Making Ends Meet

Thomas Heatherwick’s bewildering range of 3D visions are opening up all sorts of opportunities for the free-spirited designer. Hugh Pearman talks to him about turning imagination into reality

In this room, they make things. There are workbenches, vices, woodworking tools. Long, broad strips of floppy, very thin plywood are being lined up to have fixing plates bolted to their ends. Soon, they’ll be off to New York where they will be twisted into a three-dimensional motif for Terence Conran’s new restaurant.

Couldn’t Thomas Heatherwick, the designer, simply fax drawings over to New York and let someone else do the difficult stuff? But that, as anyone who knows him can testify, is not the Heatherwick way. “It would be tricky finding someone to do it right,” he says. “And it only costs £1000 or so to send them flat…”

The workshop, in a one-time factory at the top of London’s Camden Mews, is a crucible of invention. The high round table in the middle is covered in models – one demonstrates how the plywood strips will extrude from the joints between the stonework of the bridge abutment forming the Conran restaurant’s dramatic interior. The strips will then be bent over each other and re-inserted into other stonework joints. The final, wholly abstract, effect – like a knot of giant tagliatelli or a designer’s interpretation of the game of Twister – is wholly and incontrovertibly Heatherwick: one simple idea carried through in all its complexity. The budget, as always with Conran, was tight – about enough, in normal circumstances, for a painting. Now the Heatherwick knot has effectively become the logo for the restaurant. As its 29-year-old creator muses: “I don’t like art that isn’t useful.”

It is possible that some of you out there may not yet have heard of Heatherwick. Don’t worry, you will. Perhaps, for instance, you missed his all-glass bridge project given pride of place in the architecture room at the Royal Academy’s summer show this year. He designed that with the veteran structural engineer Tony Hunt entirely as a speculative scheme: he became intrigued with the properties of bonded glass, managed to intrigue Hunt likewise (the engineer describes it as a “secret weapon” because it is a great idea with, as yet, no client), and then devised a rhomboidal form, skewing and tilting the arch, bringing it to life like a piece of jewellery. You might jump to the conclusion that Heatherwick is an architect: he is not.

Equally you might, having come across some of his three-dimensional student work in the Sculpture at Goodwood park, conclude that he is an artist: again, he is not, despite the fact that his elaborate Materials House at the Science Museum counts as one of the museum’s arts projects. Look at his furniture pieces and you might almost expect the crafts lobby to claim him. You’re getting closer, but this is still not quite the man. Exhibition designer, perhaps? True, he is designing the Identity Crisis exhibition for the Glasgow 1999 festival, opening on November 25, and has designed the interior of Lorenzo Apicella’s Self Portrait zone in the Millennium Dome, but this latter project, he hints, may not happen and you could argue that it is not his usual run of work.

But then Heatherwick does not have a “usual run of work”. He works on a broader canvas – he is designing two public squares, for instance, in Newcastle and Worcester, and a radical cladding system for a new department store up north (the location and client are still secret).

Born in February 1970, he is still disgracefully young, even if he doesn’t understand how anyone can like the music currently playing in clubs. He has not yet touched conventional industrial or product design, but I wouldn’t rule it out. He seems capable of anything, so long as the job involves a great deal of model-making.

Heatherwick’s flat is right above the workshop. It is starting to be taken over somewhat by the work: as we talk, the finished bits of Conran’s New York restaurant are brought upstairs and laid on the floor – there’s nowhere else to put them. Until recently, when he found a place nearby to store his models, things were even worse. He has planning permission to add another floor to the building to enlarge the flat, but hasn’t started the work yet. So he lives in © one large room with a scattering of interesting chairs he has accumulated – including a particularly fine one by Hans Wegner – and a kitchen at one end. His bedroom is an old water tank cupboard over the stairs, accessed via a ladder. His enormously long recliner bicycle is stored on the stairs, another little collapsible Chinese bike stands in the flat – kept for its looks rather than for any practical value. So all in all, things are a bit of a squeeze, particularly as he has five people working for him downstairs. But those people are vital to him for reasons other than sheer workload, he says.

“I was never really happy designing by myself. I would always ask the opinion of whoever was around – even if it was my granny,” he says. “By bouncing ideas around, they got better and better. So the big step now is having a group of people where we share, and I lead the direction. I feel I’m a catalyst. We won’t stop on something until we all think it’s good.” It turns out that the Heatherwick idea-checking system includes not only the people in the studio, or his granny, but also his kid sister, aged six. “If she doesn’t think it’s a good idea, if it doesn’t interest her, there’s something wrong.”

