The Architects of Fun

Spiegelworld speaks to Creative Producer Matt Hodges (Left) and Lead Architect Brian Buckner (Right) of THE HOOK, the brand new Spiegelworld venue, show and Superfrico restaurant, opening at Caesars Atlantic City in June 2023.

Matt and Brian, we cannot wait to see what you have been working on in Atlantic City. But first, tell us more about your journey up until this point?

Matt Hodges, Fleunerd aka Creative Producer: Art, Design and Décor

I started in the theater in New York in 2001, making and managing props for all types of productions around the city. I met Ross Mollison (Spiegelworld‘s Impresario Extraordinaire) in 2009 and we created a whole beer garden environment out of junk for Absinthe when it first came to Vegas 12 years ago. I worked project to project with Spiegelworld before coming on full-time a few years ago.

Brian Buckner, Walls – traditionally known as Director of Architecture and Design

I direct architectural and interior design projects at Spiegelworld; from the design of our venues to master planning small towns to developing custom furniture.

I’ve known the Spiegelworld team since 2012, when I led the interior design, with AvroKO, on Rose.Rabbit.Lie. at The Cosmopolitan, which is now Superfrico. Ross and Spiegelworld were our collaborators across the board on theatrical integration and design of the project. Several years ago, Ross approached me and my business partner, Josh Zangen, to design a more formal Green Fairy Garden at Absinthe; I think that was its fifth iteration. At the same time, Discoshow was being workshopped in NYC. Ross saw a greater need to develop Spiegelworld’s Internal Creative Team, so we had coffee in Brooklyn, and he convinced me to come work with him full-time and grow the design team from within.

Tell us about your team.

Brian Buckner

Let’s say Spiegelworld’s Internal Design Team has five core people of creatives and designers, but some may float in and out. Matt, Maya Singer, Logen Roberts, Diana Palacios, and I are involved continuously across all venue design and special projects in our spaces. Ross is, of course, an integral part of the team, curating ideas and direction. Mike Bauder and the production department are constant collaborators that impact our environments, while Andrew Dunn and Lindsay Sanna come in as the marketing and branding creatives. The team may get larger and even more complex as we bring in other collaborators like show directors, lighting designers, production and scenic designers, hospitality or food and beverage experts and creatives. The diverse team allows for varied and unique perspectives and positions. It’s routine for us to constantly touch base and talk or work out loud about what we’re developing.

Interior Designer Logen Roberts (Left), Interior Designer Diana Palacios (Center), Creative Maya Singer (Right)

Matt Hodges

There’s a ratio for each project. For example, Diana and I were more involved than the rest of the team on the latest version of Green Fairy Garden in Las Vegas, and Logen is the point person on interiors with THE HOOK in Atlantic City. At the same time, Diana and I are working ahead on Discoshow, which will be our show after The Hook. So, everybody has a section and flow to work on. One way to think of it is that Brian comes in with the architecture and interior design with Logen and Diana, then Maya and I come with the theater mindset. So, it’s an alchemy of people with design backgrounds who are now doing circus and theater and those with theater backgrounds learning about architecture. That creates a fun mix of, is this a theater? Is it a restaurant? Is it a show? It’s all of it.

Brian Buckner

Yeah, that mix of history manifests physically in the environments where the program types and the curated experiences are as diverse as the team. I think we’re successful because we are so incredibly collaborative and we’re coming at it from all different perspectives.

Matt Hodges

You know, theater people, in general, don’t make things to last. They make things that have a four-week to one year run, and architects don’t necessarily make shows. It’s the in-between zone where we’re trying to make something that feels fresh and alive every night but can last for 30 years. When we create a space like THE HOOK, that’s where we really see it blend together.

What comes first, the artistic, creative vision, or the architectural design?

Brian Buckner

I would say eight times out of ten it’s the architecture, it’s the programming. Not just in a black-and-white square-footage sense, but what the flow and experience will be. It can honestly be very academic thinking about flow and order of spaces. But then we get into a conversation about how we can do it differently – every single time. Or how do we grow from what we’ve done or studied for a different project. THE HOOK in Atlantic City, we’re designing a venue, or series of venues, before the final concept of the show. This takes a more traditional approach to the show / venue relationship in that we have this beautiful theatre, based on the history of the site and the boardwalk, and then it starts to inform the show.

