Christian Wagstaff is one of Australia’s most experienced and well respected production and event designers, with a bulging portfolio of work under his belt for incredible clients including Crown Casino, The Logies, The Million Dollar Lunch and Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. From Spring Racing marquees to runway shows, it seems no challenge is too great for Christian and his tight knit team… and I’m sure you’ll agree by looking at their collection of work – a Christian Wagstaff project always has a certain sparkle about it!
Despite being so prolific and highly regarded amongst his peers in the creative industries… I must say Christian Wagstaff is still a bit of an enigma. I’ve known his name for a long, long time and have always been interested in learning more about his work, but he’s a hard man to research! That’s mainly because he is pretty much un-Google-able! And don’t think I didn’t try. No, it seems Mr Wagstaff is just so busy doing, there’s little time to stop and congratulate oneself, document ones’ work in depth, chase publicity or, I guess, update a website!
There is a sense of immense energy and passion as Christian discusses his work – I get the impression he is just relentlessly chasing the next exciting project – no sooner has one job been realised than another is underway. It’s clear from reading Christian’s generous responses below, this is one local creative who’s certainly living out his dream!
Massive thanks to Christian for his time with this interview, and for digging out all these incredible pics! As mentioned his website is not exactly current (!!) – but many of his projects are documented on his Facebook page so do pop over and like / follow if you’re that way inclined!
Thanks also to Georgie Skinner for photographing Christian on site this week hanging his stunning Chinese New Year installation at Crown Casino. Can’t beat a 24 hr photo turnaround – thankyou Georgie!
Please tell us a little about your background – where did you grow up, what did you study, what path led you to creative direction and event design?
I was born in Warrandyte, living in a mud brick house that dad built (and never finished). I grew up travelling back and forth between Mum’s in Blackburn and Dad’s in St Kilda. I went to Blackburn Tech where I dodged an unhealthy dose of bullying, whilst focussing my mind on drawing, painting, metalwork and woodwork. My year 10 work experience posting whilst at Blacky Tech was at the Victoria State Opera working under the great Production Designer Kenneth Rowel. This didn’t go down well with my peers. One day I got up and walked out of class half way through the year and never went back.
The next week I was attending english lit and media studies at Ardoch High in St Kilda. My life took a fabulous turn that year. I was one of 20 students taken in at Prahran TAFE for an experiment in Performing Arts education, taking on classes in acting, dance, mask work, bouffant clowning, set design and video art to name only a few of the mixed bag of subjects. It was a crash course, but it opened my eyes to the idea of taking on anything creative and giving it a go. Win or lose, I took it all on from here on in.
I will say though, most of my study was self taught. I was a very focussed kid. Quietly driven. I built billycarts, roller-skated and loved a tree house. I also rode horses, dirt bikes and loved motorcross. But I constantly turned my attention to the arts, film, theatre, and design. My dad was one of this country’s best cinematographers, and my mum loved to tread the boards occasionally, so I was very aware of creativity in general. My step father was a songwriter and columnist, and my step mother a designer and artist. Who said divorce creates broken families? Mine just got bigger and more interesting! I have five sisters and two brothers, but I seem to be the only one that took the creative path and stayed on it.
I was obsessed with puppets. Particularly marionettes. My bedroom which was a 1970’s custom build bungalow, was divided into two parts. A theatre auditorium and a stage divided by a proscenium arch, which was a window into another world for me complete with revolves, wagons and a counterweighted flying system for moving sets. Then there was a bunk bed. The top bunk was the dress circle. The lower, the stalls. My dear parents sat through every production of mine.
I moved out of home at only 17 whilst still at school. For no reason other than I was very independently minded. I have been working since the age of 19 and havent stopped once. My first job straight out of College was designing the set for the 1990 Logies, so I was off to a pretty good start. I worked in a television art department and my bosses were veterans of the industry, working in set design since television’s inception in the 1950’s. They were fabulous, and they threw everything at me. I was the production design assistant but had a key hand in all of the designs. They were very trusting in me and I learnt a great deal, fast.
Eventually I moved away from television as back then it was stuck in a time warp and was a bit limiting, so I started to dabble in theatre, designing sets in Melbourne and Sydney. I lived on the smell of an oily rag as the saying goes. I did love it and know I will turn my hand to that again one day.
Melbourne then announced the launch of a casino and entertainment precinct. I have butterflies even now when I think back to my reaction to the idea of working there creatively somehow. As a 22 year old, it was a bit of a fantasy. One of my childhood obsessions was Hollywood movies depicting large Vegas-style theatrical stages, and scenes that cut-away to backstage and back of house. I loved all the beautiful, glamourous on-set creations but also the workings that went on behind the scenes. The chaos and drama. The notion of “the show must go on”.
