A Profile of Climbing Structure Designer Tom Luckey
Even though climbing-structure designer Tom Luckey, the man chosen to design a unique play climber for the Westchester Children’s Museum, is paralyzed from the neck down, he still considers himself fortunate.
Photo by Chris Ware
Tom Luckey designs what are arguably the world’s most imagnative, fantastical climbing structures. Soaring up to three stories high, they are clusters of wild, curved platforms buttressing in all directions, encased in a dream-catcher-like weave of high-strength wire. At more than 20 locations across the country, plus one in Mexico City, children are scaling their layers in fits of absolute euphoria.
Perhaps naturally, then, Tom Luckey’s design company, Luckey LLC, has been commissioned to design the signature attraction at the coming Westchester Children’s Museum at Playland. The curveball: He’s a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down since 2005.
Luckey’s climbers are both fountains of sensory stimuli and glaring reminders of Luckey’s own physical limitations. It’s the kind of irony that makes great documentaries. Luckey knew this, and the filmmaker to whom he proposed the idea would wind up calling her film Luckey. It debuted on the Sundance Channel in 2009 to critical acclaim. He’s something of a celebrity, and he’s making his mark here in Westchester.
Tom Luckey was born in Quantico, Virginia, in 1940. He met General Robert Luckey, his father, at the age of six, upon the elder Luckey’s return from fighting in the Pacific.
In his autobiography (not published), Luckey describes his childhood self as “fat… blackheads and loads of personality.” Raised on a Marine Corps base where Zippo lighters fed voracious smoking habits and alcohol pacified adult woes, he “became a smoking, hooky-playing, juvenile delinquent.” He writes, “My parents’ answer to that was a New England boys’ prep school.” Prep school led to the Ivy League, and Luckey graduated from Yale in 1962, then returned to earn a master’s degree in architecture in ’66.
He did not feel pressure to lead a military life. “Ever since I can remember, I’ve been making stuff,” he says. “I built a house when I was fifteen.” He was an avid whittler, fashioning duck decoys throughout college with his roommate. His artistry carried on to other, often zany, projects. He started out making money building niche installations, such as a fully upholstered living room, a rolling bedroom, and staircases that turned into slides.
But Luckey felt that his work was misdirected. “I got to the point where I couldn’t saddle people with stuff this crazy and ask them to pay me to put it in their house,” he says. Kids, however, love crazy things that don’t make sense. So, in 1984, after following the advice of a mentor, Luckey made his first climber for the Boston Children’s Museum. That project opened in 1984, and it was a huge success.
Photo courtesy of Luckey LLC
Luckey’s climbers caught on, and they began to pop up in children’s museums across the country. He went on to install climbers in cities like Providence and Chicago, plus Reno and Houston with his son. Then, in 2005, his life turned upside down while working on a project for the new Boston Children’s Museum.
“I was going to the bathroom at four-thirty in the morning and God pushed me out the window,” he tells me. Next to the toilet was a third-story window open to an atrium below. He fainted and fell through the opening, landing head-first and breaking his neck. Luckey, then a 65-year-old father of four, was well into his second marriage when he fell. He was also a well-established artist; Luckey LLC had been going strong for two decades. Yet all was not well, and, he confesses, “I was burning out and slowing down; my marriage was failing, so God said, ‘Okay, you want change? How’s this?’
“Who I am now is very different from who I was,” continues Luckey, once the “ringmaster” type, a life-of-the-party kind of guy. He’s more patient now, and while his personality hasn’t really changed, paralysis levies a tax on the spirit that is impossible to evade. Even so, he is remarkably resilient. “I’ve taken it as a really interesting challenge,” he says, making a point to keep up with technology (he operates a computer mounted above his head via a reflective “mouse” that attaches the tip of his nose) and pursuing new creative endeavors, like writing.
His eclectic life experiences before the accident, and the subsequent wisdom with which he was able to view his own circumstances, made him the perfect subject for a documentary. “I called this documentary filmmaker,” he says. “I thought it would make a pretty interesting movie.” Luckey explored the injury’s impact on his delicate family dynamic, on his business, and on his own artistic soul. “I was going to finish up the Boston Children’s Museum design. I was having a lot of difficulty with my wife and we were all adjusting. It was a great collaboration.” The film was well received.
Today, almost seven years after the accident, Luckey LLC is thriving. Luckey is 72 and lives in East Haven, Connecticut. He and his son, Spencer, are gearing up for installations in South Korea and Indonesia, not to mention the North Bathhouse at Playland.
There, Luckey Climbers is designing a 120-foot horizontal structure that will serve as the Westchester Children’s Museum’s signature attraction. This climber is unique, in the words of the museum’s executive director, Tracy Kay. “This is more interactive—there are three points of entry and exit,” Kay says. Multiple entry and exit points will allow children to use the climber to move from exhibit to exhibit. “We’ve never done anything this horizontal or this long,” Luckey says.
Work will begin on the museum once Westchester County completes the renovation of the exterior of the North Bathhouse. Expect an opening in about two years.
Cortlandt Manor native Philip Garrity, a freelance writer for Westchester Magazine and recent college graduate, will have a go at Luckey’s Rye installation regardless of any size, weight, or age restrictions.