was set up by Chuck Fawcett and Patrick Kling and is on a mission to shatter systemic barriers within the Location-Based Experience Industry.
Meanwhile, Bridgewater Studio is in the process of creating a 1500 square foot incubator for businesses in the arts. This will cater to the local neighbourhood.
One of the key issues is that people can’t be what they can’t see. We want to create a space for people who are starting businesses in the arts.
“We have a foundation that we’re establishing as part of that called the Building Bridges Foundation. One of the key issues is that people can’t be what they can’t see. We want to create a space for people who are starting businesses in the arts. We’re going to set up a small studio space or offices for them. This will be a place where they can start with little to no cost. They’re also in the same building as us if they need help or connections.
“When we started our own company, we were fortunate. We figured a lot of things out and we had a lot of people that we could call. But a lot of people don’t have that infrastructure there. They’re jumping out of an aeroplane and putting the parachute on.”
It is, says both Cup and Wilson, an interesting time for Bridgewater Studio:
“I think it is an exciting time for the company. They have been doing great work, they are well respected by all of their former clients (including me) and they are on the cusp of a growth spurt,” says Wilson. “They just need more experienced bandwidth at the executive level to make that happen. The ingredients are all there. My job is to be the catalyst.
“I think I can help them achieve that growth, expand their capabilities, deepen their relationships across several market segments, and help increase their already well-known quality and attention to detail. All while striving for efficiency along the way to maximise value for their clients.”
“It’s going to let me move and concentrate more on developing new business. You know, they always say hire people smarter than you. And Chris is really, really smart! For me, it’s reassuring to add somebody with whom we’ve collaborated on projects before. We’ve had a great ability to collaborate and dialogue. We both have that same passion for this type of work that you can’t teach.
“With the work that we do, to be successful, you have to be passionate about it. You need to be an advocate for your client and an advocate for the design. You also need to be based in the reality of the parameters, whether they be the budget, the time constraint, all those things. That balancing act is important and that’s one of Chris’s greatest talents. It’s also something that as a company, we always try to maximise for our clients.”
As Bridgewater Studio heads into this new chapter, the company has several projects on the go:
“We’re working right now with Chicago Children’s Museum on a design-build project for their children’s gallery, for their art studio,” says Cup. “That’s going to be installed here in the spring.
“We’ve also been working on a couple of touring museum exhibits. One will be opening here in the spring and then another one in the fall. Plus, we are also working on something for the Superbowl. We’ve got some experiential stuff that will be happening in and around that.
“A lot of things have opened back up now. COVID was difficult but it was also kind of a timeout. On one hand, it was a struggle because everything that we do revolves around people gathering. However, it also let us pause and think about what we should be doing. We had been running pedal to the metal with our growth and expansion.
“That’s partly how this whole thing came about, that chance to think about how we can adjust and how we can finesse the structure of our company so that we can take on larger and more complicated projects.”
“This feels like a homecoming in a way,” concludes Wilson. “My whole career, in retrospect, seems to orbit around custom design and production of one sort or another. I’ve lived and worked and played in the centre of that Venn diagram of storytelling, technology and the built environment since I was a little kid. So, this just feels right.
“The thought that I am about to bring 15 years of leadership in the cultural sector back to the realm of custom design and fabrication is awesome.”
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