Interview: Noel Maxam – Translating Hollywood Imagination into Innovative Exhibit Design

August 18, 2017

What do you get when you take the visionary mindset of a television industry creative, add in the visual acumen of a set designer, then throw in some childlike imagination and sense of play? You get Emagispace, a sustainable building block technology that helps re-imagine what’s possible for the construction of interior spaces, including trade show exhibits.

Emagispace is the brainchild of Founder and CEO Noel Maxam, a 20-year television director, writer and producer turned interior construction and design innovator, who saw a need for flexible, reusable interiors on TV and movie sets after creating more than 3,500 hours of programming for CBS, NBC, Disney and Nick-at-Nite.

Flash forward almost two years later, and Maxam’s turnkey building block system is not only being adopted by Hollywood but also a range of industries seeking temporary interior space solutions, including commercial office spaces, retail, art galleries and of course, exhibiting companies.

I had a chance to sit down with Maxam to discuss his somewhat accidental pathway into the trade show industry.

Question: So how does someone go from being an Emmy award-winning TV writer, producer and director to an exhibit builder and interior design innovator?

Noel Maxam: I’ve spent more than two decades in multi-camera television and during that time, network TV began undergoing a business change and budgets started to constrict. Because of that, I had to cut a lot of budgets and in trying to keep the quality going to the screen, one of the line items I noticed was for sets.

The reason sets are so expensive is because of the life cycle involved in them. They have to be designed, built, then approved, then moved to the stage, they need conveyances to transport them and they have to be moved from one location to another. But when you move them, you damage them, so you have set painters and people specializing in making sure they work right, and it takes a lot of people to take them up and down. Then there’s the exorbitant cost of storing them near the stage or far away from the stage, the latter of which is much cheaper (but) now you have trucks and inventory and more damages.

You figure, this set is going to cost you X amount of dollars to store, move back and forth and fix back up, so if you’re not going to need it again and if it’s not something that’s integral to your show, then the first thing you do is throw it out because it’s cheaper to get rid of it than to keep it going.

Looking at all of that, I realized we really needed to fix this, as there are huge money issues and inefficiencies at work here. That’s where the idea of Emagispace was born.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for a building block technology?

NM: When I was a kid I used to build sand castles, Lego trucks, Lincoln Logs, erector sets and play with cardboard boxes, and the whole job of those things was to only live as long as I needed them for my game. But over time we all learn a lot of rules that kind of box us in. We think we’re being more creative but really what we’re doing is learning to play by the rules, and with construction that means walls, permits, engineers, contractors, plans and permanence – the whole idea is to build for permanence, but in my world that was totally opposite. We’ve lost the idea that the whole point of (a set) is for the creative use of right now. So to me, it was about bringing a kid point of view to the whole thing.

I sat down and figured out that the lifecycle of a wall needed to be sourced from sustainable materials that were small enough to only need standard conveyance. In the adult world, that’s a pallet, but in a little kid world, that’s a box. So I thought, it’s got to fit in a box, it’s got to be able to be moved back and forth really easily, and we want one person to be able to take it up, so it has to pop up and that meant it couldn’t be very heavy, or very wide.

Then I wanted to be able to separate the wall covering, or what I call the skin, from the structure because it’s silly to marry the decoration to the wall if I want to change the configuration. Maybe I want a wall to be a wall, then a wall with a window, then a wall with a door, then a desk…I wanted it to be a transformer, basically. So it made sense to take the skin off the wall and have a library of skins and a library of blocks, and the two of them could mix and match like toys. Then I wanted to make it reusable and repurposable because instead of creating one set, I have a set that would do five or ten or as many different duties as I could figure out in the same basic footprint.

Then I wanted it to break down as much as possible, either into a box or boxes, or all the way down to flat pack on a pallet. If I broke one of those pieces I didn’t want to have to replace the whole thing…I wanted it to be kind of breakaway, so you only replace the broken pieces. If and when you did beat it up, I wanted the whole product to be able to be recycled. Those were all of the problem sets I went through in creating Emagispace.

After that, I came up with a product that was patentable and I was able to get my brother, who is a brilliant financier as well as a builder, involved and then we got some MIT engineers involved. Then it kind of mushroomed after that and I think the reason it did is we realized that everyone had this problem – we’re all building for permanence rather than things that are creative and fun. So many industries are in the same boat – they’re building for impermanence, not permanence, and that’s a fundamental difference. When you’re building for impermanence, it needs to go up and down quickly, so that covers commercial, retail, trade shows, disaster relief, shelter, offices – it goes on and on.

Then we learned that 25-40 percent of landfill is due to changing construction and we started to say, wow, we really have something here, this could be really important.

