Surveying the spiral spine of a new play structure his company is installing in New Haven, Spencer Luckey marveled at his good fortune: He gets to doodle for a living, making far-fetched plans for enormous dreamscapes, and then sees them come to life in cities across the globe.
Luckey’s latest installation, at the private Foote School in East Rock, is, at 20 feet tall, a relatively modest project. His Fair Haven-based Luckey Climbers usually makes mammoth Jack-and-the-Beanstalk-like structures for kids to climb on, assemblages that can rise several stories indoors or out.
The climbers are made from custom-carved curved platforms, suspended like enormous flower petals or potato chips frozen in place as they were falling to the ground. Kids can climb up and down the structures, safely contained by steel netting.
All the climbers, which cost upwards of $150,000, are site-specific projects designed to meet the needs of each commission.
For 30 years, Luckey Climbers has been making a name for itself by installing its distinctive structures at children’s and science museums around the world. Children are playing on Luckey Climbers in Switzerland, South Korea, Indonesia, Mexico, Northern Ireland (pictured) and in cities across the United States.
Luckey, who’s 43, inherited the company from his father, Tom Luckey, who started the climber business in 1984. The transfer of power—a rocky process—was prompted by a tragic accident that left the elder Luckey paralyzed from the neck down.
Now, two years after his father’s death, Luckey is working with his dad again, in a way. Just yards away from the new climber he’s putting up at the Foote School is an older climber (pictured with platforms removed), one of his father’s early designs. Luckey is rehabbing the old climber as he installs the new one nearby, so that clambering Foote students will be twice as lucky.
Misguided, But Talented
On a recent Monday afternoon at Luckey Climbers headquarters in a big industrial building on Chapel Street in Fair Haven, Luckey settled into a “recession chair” to explain the history of the company.
He wore a loose short-sleeve button-up shirt with a pattern of circles on it, jeans, and bright blue Nikes. The “recession chair” is one of a number of oyster-shell-shaped seats in the office, each made out of a single sheet of plywood. Luckey built them during a dry spell in the climber business, after the economic downturn.
Luckey traces the roots of the climbing business to his father’s honeymoon in Nova Scotia. Tom, a recent graduate of Yale architecture school, was watching fishermen handle their nets when he was struck by an epiphany: “He didn’t like sitting in an office. He liked making things.”
Tom quit his new job at an architecture firm and started making things. First it was furniture and custom staircases. “Then he got into merry-go-rounds,” Spencer said.
Tom made a variety of never-before-seen merry-go-rounds. Spencer showed a model of one version, in which a circle of small discs spin within the full merry-go-round platform, making the horses do a do-si-do as the full apparatus spins.
The elder Luckey was full of creative ideas, but none of them were money-makers. He needed a patron, a benefactor to support him.
Eventually he was introduced to Agnes Gund, a philanthropist and patron of the arts. She told him, according to Spencer, “You’re clearly misguided, but very talented and energetic.”
Gund sent Tom to the Boston Children’s Museum, and supported him to build the first-ever Luckey Climber, the job that set his climber-building career in motion.
The Boston job led to others—Mexico City, Memphis, Charlotte. The children’s museum business was “just starting to blossom” and Tom had made a splash at one of the most famous—Boston’s.
In 2005, Tom fell out of a window, hit his head and became a quadriplegic. It was the day before Spencer’s wedding.
After the accident, Tom and his wife, Spencer’s stepmother, tried to keep the business going. Spencer, who had worked for Luckey Climbers on and off in his 20s, had just graduated from Yale’s architecture school the previous year. He quickly realized the company was not going to last long without some help.
“They just needed somebody,” he said. “It was really hard to watch.”
Spencer was the obvious choice to step in and rescue the company. Plus, like his dad before him, he was feeling trapped in his new office job. “In an architecture firm, you just draw things and then somebody else goes and has all the fun.” Spencer wanted to make things.
Before Spencer joined, Luckey Climbers had been totally analog. Tom made models by hand and sent them to clients. Once a job was approved, workers would cut all the pieces out with a jigsaw. Spencer, who had been trying to get his father to go digital for years, stepped in and instituted computer modeling.
