Interview Features United Kingdom

Radical designs for an uplifting future from man who created Olympic cauldron

Whether he is creating a handbag or a power station, Thomas Heatherwick aims “to do what hasn’t been done before”

Thomas Heatherwick with “Paperhouse”, his news-stand for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Right, his UK pavilion for the Shanghai Expo in 2010 and the East Beach Café in Sussex

Thomas Heatherwick’s design studio is among the most inventive and experimental in Britain. The UK pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, which won the Lubetkin Prize awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in that year, is his most high-profile project to date. It was built from 60,000 transparent 7.5m-long optical strands, in the tip of each of which was embedded a single seed. Ostensibly highlighting the Millennium Seed Bank, which aims to conserve the seeds of plants from across the world, as well as work at Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens, this 20m-tall “seed cathedral” subtly conveyed messages about British innovation and design expertise. It was voted the top pavilion by the Shanghai World Expo and received the highest visitor numbers of all the pavilions (eight million people in four months). Heatherwick’s unconventional design approach is evident in other projects, too, whether it is a perfectly symmetrical rotating chair (“Spun”, a circular metal seat balanced on a single point like a spinning top), a handbag (Longchamp’s “Zip Bag”, encircled by a continuously coiled zip) or a pedestrian canal bridge (the award-winning Rolling Bridge in Paddington, west London, which curls up into a circle when not in use). His first free-standing building was the East Beach Café in Littlehampton, Sussex, a sculptural jigsaw of rusted, flat steel ribbons resembling rocks or sand dunes, completed in 2007. It won a RIBA award and turned the English seaside town into a design destination. Such successes outshine the studio’s most public setback—the dismantling and removal for safety reasons of B of the Bang, a 56m sculpture made from 180 giant spikes, erected in Manchester to commemorate the city’s hosting of the 2002 Commonwealth Games. These and other works feature in “Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary”, an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, until 30 September.

The Art Newspaper: Your studio’s first solo show in a museum is at the V&A this summer. Why now? And how effectively does it give an insight into your design approach?

Thomas Heatherwick: We’ve been asked to do shows many times in the past but previously I hadn’t felt ready, as they wouldn’t have been representative of the scope of the studio’s work. When the V&A recently invited us, we felt it was the right time. Also, the V&A isn’t a centre dedicated to one thing or another. Its diversity is its power. We’ve worked closely with the curator, Abraham Thomas, and the show is very much his take on our work. He is into process as much as outcome so it will include a rich mix of things that demonstrate our design approach. It was a case of letting him into our thought processes. Although I feel it’s not my show—it’s very much the V&A’s—we have designed the exhibition because he wants to make visitors feel as if they’re in our studio.

Your design for the UK pavilion at the Shanghai Expo is the one that has most significantly raised your profile. What sparked the concept? And how did you find the whole experience?

The project was incredibly exciting because we were working at the highest level with the British government and there was a very clear sense of objective. Sometimes I’ve struggled with commissions perceived as being artistic rather than having a clear objective. Yet I’ve always seen every project we undertake as logical—a problem-solving exercise rather than a means to express myself. This was the world’s largest Expo and there were 250 pavilions on the site. Our brief required the UK to be in the top five most visited pavilions. So it really had to stand out from the crowd. It also had to meet a budget that was half that of the other Western nations’ pavilions. We felt the only way was to be simpler, purer and more focused than our competitors. We also wanted to avoid the usual British clichés and show a Britain of the future, not the past. Since the Expo’s theme was about the future of cities, our concept focused on using nature to create a public space. We knew people were aware of the Millennium Seed Bank but few have ever seen it, so we brought 250,000 seeds to Shanghai. The fundamental idea was that the pavilion’s content was the building. We inverted the concept of a regular building and explored how soft it could be. There was no solidity—just lightness and softness. It even moved in the wind.

You graduated from London’s Royal College of Art (RCA) in 1994. How important was your time at the college in shaping you as a designer?

