Keep a close eye on Andrew Evans—he might be an innocent-looking product designer in IDEO’s Palo Alto studio, but he’s also a professional magician and a master of sleight of hand. Evans travels around the world speaking about the intersection of design and magic, and now, he’s made his San Francisco apartment a nexus of the two. He created The Magic Patio, a custom-made stage and theater outside his building where he hosts invite-only, speakeasy-style events. The Magic Patio is specifically designed for a small, intimate experience of classic illusion, because Evans aims to recreate a bygone era of magic—specifically, 1890-1910—when the best illusions in the world were being performed at a tiny theater in London called Egyptian Hall, for an audience of about 100. I recently featured the Magic Patio for San Francisco magazine’s “Hidden City” issue (read the article online here). For Labs, Evans revealed some of the design and technical details hidden behind the curtain.
You built the box for your saw-the-lady-in-half illusion in IDEO’s shop. What did your fellow engineers bring to the project?
This is a design by illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer called Modern Art. It has slides that let the top half of the box slide over, and they create a sort of rail, like train tracks. But if you’re doing illusion design, the question is always how you can make it look like a piece of furniture as opposed to a magic prop. Not that the box actually looks like a piece of furniture, but if you actually have a rail sitting on top of it, it’s clearly a rig. I worked with Peter Bronk from the shop, and what he designed is genius. The slides are countersunk into the table, making them completely invisible. They’re milled on the CNC out of Delrin, which is a super low-friction material. The tolerance is to like one ten thousandth of an inch, and you can’t lift the top half up because it has T-slots that lock underneath. Magicians look at this prop and they’re like, “How did you get that?!” This is engineering, not a theater prop. When you’re doing tricks five feet away from the audience, it’s got to be super top notch, like product-design quality. There was no way I could have done this without IDEO.
How does your immersion in IDEO’s engineering community help you develop your craft as a magician?
This show, “Illusions of Grandeur,” is meant to be the first act of a two-act show, and the second show, “Vodvil,” which is going to premiere in May, will be all new tricks, three of which are the most complicated I’ve ever conceived of. By far the most complex trick is completely original, and it’s inspired by engineering, not magic. It’s based on a really cool technique, a visual principle, that doesn’t seem to be used very much anymore. Without giving anything away, I can say that it takes incredible control of audience and lighting, which you can have when you have your own theater.
You take advantage of total control to design surprisingly small details, such as scent. Why?
When I designed the experience, I was thinking about how many juxtapositions we could play with, which is key because it’s this show from 100 years ago that’s staged in 2015. There is a transition between entering from the street and arriving on the patio, in which you first walk up this super sketchy alleyway. It smells like pee, but we very purposefully didn’t change that. When you go through the door into the lobby, there is a specifically designed scent that we put into the room. A perfumery called Tigerlily on Valencia Street worked with me for a month trying to find the right scent. It plays with indoors and outdoors, so it’s got some woods notes to it, but then it’s also got a lot of warmth, something seductive and mysterious, a little musky. So you go from pee smell to that, and to complete the transition to outdoors, we have a different scent that we use on the patio. It’s very woodsy, and it’s also from a perfumer in San Francisco.
You’ve said that good designers and good magicians share the ability to create a sense of wonder. What does that mean you, and how did you express it with the Magic Patio?
Childlike wonder is a beautiful concept. Kids have not experienced half the world, so everything new they encounter changes the way they see the world around them. That’s the definition of wonder that I like—something that changes your perspective of the world. If you’ve been in this world for 30-plus years and then suddenly something you see makes you be like, “whoa, whoa, whoa… wait a second,” that’s a beautiful moment. But beyond that instant during a magic trick, I hope that when people leave the Patio, they think, “What else am I maybe not looking at closely enough?” I get emails after the show saying, “I just left there in this state of non-alcoholic buzz, and I was walking through San Francisco in awe, thinking, ‘I love this city! What else does it have to offer?’” Those are the responses that make me think we’re doing this right.
How do you balance your commitment to magic with your work as a designer?
I made my full living doing magic for two years. The reason I don’t do it full time is that it’s a very lonely pursuit—it’s me on my computer writing scripts, practicing magic in front of a mirror, taking video of myself, watching footage. When shows are coming up, sometimes I’ll spend a full 40 hours a week preparing, on top of IDEO work, but it fulfills me very personally and creatively. Simultaneously, IDEO gives me culture and people. It’s a beautiful pairing.