Our Sunday Long Read this week comes to us from Nicola Twilley at the New Yorker, with the story of one of the premier designers of our age: Adrian Fisher, a man who makes...mazes.
Yes, those mazes.
On the afternoon of March 25, 1980, Robert Runcie was enthroned as the hundred-and-second Archbishop of Canterbury, senior prelate of the Anglican Communion. For his first sermon following his ascension to the Chair of St. Augustine, Runcie told the assembled ranks of bishops, bewigged members of the judiciary, and assorted royalty about a recent dream. “You know how sometimes in an English garden you find a maze,” Runcie said. “The trouble is to get to the center of all those hedges. It is easy to get lost.” The Christian church, in Runcie’s slightly strained analogy, was in such a maze, and could progress toward its goal only by turning back, toward the periphery, in order to engage with those still outside the church’s embrace.
“He said, ‘I had a dream of a maze, and in this maze blah, blah, blah,’ ” the maze designer Adrian Fisher recalled, when I visited him late this summer, at his home in Dorset, in southwest England. In 1980, Fisher was twenty-eight years old and working for I.T.T., a multinational manufacturing company, where he was responsible for productivity enhancement. He was increasingly drawn to the idea of designing mazes; he’d even formed a company, Minotaur Designs, with a wealthy labyrinthologist and former diplomat, Randoll Coate. But public commissions proved elusive. “At first, I thought it was impossible,” Fisher said. “How do you start? How do you do it?”
Runcie’s dream gave him an idea: Fisher wrote to the letters page of the London Times, briefly outlining the maze’s long history as a Christian symbol and noting that, as in the Archbishop’s dream, a maze’s goal is typically reached not by “pressing toward the center” but, rather, by “returning almost to the edge,” in order to find the proper path. In his signature, Fisher styled himself a “Maze Consultant,” and, before long, this stealth marketing had reeled in a customer, and Minotaur’s first public commission. Lady Elizabeth Brunner, a former actress who was married to a chemical magnate, invited Fisher to tea. Over scones and jam, she wondered aloud whether he might create an Archbishop’s Maze, inspired by Runcie’s words, in her garden at Greys Court, a Tudor manor house in Oxfordshire.
Fisher didn’t yet have official stationery, or even a typewriter, so he submitted his proposal as a handwritten letter. His design was circular: a brick path, set in a lawn, that formed seven concentric rings winding toward a sundial in the center. At first glance, it seemed to replicate the traditional Christian pavement labyrinth, the most famous example of which is found in the nave of Chartres Cathedral. Medieval labyrinths of this kind aren’t puzzles; there is only a single path, arranged in a snaking pattern of concentric folds, and to process along it to the center is to participate in a physical allegory of the soul’s progress through life and toward salvation. But at Greys Court a maze walker—or aspirant, to use the technical term—encounters a junction within seconds and has to make a choice. Fisher cunningly combined the appearance of the old Christian labyrinth with the function of the puzzle maze, whose solution, taking its cue from Runcie’s metaphor, involves turning away from the center initially, to journey around the entire periphery.
The new Archbishop dedicated the Greys Court maze in October, 1981, and the resulting publicity generated more maze commissions. With new customers lining up, Fisher took out a business loan, bought a computer, a printer, and a secondhand car, and reinvented himself as a full-time maze designer. The course of his career, built on equal parts passion and self-promotion, was set. “See, you create events out of nothing,” he told me. Fisher realized that if he wanted to make mazes he first had to make people want mazes. From his Runcie letter to his (successful) campaign to have Britain declare 1991 the Year of the Maze, he has devoted the past four decades to creating both the market and the product. Today, at the age of seventy, he seems to have no intention of retiring. By his own count, he has created more than seven hundred mazes, in forty-two countries. He is the world’s leading maze-maker by a margin so large that he has no real competition.
“He’s the only one who’s managed to make mazes a business rather than a hobby,” Jeff Saward, a historian of mazes and labyrinths, told me. Saward, who edits the research journal Caerdroia—the Welsh name for a turf labyrinth—estimates that, when Fisher started out, there were no more than fifty public mazes and labyrinths in the U.K. There was just one text on the subject: “Mazes and Labyrinths: A General Account of Their History and Development,” by W. H. Matthews, from 1922. Matthews, a civil servant who had fought in the First World War, wrote the book in the Reading Room of the British Museum on his return from the trenches. Despite his fondness for mazes, Matthews was convinced that they were no more than a historical curiosity. “Let us admit at once that, as a favorite of fashion, the maze has long since had its day,” he wrote. The book, proving his point, sank almost without trace, and its poor sales became a family joke.
Yet today maze observers agree that there are more mazes than ever before, and more being built each year. Mazes, under Fisher’s watch, have become part of the British heritage business, de rigueur at stately homes, where, along with tearooms and gift shops, they can raise money to pay for otherwise crippling repair and tax bills. They have also diversified: Fisher helped invent the corn mazes that pop up alongside pumpkin patches on farms across America each fall, and reintroduced mirror mazes to piers, theme parks, and malls worldwide. He will happily design a labyrinth inscribed with religious quotations for a megachurch in North Carolina; a maze adventure with an artificial volcano, lake, and safe room for a Middle Eastern princess; a thumb-size maze tattoo for an anonymous female client; and a vertical maze for a fifty-five-story skyscraper in Dubai, with meanders that double as balconies. He does eighty per cent of his business overseas, and he told me that he has won nine Guinness World Records for superlative mazes of various sorts. “Of course, I wrote the rules about how a maze qualifies for the Guinness Book of Records,” he added.