Thomas Heatherwick is part architect, part furniture designer, part product designer, part researcher, part landscape architect, and part Pied Piper of design, and the things he comes up with manage somehow to be at once charming and brash.
A Heatherwick design is invariably ingenious, and there is usually an element of surprise – a case in point is his stunning Olympic Cauldron at the 2012 London Olympics, made up of 204 copper petals set atop one of 204 copper pipes and magically fused together.
Or his 150-foot-high New York centerpiece, tentatively dubbed “Vessel,” that he designed for a five-acre park at Hudson Yards, on the far West Side of Manhattan. Inspired by the ancient stepwells of India, it’s somewhere between public sculpture, jungle gym and observation tower.
The $150 million Vessel will consist of 154 flights of stairs and 80 horizontal platforms woven together into a crisscrossing latticework that will rise to the height of a 15-story building. It’s guaranteed to become a contemporary symbol of New York.
In 2014, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg commissioned Heatherwick to design Pier 55, a park and performance center in the form of a hilly, landscaped island set on mushroom-shaped columns in the Hudson River off 14th Street. They have offered to pay all but $17 million of its estimated $200 million cost, as well as to cover its operating expenses for 20 years.
Diller and von Furstenberg first encountered Heatherwick’s work at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, where millions of people were astounded by his U.K. Pavilion, a shimmering cube covered with 60,000 extruded translucent tubes, creating a façade that lookedas if it were made of glowing porcupine needles. Each tube contained a different kind of seed, so Heatherwick dubbed it the Seed Cathedral.
Heatherwick seems well on his way to becoming a 21st-century version of Charles and Ray Eames, the prolific designers who impacted everything from furniture to film to exhibition design. The Eames name became a household word in the process, and in the 1950s and 1960s it was all but synonymous with modern design.
Heatherwick shares not only the Eameses’ determination to be wide-ranging but also their fascination with technology, their interest in communication, and, most important of all, their passionate belief in the meaning of actually making things and in using materials in new ways.
As the Eameses molded plywood to show that it could be used to create beautifully shaped chairs, Heatherwick has sculpted seating out of extruded metal in one case and out of glass in another.
His best-known chair, designed in 2007, looks like a spinning top and is made of spun metal. When you sit in it, it has something of the feeling of a rocking chair that is inscribing a circle, and it is at once comfortable and disorienting.
In 2003, he designed one of his few consumer products – a handbag for Longchamps essentially consisting of a spiraling zipper that opens the bag into a tote.
Heatherwick studied three-dimensional design at Manchester Polytechnic, where he managed to demonstrate his interest in making things early on by building a pavilion in one of the college quadrangles as his thesis project.
“I discovered that the university had been going for 80 years, and no architecture student had actually built a building,” he said.
Heatherwick went on to the Royal College of Art, in London, where he met Thomas Conran, who became his first patron. Conran was entranced by Heatherwick’s graduate thesis, an 18-foot-high gazebo consisting of 600 curved wooden slats put together to form two enormous curving surfaces that intersect and support each other.
It was too big to build at the Royal College, so Conran invited him to construct it on the grounds of his estate, in Berkshire. He allowed Heatherwick to live there while the project was under way, and began to treat him as a protégé.
In 1994, upon finishing the gazebo, Heatherwick moved back to London and in short order opened his own studio. He began to attract attention with a 1997 project for the Harvey Nichols department store, in Knightsbridge, where, for London Fashion Week, he came up with a spectacular wood-and-polystyrene structure that wove in and out of the store’s windows, in effect turning them into a single composition. It was an early example of Heatherwick raising his inventiveness to architectural, public scale.
The extreme cleverness of the work can sometimes give it the air of a conceit—as if ingeniousness were its very point. While Heatherwick is as ambitious and as inventive as any designer around, he designs as an optimist, his work overflowing with cheerful good nature, without a hint of irony.
What is most unusual about Heatherwick, however, is that the nature of what he does really is different from other designers. Although he aspires to beauty as much as any other, he is interested more in solving problems than in designing beautiful objects. And he is interested mainly in finding new solutions that yield objects unlike things the world has seen before.
“The challenge isn’t just having ideas,” he says. “It is making ideas exist.”
Adapted from a Vanity Fair article written by Paul Goldberger, December 2016.