Q: Did you have any experience with trade shows prior to founding your company and why did you think your product would be a good fit for the industry?

NM: I had a cursory knowledge of trade shows, having been to a few, but I was never intimately aware of the business as a whole. But in looking at selling a product, the first thing one looks at is how does one get it in front of people to see what their reaction is going to be and the first thing that came to our mind was trade shows as the logical way to get our product out there. So not only did we go to trade shows but we understood that we were looking at the common denominator across our potential customers, which were people who need things to go up and come down.

We began doing a lot of research on trade shows, going to them as attendees and as exhibitors, and doing quite a bit of market research. We started to look at all of the competitors out there and realized that our product is less expensive to purchase than it is to rent a comparable item from one of the leading booth makers.

Q: How many exhibiting companies have you worked with so far and what have been some of your more memorable projects?

NM: I don’t consider my customers customers, I consider them innovators and early adopters. The primary person who was an early adopter is Glen Gainor, president of physical production at Sony Screen Gems. He immediately saw the product and adopted it for a movie called “Cadaver” and he’s since used it on three movies. It continues to be used and because of that, we’ve had a lot of inroads, such as Maker Studios, one of the largest YouTube video creators, as well as Disney and ABC. We’re also in college theaters and art galleries, so a lot of creative people have been adopting our product.

As far as trade shows, we’re at a half dozen or more clients and growing. For exhibitors, we create a “shell booth” that can be reconfigured in a show and from show to show. On the first day you can create a wide-open booth and on the second day you can have a private meeting room in the booth, so you can reconfigure and repurpose and do it without tools in under 30 minutes.

We did that with Revlon and LBJ Events, which designed the booth, and Creative Graphic Services, the company that printed the skins for it. They do 30-40 different shows and maybe they want a bigger or smaller presence from one trade show to the next. Our material allowed them to create a modular booth that can change its footprint at will, so they can go to go to all of these shows with one shell as opposed to creating a bunch of different shells.

As a director, I think of space really differently than most people – space is supposed to adapt to what I need, I’m not supposed to adapt to it. Emagispace takes physical reality and in way bends it to your will.

Q: What is the typical lifespan of the blocks and how recyclable are they?

NM: Our current product can be made of up to 50 percent post-consumer recycled plastic and that’s really because we don’t have enough volume at this point. The hoppers your fill the plastic with are almost as big as my house, so as you gain more ability for capacity, you can increase that post-consumer waste product to 70 or even 100 percent.

Our product is made of MDF wood, which is made up of wood chips, pine sawdust and recycled newspapers. If you did something to destroy a rib or an MDF face, you would only be replacing that piece – you would never be replacing the entire block unless you did something crazy with it. The blocks are meant to be reused and repurposed for years, not days, and even if and when you did break it down, the product itself can be recycled because it’s already made out of recycled material. We call it sustainable to the nth degree. Plus, the cost savings multiply over time, as every time you reuse it you’re saving more money. We like to say it’s the first green product that doesn’t charge a premium for its use.

Q: How is building a trade show exhibit similar or different than building a film set, and what are your favorite aspects of the process?

NM: I feel a great sense of accomplishment and pride in creating a booth, so that personal ownership is sort of a different relationship than I would have to a set. A set is an interim art form that’s meant to facilitate a story. A trade show is a story and a booth is the story. You’re expecting a customer to stop and by virtue of seeing your booth, understand what you’re trying to sell or what your story is, then stop and engage with you. That sort of instant engagement is much more like theater than film and television, and when I’m in a trade show booth I feel much more like I’m in a performance situation. It’s super fun and exhilarating and there’s sort of an unspoken camaraderie between you and the booths next to you that’s really interesting. It’s fascinating – if one booth is slaying it and you’re not you get kind of jealous about it.

Q: Are you still working in the television industry or has interior space design become your new calling in life?

NM: I’m full-time on this right now. Of course, my heart will never be far from directing, it’s what I was born to do, but this has taken up my entire life.

Q: Have you ever considered writing a TV series about trade shows?

NM: It actually has crossed my mind. I have a title and I don’t know exactly where I’d go with it but it’s “Streakers, Strollers and Stoppers,” because that’s how the exhibitor experiences the trade show attendee. The streakers are the ones where you have to catch their eye immediately in order to get them to stop. Then there are the strollers, they’re kind of meandering back and forth, but those folks will stop if you’re doing something similar to what they want. Then there’s the stoppers, the ones who have found you and know about you, maybe because you’ve pre-marketed to them. And then there’s that camaraderie between you and the three or four booths around you and the relationships that are created – that’s how I would begin looking at creating that show.

To learn more about Emagispace, go here.

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