I studied 3D design at Manchester Polytechnic [now Manchester Metropolitan University] for three years and used my time there to experiment in an open-ended way. I then chose to study furniture design at the RCA as it seemed to be a discipline halfway between architecture and sculpture. At Manchester, I revelled in the exposure to materials and experimentation under the guidance of some amazingly supportive tutors, and at the RCA, I enjoyed the exposure to some amazing guest lecturers. During both courses, I built full-scale structures—a polycarbonate and aluminium pavilion at Manchester [now at Goodwood Sculpture Park] and a birch plywood gazebo at the RCA [bought by the Design Museum’s founder Terence Conran for his home garden]. I’ve taken the approach to built environments that permeated my studies into my subsequent working life.

You have won an international reputation for being one of the most inventive and experimental design studios practising in Britain today. How important is it for you to push the boundaries of art and design?

I believe the fundamental role of the designer is to do what hasn’t been done before. You need either to improve something or to test possibilities. Pushing boundaries is not something I consciously consider doing at the start of a project. I just do what feels right.

Your projects span a wide breadth of disciplines: architecture, engineering, transport, urban planning, furniture, sculpture and product design. Why is it important to maintain this diversity?

I see it all as one discipline. Architecture, design, sculpture—they’re all connected because they’re all about three-dimensional problem-solving. In the studio we apply the same process to each project—layered analysis, trying out ideas and testing them.

You have created several limited-edition collectible designs, including the “Spun” chair and “Extrusions”, a chair in which the seat, back and legs are created from a single component of metal extruded by a machine. How did these projects come about? And do you have any plans to create further collectible objects?

Working with [the gallery] Haunch of Venison is a way to experiment with ideas that would otherwise be impossible for us to develop. “Extrusions” is the first step towards a design for something—possibly airport seats—and was tremendously expensive to produce. We tracked down the world’s largest extrusion machine, in northern China, which squeezes out hot metal as if it’s toothpaste. Similarly, we were experimenting with the process of metal spinning when we created the “Spun” chairs. We have some other designs in development but they’re under wraps at the moment. Can these pieces be called works of art? I leave that for other people to decide.

Your book, Thomas Heatherwick: Making (Thames & Hudson) is an overview of the studio’s history with your comments on 140 projects. Which ones make your heart beat fastest?

Each project has been a little voyage in its own way. I’m always wrestling with ideas and trying to find a confidence and intensity in each project. We’re trying to do things that don’t already exist and this applies to everything we do.

Do you feel that industrial buildings, such as your design for a biomass-fuelled power station on the river Tees in north-east England, can make a positive contribution to an area?

Yes, even more than building an arts centre. Instead of hiding away a power station, it would be great to have a good-news plant that produces no pollutants and doubles as a park—something that adds to the landscape rather than detracting from it. The Teesside power station is designed to face a major development of 3,000 new homes, which is why it’s important to integrate it within the landscape and create a building that’s sufficiently striking for people to want to hold their wedding there.

What about buildings we use every day, such as hospitals or car parks?

I would love to be commissioned to work on a hospital or a car park. In my mind, everything surrounding you in your life is part of culture. And these kinds of buildings can all contribute to making your neighbourhood distinctive and uplifting while being highly functional.

Do you agree with the maxim that the “devil is in the detail”?

Buildings are some of the biggest objects we’ve created but they need the same level of craftsmanship as anything else. One of our current projects, Pacific Place [a 1 million sq. ft shopping mall in Hong Kong], is the size of a small town, yet we spent weeks designing hinge-free doors for the public lavatories. Our solution bends the American cherry-wood cubicle walls in a curve around the users. The bending method, which relies on a combination of internal leather components and external lamination, took weeks of development. But the results will add significantly to a shopper’s experience of visiting the mall.

What are your current projects?

We’ve been designing the Olympic Cauldron, which will feature at the culmination of the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games. Our work on Pacific Place for Swire Properties is almost complete and we’re now doing some urban masterplanning for Swire in Hong Kong. We’re also working on a 220-room hotel in Hong Kong, a big residential scheme in Kuala Lumpur and a 2.5 million sq. ft mixed-use project in Shanghai, which includes a park, river and arts district. We’re designing a public riverboat to connect Nantes with St Lazare, which is part of a public arts project in France, and we’re designing a new seaside café on England’s south coast. And the new London double-decker bus we designed started passenger service this spring. To my mind, creating the buildings and transportation we use every day is just as important as designing world-class museums or art galleries.

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