Crown Casino opened in 1994. I worked there full time in various creative roles, eventually fulfilling the role of Creative Director, working on the many visual aspects of the business, promotions and major events. Spectacular!
I opened up my own office as Christian Wagstaff + Creative Production Services on St Kilda Road in 2005, taking on new business and new adventures, whilst still maintaining a key creative role with Crown. I have practically grown up there, and they still keep me busy. That place will always be a part of my life.
What have been one or two favourite projects in recent years?
Two of my favourite projects have both been very recent indeed. The Victoria Racing Club’s Sponsor Chalets in The Birdcage at Flemington at the last Melbourne Cup Carnival, and the Chinese New Year installation in the Crown Atrium that is currently on.
The Sponsor Chalets at Flemington were an opportunity for me to create gorgeous corporate entertaining spaces that actually looked like marquees, rather than what they have steadfastly become over the years – monolithic architectural statements. I thought it was time to swing back the aesthetic to something a bit more human and fun. Sweet striped marquees can only put a smile on your face and go hand in hand with chicken sandwiches and Champagne. We got such a great reaction to them. People were so refreshed by them as they were fun and frivolous spaces.
Chinese New Year in the Crown Atrium has been an opportunity for me to create something large scale and theatrical. This is my third creation for this celebration and I think it’s the best so far. Its a beautiful, dramatic, striking and atmospheric installation. Whilst being very culturally sensitive and appropriate, I love how magical and glorious it feels when you stand under it.
One of my key influences is master art director and production designer Cedric Gibbons. Cast your mind back to any key MGM Golden-Years of Hollywood film and he would have designed the sets. I thought of him a lot when I designed this project. I love the immersive aspect of this installation. Its quite theatrical and it’s rare for any of us to get an opportunity to create a setting like this outside of a theatre or film studio in Melbourne.
Your work is predominantly temporary in nature – visual merchandising and installation, racing marquees and corporate events that pop up for a short period of time then disappear forever. Do you ever crave a more permanent project?
I love the temporary nature of the work that I do. It is my interest in theatre and film and the fact that they are fleeting and ephemeral by nature that drives my interest in temporary projects. There is a mystery and romance in that. I have worked on shows that have taken 8 months planning, 7 days set-up and then the actual moment only lasts a few hours.
I tend not to have a huge amount of photos of my work as the project passes too quickly and I am too focussed on the actual live moment itself. And I think deep down I like the idea of that moment passing. Some people incessantly photograph their work, recording every step of the way from start to finish. I prefer most of it to pass by and the notion of it to never be seen again. Commercial reality is we do have to photograph work to show potential clients, so I do it occasionally via our Facebook page, but I am not one to look longingly over my portfolio. I like to move on quickly. Creative Production Services is based on my original thinking back at Prahran TAFE as a student. Trying anything. We are very unique in that way. We have so many different things going on at any one time.
Temporary ideas also provides for taking more risk. With good and bad results. It is a different approach to permanent. I redesigned a theatre interior once that was to only last three years. Its been six years and it is still there as it has worked so well. So it is nice to know I can do permanent if I have to!
How is your business structured – ie where is your office based, how many people do you employ, what significant tasks do you outsource, and do you still play a very hands on role in every project?
Our office is in the Frederick Romberg building, Stanhill. One of only a few of his architectural projects remaining. It’s in an old apartment. We have been in this space for 5 years. It’s falling apart and currently going through major heritage external restoration and I know will never be finished, but I wont complain about it. I enjoy the spirit of the building and most of its imperfections. The faults make it more real.
There are 5 of us full-time. But we all work varied hours around the clock. It certainly isn’t 9 to 5. We are not set-up like your usual design practice. Our work schedule is very diverse. Whilst designing and managing the build of marquees at Flemington in October 2011, one of us was over in London, then Paris, San Sebastian and New York shooting for a photographic presentation which is launching in March 2012 for the 20th Anniversary of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. I cant think of anyone else who is designing event structures one minute, producing photoshoots, whilst facilitating major international artist shows the next.
All key management tasks are internal and as Creative Director, I oversee the ideas, shape and final output of each project. We bring in various skill bases depending on what is needed. We contract 3D CAD, hand illustrators, model makers, stylists, florists, carpenters, set mechanics, engineers and painters, drapers, lighting designers, sound engineers, musicians, riggers, costume makers, sculptors, photographers, and artists. My level of ‘hands on’ also depends on the project type and the tasks. I am all over most aspects of every job, but as far as putting pen to paper, it depends on what it is and when it is needed. I never underestimate the power of a thumbnail drawing to get a project started. They are often the best in communicating an idea and often after the idea has been further developed and realised, it has somehow swung back to the original thumbnail.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
Is it boring to say no day is typical? As soon as a day becomes routine or typical, I tend to short circuit it!
