The Experiential: Speed Round With LDI Panelist Chuck Bajnai, EWI CCO

Chuck Bajnai's creative vision and enthusiasm for art infused with “why?” makes him a potent force in the world of auto shows and permanent brand installations.

The word is getting out that on November 16th, LDI is bringing together an amazing group of producers, creatives, and vendors who are leading the way with cutting edge corporate production and experiential design.  This is the intersection of theatre and brand, product and production.  This is where the newest technology happens FIRST, and where the fourth wall of theatre is often removed, putting audiences and patrons in fully constructed storytelling spaces. If you are a designer, producer, technician, or vendor, you are going to want to be in this room. A full day of sessions will unfold, with a focus on the business, the tech, and the art of experiential. Call it corporate, call it trade show, call it pop up retail… This is where 90% of production spending and innovation happens across all sectors of our business.  Let that sink in.

I am thrilled to be inviting Chuck Bajnai, Chief Creative Officer at EWI Worldwide to participate. Chuck is first, a friend. He and I share a love of boats, race cars, and huge spectacles… But he is also a collaborator, and his creative vision and enthusiasm for art infused with “why?” makes him a potent force in the world of auto shows and permanent brand installations. So, without further ado, our speed round. For more, COME, and join us on November 16th for the Art and Science of Experiential in Las Vegas!

Bob Bonniol: Chuck, what’s your origin story? How did you find the creative life?

Chuck Bajnai: This is a much larger question than it first appears. My road has been constantly evolving. It is built upon a series of obstacles and achievements that give light to the next challenge…

Growing up I always loved to draw. My father was an architect, and I remember him and I drawing cars for as long as I can remember. I was accepted to RISD as an illustration major in 1990. RISD has all freshman go through a Foundation Program. This included all types of art and design. It is intended to expose students to the wide range of majors the school has to offer and the different opportunities to find a profession in. During this time, I quickly realized illustration was not my thing. 

I was fascinated with a profession called Industrial Design. It offered me a completely holistic opportunity to draw, think, solve problems, and find a well-paying job. RISD’s ID program was fantastic. It did not (unlike most ID schools) teach me how to be an amazing illustrator. It instead focused on solving problems and understanding materials. I had a professor once tell me about this industry called Exhibit Design. He thought my history with architecture aligned with a speed in which projects get done would be an interesting fit for me. 

I started at a very small company, and I was one of two designers on staff. A place called Star Displays. They expected me to hit the ground running. I had one major issue: Because this is prior to CAD being commonplace in the industry, everything they did was hand sketched. Remember that part about RISD not teaching me how to draw? I spent the next few months learning how to draw with markers. My boss sent me home weekly with a drawing exercise focusing on perspective, rendering materials, and composition.

After a few years, I decided to search for a company that would give me bigger opportunities. I ended up at Exhibitgroup/Giltspur. Projects here were so much larger and the amount of creative talent that worked in the studio was so inspiring. I was challenged here to learn this program called AutoCad and 3D Studio. After a few projects, I was, for the most part, self-taught and had a unique skill set not found on the team. This allowed me to be part of a team that got to design an RFP for Pontiac and GMC. I had seen these auto show stands before, and they were at the time the pinnacle of the industry. They dealt with architecture, furniture design, graphic design, lighting design, media design, and even had a substantial budget to design to. We won this RFP with what ultimately was the first double deck display at NAIAS. I knew I needed to stay in this industry and the automotive sector was perfect.

After a small stint, back in New England for Exhibitgroup/Giltspur, I was recruited by George P Johnson. GPJ was the place to work if you wanted to design auto show stands. I was in awe of all the talented designers they had. I was quite intimidated.  Within my first few years, I become creative director on the Saturn account. But it was when I was asked to work on new business opportunities that I came into my own. I was asked to participate on numerous RFPs, including the launch of a new brand Scion. 