This may speak to the layers of our projects and how architecture may move you through one experience, but the story moves you into another, and then the show overlays on top of that, and the food and beverage component overlays on top of that, and operations overlay on top of that. We use architecture to elevate the program and experience but manipulate it to create a unique structure for each layer.

In Atlantic City, you’ll first go into a bar which is already a disorienting experience because it is not an expected space. We reverse-engineered some spatial concepts to push the story and narrative of the site and the context of Atlantic City, which you discover along a procession through the space. This in turn, surprisingly informs the venue narrative. The theatre tells another architectural interior design story, and again, that influences the show, and all of that pushes and impacts the restaurant and the cocktail program. So, it’s a domino effect in a really good way. Everything is intertwined and interconnected!

Matt Hodges

What Brian is saying is right, especially how the projects have come together as of late. We have had to define the space before the creative is fully realized. But I’d say everything still starts with an innovative concept. That’s where it all starts.  So in that sense, it does start with a creative spark.

What is your favorite art piece that you have collected for Spiegelworld?

Matt Hodges

In our world, there are a few examples where we did one-off pieces for certain things. There’s a Mark Wagner portrait of The Gazillionaire in The Hallucinator, and we commissioned many pieces over the years for Absinthe. But it became a full-throttle thing when we built Superfrico at The Cosmopolitan and now it’s become the norm.

I can’t pick a favorite, but at the moment, I am excited about the completion of a large piece we have at Superfrico Las Vegas by artist Scott Teplin. Scott works with watercolor and ink, creating vast, complicated, surreal isometric worlds. Since finding his work, I’ve always connected to it. It feels like a real reflection of what we love. We’re also making these little fake worlds, but we strive to make these worlds connect. Boozy Skunkton might meet The Gazillionaire for a cocktail at the Ski Lodge! I see an expression of that interconnectivity in Scott’s piece. One corner is the Absinthe world, another is the OPM world, the third is the Atomic Saloon Show world, and then we left the fourth corner blank to be finished when Discoshow was confirmed. This week we are finally adding that piece into the frame; you can see it completed there soon. This illustrates what we do at Spiegelworld because each quadrant has its distinct style and characteristics, but they connect if you look at the whole piece from a wider view.

In your own words, what can people expect when they show up to THE HOOK?

Brian Buckner

The entire concept of the space in Atlantic City is strongly influenced by the real, rich history of the Warner Theater and the Boardwalk itself. There’s something tethered to the Warner Theater, to 1929, and to the evolution or life of that site over the past hundred years. So, I hope people get parts of that with each visit revealing something new around every corner. They may only understand why there’s a Horse Dive Bar once someone explains it to them later or until, you know, somebody sees the back bar that’s a horse diving game. Those small revelations or hints can only be unlocked by exploring THE HOOK multiple times.

Matt Hodges

THE HOOK is an excellent example of what Ross and our team respond to. We love objects, we love history, and we love stories and researching and digging into those things to develop an experience that fires our imagination but at the same time infuses it with meaning. Having those roots at the center of the experience helps maintain that interplay between fact and fiction, the new and the old.

Even just talking about the main theater space, our commissioned artist Mark Ogge has a very old-world style of painting that evokes a beautiful circus style of illustration and painting. Then ceramic artist Daniel Shapiro is making all the light fixtures for the venue in a very contemporary style. So we’ll find out soon if this all goes together well, but they’re definitely very different at the core. That’s the tension of what I’m talking about; the love for old-world romance but also making it feel vibrant and immediate.

With the art collection for Superfrico Las Vegas, I didn’t notice a distinct theme at play; rather, it was guided by real connections and new friendships. We’re not just acquiring visual content to put on the walls; we are building relationships and finding artists that match our wavelength. However, I do feel a theme is starting to emerge for Superfrico at THE HOOK in Atlantic City. It feels like there is a thread of “dreams”: the aspirational kind but also the daydreams, hallucinations, and fantasies from our imagination.

See THE HOOK firsthand at Caesars in Atlantic City, opening June 30.