For Todd Lehman, his imagination is the limit. When he visited Las Vegas and walked through a casino, his thoughts weren’t on his odds at a blackjack table. Instead, his attention was drawn to the ceiling. “I saw something change and thought, ‘Boy, wouldn’t that be neat?’” Lehman remembers. The casino’s ceiling changer moved room style from day to night. And that ceiling later became the inspiration for one of Lehman’s favorite projects, an indoor playground he designed and built at the El Paso Children’s Hospital in El Paso, Texas.
But Lehman’s favorite project is always the one he’s currently working on. As the founder, creative executive director and self-described design guy at Cre8Play, he tries to push through creative limits with each and every play space that is designed. “There’s nothing I enjoy more than creating fantastical play environments that blow people’s minds,” he says. He wants to create another world so when kids see the playground, their eyes light up and they don’t walk, but run to it. “I always ask clients, ‘If you could wave a magic wand, what would this playground look like?’” Lehman says. “They look into their crystal ball and I try to build that vision.”
The play space called The Enchanted Forest inside El Paso Children’s Hospital is indeed magical and mysterious. “We were committed to making this space have the wow factor,” says Dennece Knight, executive director at University Medical Center, El Paso Children’s Hospital. “The Enchanted Forest is a great space for siblings at a tough time. They are able to creatively engage rather than just wait.”
The play space is an indoor and outdoor forest complete with hollow trees, murals, streams of water, a themed forest floor, hobbit homes and tree forts. Sounds of twittering birds accompany daylight while crickets chirp when the sunlight fades to starlight. “What’s really cool is it’s not a play-on environment,” Lehman says. “We wanted to immerse children in the environment, and use light and sound and texture and, really, all senses except taste.”
For Lehman, the inspiration for play spaces like The Enchanted Forest come from experiences like the Las Vegas casino ceiling. “I’ll see something and say, ‘cool,’” he says. “It might be something I’ve seen yesterday or it might be something I’ve seen 15 years ago.” Lehman says each and every project seems to shatter a creative glass ceiling as his team continues to try to create something truly original. “I work with incredible, creative people. Each step of the process adds more dimension to the entire finished project,” he says.
Growing Up on the Playground
Lehman grew up working with his father in the traditional playground industry. He helped install playgrounds during high school and college, and wound up working for the company for around 15 years. “I ended up in the family business opposed to wanting to be there,” Lehman says. “I wanted to be an artist.” However, he remains truly appreciative of having the opportunity to learn about the industry and to thoroughly understand how children play.
In 2005, Lehman left and founded his own company using a friend’s storeroom as an office and his cell phone as the office phone number. “I loved going to work every single day,” he says. Lehman initially came up with the word Cre8Play because he needed a screen name for AOL that included only eight characters. When he tried to brainstorm a unique name for his new company, he always kept coming back to the eight-character name.
The business grew. By 2009, Lehman was ready to find a more permanent home for Cre8play, since it was continuing to establish more relationships outside of the state and country. He considered relocating, but other places never really seemed like the right fit. “This is where our roots are and it’s a phenomenal place to raise a family. Plus, there’s a huge pool of talented people here also,” Lehman says.
Lehman found warehouse space in New Hope and set to work outfitting it for a studio that would be a fun place to work. “I just really created a place where I would want to go to work every day,” he says. “We work hard and play hard, and we can do it in a fun, creative office.” To reinstate that point, you have to look no farther than the conference room, which is complete with a ping-pong table and pinball machines. Lehman sometimes cruises around in a scooter and he brings his dog, a labradoodle named Mini, to work every single day. “I want people to absolutely love what they do here so that they can’t wait for Monday morning to come,” he says.
Not only is the design studio fun, it’s responsible, too. Lehman emphasizes building his designs as environmentally friendly as he can. His building process requires quite a bit of concrete and water, so Lehman uses reclaimed, recycled water when possible. He also uses recycled materials when he can as well as materials that can be repurposed or recycled in the future. “I call it being responsible,” he says. “It’s trying to leave the world a better place. If everyone does that, then our great-great-grandchildren will have a better place.”
One of Lehman’s favorite leisure activities intersected with his work life in 2012. He enjoyed the Discovery Channel reality show, American Choppers, and wanted to work on a project with the show’s central characters, Paul Teutel Jr., who goes by Paul Jr. The show creates custom chopper-style motorcycles and Lehman wanted Cre8Play to collaborate on a project. Discovery Channel and Paul Jr. were all ears. “We are very excited to have worked with Cre8Play, one of the most innovative custom playground designers and builders in the country,” Paul Jr. says. “The designs Todd and his team come up with are raw and completely unique. They shatter the predictable playground mold.”
The original idea was for the show to design a bike based on one of Cre8Play’s play environments. However, the project evolved into creating a motorcycle-themed playground that would ultimately be moved to Montgomery, New York, where Paul Jr. grew up. It was important for the playground to be accessible to children of all abilities. “We wanted to go beyond a traditional playground and give kids a killer experience,” Paul Jr. says. “It’s all about the kids.”
Going through the process while surrounded by television cameras turned out to be a fun thing. “It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, career-wise,” Lehman says. “It truly was reality television of our process.” Camera crews followed the design team through the design, build and unveiling process.
When the episode aired in Fall 2012, Lehman watched from home with his family. “Everybody wanted to do a big, viewing party, but that’s not who I am,” he says. Instead, he watched the show in his shorts and a T-shirt, like he normally does. It was, however, a bit mind boggling to think that millions of people were tuning into the show and watching his team on a somewhat above-average workday. “I’ve had random people say it was really cool,” Lehman says. “It was exciting.”
Designing for Minnesota
Cre8Play’s most local project will get full use this upcoming summer. Finishing touches went on the new healing garden atop the St. Paul Children’s Hospital in the fall, but it will be fully open in the spring. The space will be an oasis not only for children receiving treatment, but for their siblings too. “We were tasked with coming up with a healing environment with life, plants, sculptures and interactive art,” Lehman says.
His favorite part of the project is something he believes is truly unique. When someone pushes a button, a rubber duck can float from one end of the fountain to the other. A child can walk or a child can be rolled in a wheelchair down the slope to follow the yellow duck. “The timing had to be perfect so children could follow along,” Lehman says. “We tried to give children an environment where they can go out and escape reality.”
This project, like all Cre8Play designs, went beyond the designer’s original expectations. “One of my favorite, favorite things is knowing that what I’m building and the creativity used here will positively affect people for years,” Lehman says. “It’s just fun knowing I’m creating a place for children to play.”