The competition of the RFP was amazing. Not only was I using my problem solving skills and my design skills, but I was also using something very primal in my DNA…competing! I found so much fire in the quest to win business it was addicting. This also put me in a very unique position on the team. I was the only designer not dedicated to a single automotive account. This unique spot allowed me to touch a wide variety of industries and get exposed to the business of the industry. 

Trying to sell work to new people you don’t have prior relationships with was quite a challenge. I was confident in my design and my ability to have a unique perspective to the clients’ challenges, but how do you get them to buy my vision? I realized all of my competition could design “nice” exhibitions. I differentiated myself by learning how to tell them “why” I designed what I did, and “why” it solved their problem.

Experience design quickly became another aspect of my creative recipe. Combining my unique perspective to understanding questions, designing unique solutions, integrating experience into everything I do, and being able to take a client on a journey within my presentation; I found my niche! This recipe has allowed me to not be intimidated by the scale or obscurity of a challenge. I believe 100% that there is nothing out there I can’t do.

I joined EWI in 2013 as their Chief Creative Officer. EWI was a much smaller company compared to GPJ; however, they too were a major player in the auto show world. The first challenge was to create a culture that fosters attitude, competition, and enthusiasm. Applying those principles in the next few years, I created a very well-rounded team, one that blurred the line of traditional roles and focused on cross disciplined skills. The team has traditional industrial designers and graphic designers but added creative strategists, storytellers, digital designers, technologists, and even a political cartoonist. 

This group has proven to be incredible, and being a smaller company has allowed us to be nimble. We have had incredible success at winning and executing projects so much larger than I could have ever imagined. I always say I would not want to compete against this team!

As much as I have done in my professional career as an individual, I have found so much passion and challenge in developing a visionary team. Design is not done singularly. It is a process that involves many voices, and through those voices, we identify amazing solutions, and our individual skills allow us to bring those solutions to life in amazing and unexpected ways.

BB: What is your superpower as a creative?

CB: Solving problems and telling stories.

BB: What are some of the current implications of design in today's culture that are on your mind?

CB: Design today means needing to be so cross-disciplinary. Audiences expect more and more out of everything they engage. There are limits to this, and we must figure out how to harness simplicity and focus in everything we design.

BB: Looking back, can you describe a moment where you had some profound impact through creative work?

CB: The designing of GM World. Living in Detroit and observing firsthand how hard this city has struggled to get traction in its renaissance. It was amazing to design a project that was larger than the company I was designing it for. We were not only creating a space to highlight GM’s vision and achievements, but also a space for the world to come and be inspired. This is a small piece in the much larger project called Detroit.

BB: Looking ahead, where do you see immersive experiences and storytelling going?

CB: The convergence of architecture and experience. Architecture has always been purposeful, inspiring, and utilitarian. As the decades have passed, the expectation on what architecture can and should be has evolved. Today we want environments that responds to us, ones that we can interact with, share with others, and of course, be inspired by. Similar to my exhibit industry, architecture is looking for this evolution. Architectural companies like BIG are perfect examples on how architecture can be more experiential. 

BB: Living or dead, if you could sit with anybody for an hour, who and what would you discuss?

CB: Bjarke Ingels, founder of BIG. I am so completely inspired by his problem solving and ability to see the world through a unique lens. I would love to discuss his motivation, his process, where he finds inspiration, and what it took to create a team that can conquer the world. 

Bob Bonniol is a director and production designer known for his implementation of extensive media and interactive features in his productions. Currently, he is the co-creative director (with Chuck Bajnai & Julian Schuchard) for content and digital experience in the massive renovation of The Core at General Motors' World Headquarters in Detroit. The installation features the largest permanent interactively driven LED screen array on earth. In his practice, he has worked with Disney Music Group, Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Creative Entertainment, Live Nation, AEG, Feld Entertainment, Chrysler Corporation, Activision/Blizzard, America's Got Talent, X-Factor, American Idol, Blue Man Group, Microsoft, Alibaba, as well as countless recording artists, Broadway producers, opera companies, theme parks, cruise lines, dance companies, and architects.

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