With Spencer’s help, Luckey Climbers completed some open contracts, including a new climber at the Boston Children’s Museum. Then Tom fired Spencer, a move that was part of a complex, Oedipal relationship the two Luckeys had, according to Spencer.
For a time, Tom and Spencer had competing companies. Half of Tom’s clients stayed with him; half went with Spencer. “This is it, man. This is war,” Spencer thought.
With something to prove to his old man, Spencer built in Houston what remains the biggest Luckey climber ever, at three stories tall.
Eventually the elder and younger Luckeys came to a detente, and joined forces once again. Working together, contentiously, for years as Tom cycled in and out of the hospital with various ailments brought on by his condition. Click the video to see a trailer of a documentary made about the Luckeys.
Luckey Climbers weathered the recession—thanks to stimulus money that encouraged museums to spend—and a second drought—when the stimulus money dried up.
Tom finally succumbed to an infection and passed away in 2012, while Spencer was in Jakarta, Indonesia, installing a Luckey Climber.
How They’re Built
The company now has about a dozen employes, including John Records, who grew up across from Tom Luckey’s original workshop in Branford. On a recent Monday, he was tapping at a laptop running Rhinoceros, a 3-D modeling program. On the screen, was a model of a Luckey Climber planned for the Amazeum in Bentonville, Ark.
The climber is based around three “trees.” Records was adjusting the placement of the leaves, the platforms the kids will climb on, making sure the “circulation” will work, without any gaps or dead ends in the climbing experience.
Records also made adjustments to ensure that any drops between them aren’t more than 18 to 24 inches, so kids don’t get hurt.
Records pointed out components of a model the company is making for the client, showing how the leaves will change from green to yellow and red.
He showed a cross-section of a platform, made by gluing rectangular sheets of bending lauan together with veneer surfacing, covered with thin padding.
The platforms are shaped using a vacuum compressor and a variety of curved molds.
Once molded, the platforms (pictured) are precision-cut out with a computer numerical control machine, to shape them into the form of a leaf, for example.
Platforms for outdoor climbers, like the one at Foote School, are made from molded plastic (at right in photo), so they’ll stand up to the elements.
On the first floor of Luckey Climber’s Chapel Street headquarters, workers weld together the steel structures that support all the platforms in a climber. On Monday, two staffers were working on a “suture curve” structure—a form shaped like the seams of a baseball—for a climber to be installed in Indianapolis.
At 4 a.m. that morning—early to avoid traffic with a big load—Luckey and his staff had delivered the steel form for the Foote School’s new climber.
“God, it’s so cool,” Luckey said, looking at the loop of steel, now erected and fastened in place. Ryan Munroe, a longtime Luckey Climbers staffer, was on a ladder, giving the steel a fresh coat of white paint.
Even after years of designing, building and installing enormous Jack-and-the-Beanstalk-like structures for kids to climb on, Luckey said he’s still blown away when he sees them in real life.
“It starts as a little doodle,” Luckey said. He said he’ll draw things and sort of chuckle to himself, imagining if someone were crazy enough to build them. Then he’ll make a computer model, and keep chuckling. “It all seems so silly.”
Then, lo and behold, they actually do come to life. “Then you see the real thing, and it’s so big. The scale always blows my mind.”
“It’s so much cooler than what happens in an architecture office,” Luckey said. At a regular architecture firm, people are paid to say no to things, to control costs, to point out when something is impractical.
“This gig, on the other hand,” Luckey said, “I get to invent the game and play it out, and nobody stands in the way of the process.”
“I get to doodle and have fun,” he said. “And they’ve got to be serious.”
“We wanted a new Luckey climber to be part of the new Lower School playground because of the connection the family has had to the school and the way these climbers unlock a child’s imagination,” said Foote School Business Manager Jay Cox “This is an unbelievable opportunity for Foote to have two Luckey-designed climbers, with original pieces by dad and son right next to each other.”
The new climber at the Foote School is a scaled-down version of a Luckey project going up in Beijing, at the former home of Mao Zedong’s fourth wife, now a museum. The placement at the Foote School is important, and not just because he is an alumnus and his son and nieces now attend the school.
“The reason this is here,” Luckey said, “is because it talks to my old man’s climber.”