Like any job, the administrative requirements are always there, they have to be done and I am quite good at it. I am usually an early riser – my brain works best AM rather than PM. I often do a days administrative work in the first 3 hours of a day. As an Aquarian, I am a big day dreamer. So most afternoons are reserved for sourcing, visiting, scheming, dreaming, thinking, playing, watching and being.
Which resources across any media do you visit regularly for a bolt of creative inspiration, or just to be kept in the loop!?
I buy less magazines as reference material these days. But I still buy large reference books. Books are still going strong and perhaps going stronger as they are getting cheaper to buy. My own library consists of about 4000 books collected over the years.
Of course the web has become king. There is a new phenomenon happening across the internet that is quite scary. So this is a good question for the moment. All the major internet platforms are tuning their search results to what they assume is in our interest based on search history. So source material on the net is fast becoming more and more filtered and curated and subsequently limited. The web was revolutionary in that we could cast a wider net out to pull in resources over and above the resources we usually relied on. It’s all becoming very edited now. It just means we have to get smarter with how we use the net and not sit back and just use Google, Facebook, Youtube, Wikipedia and the rest. The net has almost turned back on us and started to reverse in breadth of research. The secret is to always having your eyes and ears casting wide across all media.
I think books are best. Another key research tool that we shouldn’t forget is talking to people. Easy to forget that skill.
Which other designers, artists or creative people are you most inspired by at the moment?
So many. I turn to different creative individuals for many reasons.
Hedi Slimane – art director, menswear designer, photographer, visual artist. He is extraordinary. He could breath in a jar, seal it and sell it and I would love it.
Cecil Beaton who would have had the sharpest eye known to man. He would have been tricky to be around. Again, someone that could put his mind to anything. He was a painter, art director, set and costume designer, photographer and was the best ‘scrapbooker’!
Diana Vreeland who famously said ” There’s nothing wrong with bad taste; it’s no taste I abhor”. I love that quote. It’s a bit of a mantra of mine. She was another one with a sharp eye.
My best mate Meow Meow also inspires me. She is one of the funniest people I know on and off stage. Intensely creative and knowledgeable. I admire people who know their craft and live for it and take on many opportunities.
What would be your dream creative project?
That is a secret. But second to that, it would be to make a film. I have a very deep and moving idea for a film inside of me that will one day make it to the screen. Thirdly would be to design for an opera or butoh project of any size. Or to just get back into theatre of some kind.
What are you looking forward to?
I always have something to look forward to. We have so many ideas across our desks. We run the business in a way where we like to throw a hundred balls in the air knowing that some of them will land at the right time and then happen. We have some beautiful projects coming up over the next two years.
Personally, I always have to have projects way down the track that keep me spirited and excited. I can’t just think week to week, month to month. I look forward to seeing ideas come into fruition that I have been thinking about for a long time. I also look forward to discovering ideas I never thought I would have. I look forward to the idea of never stopping to create. My father recently retired working as a cinematographer at 72. He now takes still pictures working with his wife who creates the scenes he photographs. Thats a good life to look forward to following.
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
I lived on Gore Street Fitzroy many years ago when Smith and Gertrude were seedy and only just starting to emerge. I would love to go back to that ‘hood. I have many friends who live in that part now and I love dropping in. A genuine street life that has evolved beyond anyones expectations. East Melbourne fascinates me for contrasting reasons. It’s so quiet and uniquely Melbourne. The wide streets are lovely.
Where /what was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
I am known to curse at what I call the Melbourne Food Bubble. I should lighten up about it and enjoy it, but this public and media obsession with restaurants and focus on specific dishes frustrates me. I like simple food. I’d prefer to eat at someone’s house than out to be honest. There is nothing better. Most of my mates are great cooks. However, if I am out, I would prefer to frequent some of the old establishments like Cafe Di Stasio or Grossi Florentino – The Cellar Bar which are just consistent and good at what they do and with no attitude. I hate to admit though the lobster roll at Golden Fields is sensational.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Robbie’s Day. My partner of 21 years. Generally a no go zone. I work hard all week and go out a lot with friends. Saturday is my dedicated family day. Me, Robbie and my darling Little Egypt (14 year old black pug dog).
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
Melbourne’s best kept secret is that the secret is not a place. It is in our collective mind. But don’t tell anyone.