From fashion to fixtures

“I’d say 50% of the projects I’ve worked on have never gotten built. I’ve gotten paid, but still.”


Designer Bill Strother shifts focus from rock star threads to club ligthing
By Kevin M. Mitchell

What a long strange trip it’s been for Bill Strother. Today he’s a premier light and scenic designer who has left his unique mark on clubs like Shark, Safari Club, Far West Rodeo, and most recently, Gilley’s in Dallas, which opens this month. But he started out as a member of the infamous Hog Farm commune and cut his teeth in the entertainment business as a roadie at Woodstock (that would be the first one).
“I was really young, and it allowed me to hang out with groups of intellectuals, artist, writers, and musicians,” he says of his commune days. “The counter-culture people were innovators.”
He ended up stitching one-of-a-kind clothing in the early 1970s, and for the next dozen years, he dressed rock stars like the Winter Brothers; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Cher; and the Stones. A jacket he designed for Keith Richards hung in a special exhibit in the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York last year.
He “just got tired” of the clothing scene in the mid-1980s, so he went back to school and got a degree in architectural design at the University of Texas, San Antonio. While there, he got some work at Cyber Kinetics when Woody Smith was running things. That’s when he started doing nightclubs, “because I knew how to do lighting plots and draw to scale.” He knew how to do more than that: His first club, Avalon in Houston (now City Streets) was such a hit that he went on to do Iguana Mirage, owned by Keith Black. That would earn him a Lighting Designer of the Year award, thus cementing his reputation as an innovator.
Has designing clothes for rock stars influenced your lighting work? I suppose so. I tend to look at things sculpturally and in three dimensions. I think it’s taught me how to deal with clients, and being sensitive to their needs has been helpful [see sidebar].
Then there’s the whole staring-at-a-blank-page thing. How do you summon the muse? I consider great designs a gift from God because I don’t know where they come from.
When earning your degree, did you plan on designing nightclubs? No. I had planned to go into architecture, but I really loved nightclubs. I love the theatrical aspects, and the creativity that goes into them. Early on, I got an opportunity to work for Michael Jackson’s father, who was building a complex out in Vegas called Joe Jackson Celebrity Plaza. I moved there to work on that project, but it never got built, due to money problems.
Has that happened to you often?
I’d say 50% of the projects I’ve worked on have never gotten built. I’ve gotten paid, but still. Trust, which was to be directly across from Madison Square Garden, went under before it opened. Same thing happened to Broadcast, another fantastic project, which was going to be across the street from Caesar’s Palace in Vegas.
People can be naïve about this business, and their eyes get bigger than their wallets. You have to weigh the cost against the how long the club is going to be popular – usually an 18-month life expectancy. There are lots of people who “always wanted to own a club,” but don’t know the nuts and bolts of the business.
After the Jackson project fell through, did you stay in Vegas? At that point, the Shark Club people started working on a new location in LA, and I moved there and designed that one.
Eventually I moved back to Vegas and worked with the Legend show at the Imperial Palace and did scenic design for them. After dabbling in clothes again, then working on the Kiss Psychocircus 3-D tour as a stage designer, I was contacted by Intelecon, and moved to Dallas to head its design department, where I was able to develop a design philosophy using computers and digital technology.
What are the challenges of that technology? What I have to do is create a landscape of projectable surfaces. That’s where my scenic design background comes in – I create a lot of spandex sculpture on the club landscape, and then I paint with projection on these surfaces using computer animation. It’s a quantum leap to me in terms of effects. Now I have software where I can create lava flows and Tinkerbell dust and just literally thousands of different types of effects. But it takes the combination of lighting and projection together to make it a seamless environment.
What approach to design do you think sets you apart? Certainly computer animation, that’s one thing. The other thing is because of my architectural background, I’m very sensitive to surfaces – whether it’s spandex, white paint, color flats, acrylic…whatever it is, I like to take emerging technology and integrate it into scenic design.
What are you seeing in other clubs that you like? I like the Color Kinetics stuff that has been used lately for ambient light systems. I think that because it works on DMX and has complete color mixing abilities, it’s a nice touch. And they’ve made them brighter over the last year. So the idea is mixing color in ambient lighting – not the dancefloor, but the code lighting, accent lighting, etc., the things that aren’t the first things people consider when they start to develop the look of their club. I like beautiful transitions.
What’s your favorite club right now? There’s another new club opening in Dallas that I did some initial collaboration on called Blue. It’s a dance club in the whole postmodern minimalist vein. I worked on the ambient light system and the dancefloor light show.
Tell us about your latest project. I’m working on Gilley’s, as in Mickey Gilley from Urban Cowboy. It’s a big project. It’s going to be a complex that [will] become part of the Dallas skyline; a live music venue showcasing a lot of national, up-and-coming, and regional acts. In addition to a 30,000-square-foot nightclub, there’ll be retail stores and dining. And there are also plans for a TV show to be broadcast from there, something along the lines of Austin City Limits. I’m doing the lights and the interior design for the club.
How long have you been working on this project? Five years. They contacted Intelecon about providing lighting, sound, and audio visual for Gilley’s, and being head of design, I was very involved with the project from the beginning. Then when Intelecon went under last year, I started working directly with Matthews Southwest as an independent.
What’s your approach to lighting the club? There are two separate light shows. For the stage, we’re working with conventional lights – a lot of Clay Paky Stage Wash and Stage Colors. [Their] optics are fantastic. The dancefloor has one large circular truss in the center and out of that there is a square truss with two wings that go up the side. The entire dancefloor is 70’ x 50’, with the trussing being 50’ x 40’. There we are using [High End Systems] Technobeams, AF1000 [strobes], and Clay Paky Stage Zooms. A Whole Hog will be running it all.

On opening night, will it look like you envisioned it so many months ago? Yes. I do a lot of visualizing using the 3D Studio Max 5.0 program. I’ve been using it for six years. It’s incredibly cool, because a picture is worth a thousand words. It allows you to design in 3D space, plus when you’re generating lighting looks, you can change colors, floor materials, etc., with a keystroke.
I work in an ongoing conceptual process. First, we submit a preliminary look to [our] clients after several consulting sessions. Then we get feedback on the idea, then just move forward in the development.
I like to work very actively with the clients – I want them to be happy with it before anything gets hung! [laughs] A lot of architects and designers might do that at the end of the process because then if the client wants to make changes, the client has to pay for [them]. I don’t work that way. [It] sort of takes the guesswork out of it.
What would you tell someone wanting to get into the business? Don’t do it! Go back! [laughs] I would say the industry is changing so much with computer and digital technology, [that you should] look at emerging technology and try and diversify. Don’t get stuck in just one part of the business, but look at the big picture. Keep your eye on the horizon.
Copyright 2003 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2003 TESTA Communications