All of which might make him sound a bit fey, a bit hippy, but such is not the case. True, Heatherwick, with his tousled locks and sunny enthusiasm still has something of the air of the perpetual student about him – something he has in common with another unconventional designer, James Dyson. He trained in 3D design at Manchester Polytechnic and finished off at the Royal College of Art, graduating in 1994. His work was already attracting attention and (as with the Sculpture at Goodwood commissions) clients. At the RCA he was spotted by Conran. Heatherwick got chatting about his then project – a typically uncategorisable thing, part chair, part building, usually described as a gazebo – involving a novel use of timber. Making it in the close confines of the RCA was proving difficult. Conran gave him the run of his Benchmark company premises and workforce out at his country home one summer. Once it was made, Conran bought it – after it had been shipped in pieces back to the RCA for the degree show. Heatherwick may appear artless, even na’ve, but beneath it all, you suspect, is a shrewd eye for the big chance.

As the workload has grown, he has accordingly made big efforts to professionalise his studio set-up. Michele Oké is the administrator. Kieron Gaffney, an architect, effectively runs the projects. Bruce Morgan is, like Heatherwick, a 3D designer. Tom Chapman-Andrews, an architectural trainee, and Katherine Christopherson, political scientist turned design manager, complete the line-up. There is even a PR company involved intermittently.

Despite this, Thomas Heatherwick Studio still depends entirely upon the lateral-thinking drive of its owner. We all remember, don’t we, his Harvey Nichols window display of 1997 – because it wasn’t a window display, but a series of abstract, bony organic shapes, made in plywood, twisting themselves out and through all the windows, right round the building. Such unorthodox responses to a brief are normal. A design for a temporary station for Railtrack in an exposed location, for instance, required a canopy and a windbreak. Heatherwick combined the two – as usual, through a model – simply by taking one of his favourite strips of plywood and twisting it in the middle. Where the strip is set vertically along the back of the platform, that is the windbreak. But at the point where the access steps rise up through the platform, the strip twists to form the canopy. It is breathtakingly simple and, sadly, so far unbuilt. It is also highly architectural.

Architecture fascinates Heatherwick, as he readily admits. His hero is the Catalan architect/craftsman Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926). His dream is to build somebody a house, get a team together, involve the ideas of the craftspeople. You wonder at first if he was not trained in the wrong discipline, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. The best architects usually end up designing furniture, products and so forth; likewise the best designers frequently venture into architecture. Heatherwick is just making his own version of this career move very early on. With no style or technological preconceptions, he can work in pure form – though as he often points out, referring to his Newcastle square scheme (see Case Study on page 22), he is often an enabler as much as he is a designer.

The schemes don’t always end up uniformly wonderful: am I alone, for instance, in finding the Materials House in the Science Museum a bit of a let-down – a nice idea for presenting tangible layers of materials that ended up looking drab and unexciting in the execution?

Such disappointments are, so far, rare. Low budgets, for instance, seem not to bother him too much. Take Glasgow 1999’s Identity Crisis show, curated by David Redhead – which has nothing like the grand budgets of some of the earlier blockbusters in the festival. Heatherwick’s response is to devise a way of simultaneously wrapping, suspending and separating exhibits in great skeins of industrial cling film, spun like webs between the cast-iron columns of the big exhibition gallery at the Lighthouse. Brilliant: the challenge now is to make that simple idea work in all the permutations needed for a convincing exhibition.

Heatherwick has also learned one very important thing: to know when not to go after a project. For instance, the ongoing competition to design a landmark gateway for London’s South Bank area might have seemed natural for him. You could imagine him doing a Harvey Nicks with the railway bridge forming the pedestrian route from Waterloo Station through to the Festival Hall. Heatherwick was interested, had a look around the site, and came to an interesting conclusion. “Quite a few people contacted me, wanting to collaborate – something which I’d never had before to this extent,” he confides. “But I felt that the approach we might take might not be appropriate. It was a hard conclusion to come to. What the place needs is probably a subtle thing, maybe something that is just a very good use of light. I felt that the solutions that were coming to mind were not what we could do best.”

Does this sound like a man who knows his limitations? Heatherwick is clearly developing a good idea of what he does best. It also means he is getting to the stage where he can pick his projects. All of which is good, because I think it is unlikely that Heatherwick will burn himself out of ideas.

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