Mazes seem to defy time and age. You’re in a maze — and I’m talking about real ones, not ones you solve on your iPhone — for 10 minutes or two hours; it’s hard to tell. You’re either 8 years old or 45. It all starts to feel the same.
Adrian Fisher has been designing mazes — mirror mazes, hedge mazes, water mazes, you name it — for 36 years. He holds seven Guinness World Records.
His creations run the gamut from the 51-foot Beatles maze in Liverpool with a 18-ton yellow submarine to the Alice in Wonderland maze to a chess-inspired maze. Some you can point out from miles above ground; in Scotland, one of his mazes has beautifully colored bushes that weave in and out to make it look like Scottish tartan from the sky.
Despite the suspension of time that mazes offer, though, they have jumped leaps and bounds over the centuries (3D mazes! drones!), which means people have come to expect a great deal more from these intricately woven stories.
Based in: London, UK
Graduated from: Oundle School; studied history and accounting
Years in the business: 36
Number of mazes you’ve created: About 700 all over the world. I make about 10 to 20 mazes each year, sometimes more — as many as 30 or 40.
I love mazes as much as the next person, but how does one make a career from it? There aren’t really any training courses. I started looking at what others had built — and then built one in a family garden in southern England. I started with hedge mazes, then grass mazes with brick paving, and then stonework.
Did you have a “big break”? When the Archbishop of Canterbury in England was enthroned, there was a special service, and he talked about a maze. So I wrote to The Times [of London], explaining the significance of the use of the labyrinth. I got a response — they wanted to create an archbishop’s maze in the garden. The archbishop came to dedicate it, and there was a lot of excitement around that.
Where do you draw inspiration from? From the story, the people I’m creating the maze for. The maze is the journey, an adventure for visitors. They are trying to not only solve the puzzle, but also uncover its hidden meaning. I like mazes that make me laugh when I solve them.
We built a maze in Wildwood, New Jersey, for a client who used to be the head of Ripley’s. He commissioned a mirror maze, a palace of sweets. When you first walk into that maze, you discover candy and how it’s made — then, you’re led into the dark woods and come across a candy glade where there’s candy everywhere and you get totally lost. There are mirrors, so you’re looking into a portal that appears to be 20 or 30 feet across. It’s like looking through a mixing bowl. When you finish, you can buy candy.
How long does one maze take to build, on average, from start to finish? With very large, intricate projects — say, at the new Disney in Shanghai — there are lots of people contributing, so it can take four… five… six years.
Your signature design principle: That extra twist of unpredictability. The sense of humor.
How have modern mazes evolved from labyrinths in the 1600s? The technology we have today. I’ve made 3D mazes with netting held under tension, so you’re undulating in the mazes. Or there’s the Pepper’s ghost illusion technique — ghostly objects appear to fade in and out. Music is also very special — using soundtracks and sound systems.
Your maze with the most bragging rights: One of the Guinness records I hold is for a 19-acre cornfield covering almost 10 miles in England. Another — a 600-foot, 55-story-high one — is built on the side of a skyscraper in Dubai. Only Spider-Man can climb that one.
How do you keep your mind sharp? I read a lot. I take anything — the New Testament, Shakespeare, music composers — and figure out the story the have to tell. A maze is the same thing; it’s a way of telling a story, a walk through an adventure.
Best part of your job: I create situations where a family goes into a maze, makes choices together, discovers things they hadn’t expected — and like a good movie, it’s over just before they’ve had enough.
Most challenging part of your job: For big projects, you’re working with a lot of people. So it’s about working out how to achieve the dream with the space and location available. Most roads and bridges have a purpose; mazes don’t really.
Tell me about your process. I sketch using a pencil and paper, refine those ideas and translate them into computer graphics and models. Then you scale it — take that corner off the hill a bit — and chip away at small landscape changes. Subtle changes become dramatic. But I focus on problems and solutions; I don’t have an architecture or landscape background.
The biggest markets for mazes: It’s seasonal — right now, it’s farms — and depends on the destination. Boardwalks, for example, only have 90 to 100 days to make all their money for the year. It’s different if you build a maze in a mall in the suburbs; that needs to be appealing again and again. At a Hollywood resort, everyone is new each year; they don’t remember the maze from last year.
Have you turned your family into maze aficionados? My grandchildren sometimes go up into the tower in the middle of a hedge maze — it’s their secret, special place. We have to call them down.
As more of our lives move online, what kind of future do mazes have? We live in a very urbanized world, with much less space around each of us. We spend months in sprawling areas of people without a break, and we’re surrounded by electronics. I have a feeling that will never reverse, but there is something to be said for getting rid of all your equipment and just swimming in a lake or walking around unattached. Nothing manmade, just the hills, no cars. There is something very special about those places; getting lost in your imagination inspires people.
Adrian Fisher and his wife Marie are the directors of Adrian Fisher Design Ltd. You can find out more about their mazes on their website.