Article: Imagining Places of Invention :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Joyce Bedi, Lemelson Center Senior Historian
Wallace and Gromit on the set. Photo by Immanuel Giel, Wikimedia Commons

Throughout 2010, this newsletter has featured articles about places of invention spanning more than a century, from 19th-century Washington, D.C., and World War II-era Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Silicon Valley in the 1970s and current-day Fort Collins, Colorado. Lemelson Center research has shown that these places share some common attitudes and characteristics, including elements like keeping workspaces flexible, facilitating collaboration, and encouraging a healthy dose of chaos. How universal are these ingredients in the creative places mix? Do they hold true even when constructing an imaginary place of invention like, for example, the one inhabited by Wallace and Gromit?

These endearing and wonderfully whimsical plasticine characters were born in Nick Park's imagination some twenty-eight years ago. He started filming the first Wallace and Gromit short as a film school project (this eventually became A Grand Day Out, in which Wallace and Gromit build a rocketship to take them to the moon, since, as everyone knows, the moon is made of Wallace's favorite food . . .  cheese). Wallace, a well-meaning but somewhat clueless chap, is an inventor who comes up with Rube Goldbergesque creations to make his life easier, like the contraption that ejects him from his bed and into his clothes each morning. He has adapted virtually every room in his house, from his bedroom and dining room to a basement lab, as workspaces for building and testing his inventions. Most recently, he has been seen transforming a television studio into a place of invention for the BBC show Wallace & Gromit's World of Invention.

Unfortunately, Wallace's "cracking contraptions" usually go awry. Enter the long-suffering Gromit, Wallace's dog and best friend, who steps in to set things straight. Some people will tell you that Gromit is the real inventor in this duo, but collaboration is critical to their success, both technologically and in the eyes of their fans (the rocket-building scene from A Grand Day Out is a terrific illustration of their teamwork). It is Wallace's naivete and undaunted spirit, combined with Gromit's clear head and problem-solving skills, that lead the duo into--and back out of--the mayhem of their inventive adventures.

Nick Park (the tall one) with his friends Wallace and Gromit. Photo by Sam Felder, Wikimedia Commons

It's tempting to draw parallels between Wallace and Gromit and their creator, Nick Park. In fact, Park has likened Wallace to his own father, an architectural photographer who was always tinkering in the backyard shed when Nick was a boy. "He would have hare-brained schemes such as a trailer cum beach hut," he told The Telegraph. "Sometimes, when I am animating Wallace I can see my father there in the eyes." Following her husband's example, Nick's "mum" encouraged her budding animator by turning over her home movie camera; he made his first animated film at the age of thirteen.

Park was still in film school when he was "discovered" by Aardman Animations cofounders Peter Lord and David Sproxton. They helped him complete A Grand Day Out, which went on to be nominated for an Academy Award (it lost to another Nick Park claymation short, Creature Comforts). The three have been collaborating ever since.

Aardman Animations moved into new award-winning quarters in its hometown of Bristol, England, a little over a year ago. David Sproxton told the Bristol Evening Post, "The building is designed to be quite open and yet intimate at the same time so people can communicate when they want to but do not distract and overload others." A true collaboration between Aardman and the local architecture firm Alec French Architects produced a new space that features, as the Post reported, "a tapering three-storey atrium which houses a reception, semi-open meeting areas and wide bridges with landings and walkways that flow into work areas on either side." As seen in the online studio tour, these bright, open, and somewhat messy spaces are meant to foster communication and collaboration, as well as a bit of creative chaos--all important factors in successful places of invention.

While the clean lines of Aardman's headquarters may bear little resemblance to Wallace and Gromit's cozy and somewhat-dated home, the philosophy that both embody is the same: with the right mix of creative people, proper resources, and inspiring space, the ultimate place of invention--the imagination--can create great things. Even a bed that ejects you each morning, or a rocket that will take you to a moon made of cheese.

From Prototype, December 2010

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