Thomas Heatherwick – imaginative, inventive and innovative designs

UK Pavilion, Heatherwick Studio, photograph: Iwan Baan

It’s nearly 10 years since Thomas Heatherwick’s ‘Plank’ first featured in the Great Expectations: new British design stories exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum. Alongside his work were also works by Tom Dixon, Stella McCartney and Marc Newson. I recently met him at his London studio in King’s Cross. That evening he was due to visit the Olympic Stadium under a ‘no fly’ zone, to see his Olympic cauldron in action.

Plank, Heatherwick Studio, photograph: Steve Speller

Plank, Heatherwick Studio, photograph: Steve Speller

Thomas Heatherwick, now in his early 40s, has gained an international reputation for his imaginative, inventive and innovative designs. 2012 has been a busy year for this three-dimensional designer. In May V&A opened the exhibition Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary. Thomas and his partner Maisie Rowe, a landscape architect, have written ‘Thomas Heatherwick: Making’, a 600 page book which features over 140 projects from the last two decades, and in July his beautiful design for the Olympic cauldron for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games was revealed. Its elegant movement became a shared global moment, estimated to have been seen by a TV audience of over 900 million people.

Established in 1994, Heatherwick Studio exists ‘to make extraordinary projects happen’. Their work spans architecture, furniture, product design, engineering, fashion, sculpture and urban planning. Commissions for the UK, Europe, USA, the Middle East and Asia have resulted in unforgettable designs. Rolling bridge elegantly curves up and back on itself, the Paternoster Vents are based on experiments with folding fabric, East beach café was inspired by the English south coast, UK Pavilion a ‘hairy building’ moves gently in the breeze and the new London Bus pays homage to the classic red 1950’s Routemaster.

New Bus for London, Heatherwick Studio, photograph: Iwan Baan

New Bus for London, Heatherwick Studio, photograph: Iwan Baan

I asked Thomas if the last 10 years have felt like a rollercoaster ride or a gradual progression?

“We are just getting going, we have been carving space for people to understand what we do. The biggest project is the studio itself, how we work together, how we work with others.”

The studio is a collaborative venture that has expanded in recent years with the staff working closely with a diverse range of contacts in specialist areas. He lists skills, processes and techniques from “…digging a hole in the ground to getting people to agree, trying to achieve excellence: makers, planners, designers, engineers and architects. You can’t do buildings yourself, you need others. A designer-maker jeweller in a workshop is very soulful, but working alone.” He is interested in soulfulness working on an architectural scale.

East Beach Café, Heatherwick Studio, photograph: Andy Stagg

East Beach Café, Heatherwick Studio, photograph: Andy Stagg

Heatherwick’s first experience of designing and making a building while studying 3D design at Manchester Polytechnic left a lasting impression and gave him confidence. Not content to simply make a cardboard model he constructed his free standing Pavilion with co-operation and support of staff, fellow students and sponsorship.

He went on to study an MA in furniture design at the Royal College, London. There he met Terence Conran who became an early mentor. Conran has since has referred to Heatherwick as ‘a Leonardo da Vinci of our times’. In 2004, Heatherwick Studio was invited by Conran to curate an exhibition at London’s Design Museum. Rather than selecting familiar pieces of expensive furniture and domestic items they collated an exhibition about ideas with examples of problem-solving.

Ideas and problem solving are at the core of the studio’s work. At the heart of the studio is the workshop where ideas, materials and techniques are tested. Each project is individual. While they do not share the same aesthetic, it is possible to see the development and realisation of ideas, or experimentation with materials over time.

Olympic cauldron technical drawing, Heatherwick Studio, technical drawing: Heatherwick Studio

Olympic cauldron technical drawing, Heatherwick Studio, technical drawing: Heatherwick Studio

Heatherwick’s childhood and schooling provided fertile ground for his career. He attended a Steiner school from the age of 14-17 which in addition to the curriculum included the development of creative skills.  His parents took him to craft fairs and exhibitions where he observed traditional crafts and building techniques. He visited Kew Bridge & Steam Museum and explored engineering, industrial technologies and new city planning. “They didn’t get in the way. No one ever put a block in front of me. Oh he’s interested in that, we’ll feed him more of that then.”

Naturally curious, his questions earned him the nick-name ‘How, Why’ at school. These traits have continued throughout his career and practice. Studio teams are led to ideas by finding a few key questions to ask. He describes it as detective work, like a murder mystery. “You don’t know who did it; you need to go down a route. The outcome may not be the obvious notion. The only way to be sure of something is to exclude everything else.”

Protection from the elements and possible vandalism for the East Beach café led to the question: “Can you make a building out of metal roller shutters?” Long undulating ribbons of steel cover the shutter boxes to form the exterior. A contrast to Littlehampton’s white painted Regency terraces it resembles a giant oyster shell. “At that time in Britain there was much debate about building new structures in keeping with their environment, we designed the building in keeping with the sea. It’s rough and raw like the stuff that has been washed up, rope and bottles worn down.”

The UK Pavilion for the World Expo in Shanghai, 2010 evolved from a significant objective of the UK government’s brief… ‘to be voted in the top five designs’.

The studio explored how a building could stand out amongst 200 other buildings with half the budget of other western nations. Their solution considered urban parks and cities’ relationships to nature. Their Seed Cathedral provided respite with a focus on a building which celebrated the Millennium Seed Bank (a global plant conservation project), placed within a landscape like an unwrapped gift.

Rolling Bridge, Heatherwick Studio, photograph: Steve Speller

Rolling Bridge, Heatherwick Studio, photograph: Steve Speller

Currently working on a university building in Singapore and apartments in Kuala Lumpur, Heatherwick notes “The big challenge is to build them. We are yet to build a building with an elevator in it”. He’s interested in space and light, in areas where there aren’t lots of people doing things. “We are not experts in one area, we bring together specialists.” He wants to add something to the world and would like to work in a health environment next.

The studio’s designs are a breath of fresh air. They work collaboratively with commissioners and explore possibilities beyond the usual or expected. Designs are original and unforgettable. If Thomas says the studio is just getting going we can look forward to what is to come. Would he like to work in Australia? “Yes” and “there are some Heatherwicks in Australia” he is yet to meet.

Thomas Heatherwick: Making by Thomas Heatherwick, published by Thames & Hudson, £38.00 plc (thamesandhudson.com). Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary, sponsored by Ernst & Young, at the V&A from 31 May – 30 September 2012 (www.vam.ac.uk). Heatherwick studio: www.heatherwick.com