"If someone wants something restrained then it's probably not for us," says London-based freelance creative director Emma Thomas. Considering her latest project involves wound-shaped cupcakes and others depicting toothed vaginas, it's clear she's not overstating the matter.
Better known in media and dessert circles as Miss Cakehead, whose pop-up shop Eat Your Heart Out—an extreme showcase of gruesome cakes—opens for business in London October 25, Thomas has established herself as the go-to person for, shall we say, edgier events.
Just last week, for example, she staged an edible autopsy on a wind-swept abandoned sea fort in the Thames estuary for The Kraken Black Spiced Rum.
It all began in September when she staged the "recovery" of a 30-foot-long tentacle (made from rich, spiced dark rum-soaked fruit cake). The event took place on Portmeirion beach in north Wales during a music and arts festival called Festival No6 where it was formally "identified" as part of a kraken. Then on October 17 she opened a one-day pop-up cocktail bar aboard the Redsand Second World War sea fort nine miles off the north Kent coast where guests feasted on a kraken corpse dissected before their eyes.
Other recent projects include an edible meadow, complete with a rainbow cake-filled unicorn the size of a real horse, to mark National Baking Week and a promotional campaign involving a life-sized cake replica of Dexter sliced up to mark the start of the final series on Fox in July.
And who can forget her heart-stopping work for Capcom on the launch of the sixth installment of the Resident Evil zombie horror franchise? (See images from all her projects in the gallery above.)
After staging zombie murder scenes outside selected media owners' offices she ended the campaign with a pop-up human mortuary and morgue at which visitors could buy animal products styled and packaged to suggest human meat.
The macabre stunt, which some have suggested was second only to Red Bull's Stratos in profile terms in the U.K. last year, led to a sharp rise in interest in Thomas and her work which, she readily admits, is fueled by a passion for "the macabre, mythology and a sense of fun."
One-time creative director of London arts and culture PR agency Idea Generation, Thomas quit the company a little over three years ago eager to escape the creative confines of agency life.
A fan of interesting and unusual cakes, she had already attracted a strong following online writing a blog about her varied interests. So she set up on her own using the name Cakehead Loves to create edgy PR campaigns and honing a specialty for using food and drink in unusual ways. Though today, she says, just half of her projects each year are food or drink-themed.
An early project while at Idea Generation involved creating an edible art gallery for Tate & Lyle for which, earlier this year, she staged an edible house.
And cakes featured again in the annual Eat Your Heart Out pop-up extreme cake shop, a not-for-profit side project she launched three years ago as a networking event and showcase form her talents and those of the myriad of food artists she works with.
Feed The Beast: Eat Your Heart Out 2013 features an array of original, gory and extreme baked products for people to buy. Working with more than 25 established and up and coming food artists, Thomas promises this year's event will be bigger than ever with highlights including a range of maggot-infested cupcakes.
Gore aside, a constant theme throughout Thomas' freelance career has been a desire to stay small and retain a tight grip on quality control. "Though I often say 'we,' Cakehead Loves is just me and a network of different talents who come and go depending on the project," she explains.
"Keeping it small means we can keep an eye on every detail—which is what makes me happy, and why we only take on around 12 projects each year."
With the right idea, a pitch to a client usually "takes care of itself," she claims. Which is why she is a firm advocate of getting out and about rather than working desk-bound.
"Inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere," Thomas says. "It's about opening your eyes to what's out there and being inquisitive."
Another guiding principle is her desire to push boundaries—though never at the cost of good taste, or what is morally right, she insists. Which is why she says she was more than happy to cancel a further Resident Evil event involving a blood-filled swimming pool which had been due to take place a few days after the brutal murder of a young solider close to Woolwich barracks in south London.
"I might love the outlandish and the macabre, but I've a strong moral compass. And bad PR is just that—bad PR," Thomas insists.
"I'm a firm believer in giving back. It's all about karma—and it's how you build a fan base. Which is why I did The Depressed Cake Shop, and I've been overwhelmed by the extent to which that idea has taken off."
Eager to do a charitable campaign, Thomas came up with the idea for a shop selling only grey cakes with the proceeds donated to a mental health charity. Following the first pop-up in London, she was approached by people from around the world eager to run a similar initiative locally.
To date, 25 Depressed Cake shops have happened in countries including the US, Argentina, Pakistan, and Malaysia.
"When I came up with the idea at first I got a lot of grief; people said: 'Of course the cakes can't be grey' or that in some way they should be more gory," she adds.
"But they were missing the point. If they're colorful cakes there's no press story. And given the idea behind it the cakes needed to be depressing, not shocking. Because at the end of the day, despite the gore in a lot of the work I've been associated with, it's all about context."
Eat Your Heart Out 2013 is open for business October 25 through October 27 at The Rag Factory just off Brick Lane, London E1.