One-part architecture, another-part product design, with an equal dash of sculpture and urban planning, Thomas Heatherwick’s body of work defies definition. The London-based designer has completed nearly 200 projects since establishing his studio in the mid-nineties, and with each new commission, merges engineering and design to give his projects a magical, transformative feel. Recalling the great engineers of the industrial age, projects such as Rolling Bridge in central London and Manchester’s gravity-defying sculpture B of the Bang have an experimental quality that pushes the boundaries of technical convention.
Heatherwick was born in London in 1970. His mother – a collector and dealer in beads – influenced his aesthetic development while his father introduced him to architecture and design. Early influences included visits to Earls Court tosee the latest carbon-fibre cars and to the House of the Future in Milton Keynes (ironically, the adult Heatherwick would later consult on the Milton Keynes Master plan).
Heatherwick completed his first degree in 3D design at Manchester Polytechnic and for his final project in 1991, designed and constructed the Pavilion which was later purchased for the Cass Sculpture Foundation’s park at Goodwood. More than fifteen years on, the “temporary” building is still in use. A year later he enrolled at the Royal College of Art where he worked with the engineer Ron Packman, now an Associate Director at Heatherwick’s studio.
Heatherwick also had the foresight and confidence to seek patronage for his concepts.
During his time at the RCA he met Sir Terence Conran and the two developed a close relationship. During the summer of 1994 Heatherwick lived and worked at Conran’s home, building the five metre high laminated birch Gazebo which still stands in Conran’s garden.
Upon graduating from the RCA, the designer founded Heatherwick Studio with the intention of experimenting with architecture, engineering, design and sculpture. His early projects included private furniture commissions and an installation for the Conran Shop. He came to the attention of national and international press with an installation for Harvey Nichols department store windows during 1997 London Fashion Week. The dramatically-lit plywood sculpture wove in and out of the windows and climbed 10 metres up the front of the building. Despite the brevity of its lifespan, the project was explosively popular and Heatherwick’s reputation was made.
Heatherwick and his studio endlessly ponder ‘what-ifs’ and ‘do-you-think-we-coulds?’ The Glass Bridge for a current Kings Cross redevelopment illustrates Heatherwick’s entrepreneurial style of thinking. Before there was even a client or site, he was thinking about how to make an all-glass bridge without adhesives or screws. The solution is sheets of glass held together by compression; specifically, 1200 sandwiched panels under 800 tonnes of pressure. In his Kings Cross studio, he animatedly demonstrates the concept by picking up and turning a stack of books under the pressure exerted by his arms. Similarly, the Vents near St Paul’s Cathedral, a pair of cooling towers, each the height of a three storey building, were was inspired by the simple folding of a sheet of A4 paper.
Heatherwick’s smallest project to date was a collaboration with fashion house Longchamp was initiated by Heatherwick’s musing on the possibilities of zips, which he knew to be available in 200 centimetre lengths. “I was wondering if something could be made of nothing but zip,” Heatherwick explains, initially thinking of a dress. “So we started experimenting with spirals. As you unzip the spiral, the whole object vanishes.” The ‘Zip Bag’ became Longchamp’s first collaboration with an independent designer and led to Heatherwick’s design of the Longchamp flagship in New York.
The brief for the new Longchamp store, to occupy a heritage building in Soho, presented the challenge of a second storey location with minimal ground-floor street frontage. Typically, Heatherwick’s studio embraced the constraints to create a sweeping, sculptural staircase that looks more like a landscape than functional means of access. Made from 50 tonnes of steel, the orange ‘ribbons’ climb the walls and guide the eye and the shopper upstairs.
The recently-completed East Beach Café for the British south-coast town of Littlehampton also takes inspiration from a difficult brief. Heatherwick’s futuristic, shell-like structure integrates heavy-duty roller, weatherproof shutters to protect the building from sea-side exposure.
Not all the projects are high profile and Heatherwick believes above all in diversity of work for the studio. “Because I’m most interested in the gaps between conventional disciplines, the thing I enjoy most is when a new genre offers an opportunity to really define something.”
Heatherwick finds pleasure in what other designers might perceive as unconventional commissions, like the entrance and carpark for Guys Hospital, near London Bridge. He responded with an organic woven fa?ade, created from stainless steel braid that requires little maintenance and creates a new system for routing traffic. In this context, what Heatherwick cites as his dream design job is unsurprising: a large-scale car park for the 1970s new town, Milton Keynes. “It’s is a weird place but I find it exciting because its infrastructure is taken so seriously,” Heatherwick explains, “It needs multistory car parks. But what world-class example of a well designed car park can you think of? There’s not much competition and they’re a very cheap building typology so you could build the best car park in the world for a fraction of the cost of the fanciest new art gallery… I’d like to work on the world’s best car park.”
1970 Born in London
1984 Attends Rudolph Steiner school
1989 - 1991 Attends Manchester Polytechnic studying 3D design
1991 Designs the ‘Pavilion’ which is later purchased by Goodwood, the Cass Sculpture Foundation’s outdoor sculpture park
1992 Attends the RCA
1992 Designs and builds the Gazebo at Sir Terence Conran’s home
1994 Establishes Heatherwick Studio initially as Thomas Heatherwick Studio
1996 Makes his first Christmas card designed with Royal Mail stamps
1997 Designs Autumn Intrusion a window installation for Harvey Nichols’s window installation and wins D&AD gold
2001- 2004 Consults on the role of public art in Central Milton Keynes, proposing that artistic commissions should extend to the city’s car parks and buses
2002 Completes the Sitooterie – a summerhouse at Barnard’s Farm, Essex
2004 The Conran Foundation Collection opens at the Design Museum
2004 The Zip Bag is launched for Longchamp and becomes the company’s best selling item
2005 Completes B of the Bang in Manchester, the UK’s tallest sculpture
2005 The Rolling Bridge is opened at London’s Paddington Basin
2005 Bleigiessen is opened at the Wellcome Trust – a 30-metre structure made from 150 000 glass spheres and nearly 1 million metres of wire
2006 Commissioned to redesign a million square foot shopping mall in Hong Kong
2006 BBC Imagine Programme features Heatherwick’s work and career
2006 Designs ‘La Maison Unique’, Longchamp’s world flagship store in New York City
2006 Wins the Prince Philip Designers Prize
2006 Twins born to Heatherwick and partner Maisie Rowe
2007 East Beach Café in Littlehampton opens
2007 ‘Boiler Suit’ a fa?ade for Guys Hospital is completed
2007 Heatherwick Studio wins the competition to design the British Pavilion for the Shanghai Expo 2010
2008 Construction begins on 16 creative business units for Aberystwyth Arts Centre
2008 Chosen as part of the team to work and deliver a ￡80 million retail-led masterplan in Leeds city centre
2008 ‘Piggyback Table’ a table produced with Magis launches at the Salone del Mobile in Milan and is exhibited at the Design Museum
Visit Heatherwick Studio’s website to learn more:
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run in collaboration with the Design Museum and the British Council