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Thomas Heatherwick's show at the V&A

Meeting the Maker: With a major retrospective of his work and an acompanying paving slab sized book, Thomas Heatherwick takes a moment to reflect on twenty years of work

While Barber Osgerby’s Olympic torch continues to hit the headlines as it makes its journey to the East London site, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s latest show is a welcome reminder that there is far more to design than just the finished object. Process and materials are key elements of the exhibition Designing the Extraordinary, which explores the versatile work of Heatherwick Studio.

A gallery full of ‘stuff’ − exquisite models, material samples, prototypes and sketches − tells the story of Thomas Heatherwick, the studio’s charismatic founder, from his student days at the then Manchester Polytechnic, where he studied 3D Design in the late 1980s, to the international standing he now holds across design disciplines. His ‘Throne’ of 1989 might be a tad cumbersome − a steel and wood confection more befitting an Ancient Egyptian ruler than a study in modern-day ergonomics − but it foretells a fascination with craft and making that underpins his extraordinary designs. In those early days, he sensed a disconnect between design and craft, a gap he has sought to bridge ever since.

Indeed, the weighty tome on Heatherwick created by his studio and published by Thames & Hudson to coincide with the V&A show is simply entitled Making, an obsession that runs throughout his projects. Take his 16-year quest to find a manufacturer capable of producing the aluminium bench titled ‘Extrusions’, which started when he was studying at London’s Royal College of Art. He eventually found one in China and the piece, commissioned by the Haunch of Venison and Cass Sculpture Foundation, was completed in 2009.

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Heatherwick’s project Extrusions exploits the imperfections inherent in a particular manufacturing process. By forcing aluminium through a die, benches of almost any length can be created – but it took Heatherwick 16 years to find a machine capable of production on this scale

Then there is the Seed Cathedral, the feted British pavilion for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai with its 60,000 clear acrylic rods elevating the basic box design into a shimmering structure that stands six storeys high. Each rod contains seeds − some 250,000 in all − from the Kew Gardens Millennium Seed Bank. The construction process, again by Chinese teams, was remarkable.

The V&A show isn’t chronological. Exhibition curator Abraham Thomas has opted instead for ‘themes and ideas about questions’ that emerge from Heatherwick’s burgeoning portfolio. So you see the studio’s collection of Christmas cards, each one challenging convention and marking a small experiment with form and materials, set opposite an ongoing scheme for Teesside Power Station dating from 2009 and the skeletal ‘Autumn Intrusion’ commissioned by Mary Portas in 1997 to grace the facade of Harvey Nichols’ store in Knightsbridge that arguably kick-started Heatherwick’s meteoric rise to fame.

Heatherwick defies definition as a designer. He is not an architect, but there is a rich seam of architecture and masterplanning projects in the studio. The origins of building design are in his early work, particularly the Pavilion he created at college in 1992 that is now installed in the Cass Sculpture Park in West Sussex, though this could just as easily be considered as furniture or art. Not so the Masdar Mosque (sadly unbuilt) commissioned by Foster + Partners for a low-carbon city in Abu Dhabi, the contoured Shingon-Shu Buddhist Temple in Japan, or
Hong Kong’s Pacific Place shopping centre for Swire Properties. These are serious buildings, and more massive developments are in the pipeline, especially in the Far East, following the success of the Shanghai pavilion. It shows how quickly one iconic building can boost a designer’s reputation.

There are bridges − the Rolling Bridge at Paddington Basin now revisited as a proposed large-span crossing for the River Thames represented in the show by a working model. There is a full-size section of the new London bus, introduced on the 38 bus route earlier this year, for which the studio team led by Neil Hubbard even designed the textiles with a pattern that follows the contour lines of a seated person. There is the Zip Bag for Longchamp, designed in 2004 and copied in street markets across the globe, that led to a commission to design the ‘fluid’ interiors of the luxury brand’s New York store. And there will be the Olympic Cauldron, designed by Heatherwick and destined for the exhibition once the Olympics ceremony is over.

What links these projects is the questioning that Heatherwick says informed his curation and a commitment to experimentation that endures over time − a glass bridge, for example, has been
‘work in progress’ since 1996 and the expressive Cloud Bridge since 2008. There is a fascination with materials and industrial processes − the starting point for the Wellcome Trust’s glass bead sculpture ‘Bleigiessen’ (meaning lead pouring) is the behaviour of falling liquids, though the original concept came from Heatherwick’s childhood experiences of his mother’s bead shop in London’s Notting Hill − and a real passion for working with craftsmen that dates back to his student days.

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Bleigiessen was built over four months by a team of thirty people working full time. Each bead is individually strung onto thin steel cables

There is also a highly sculptural quality to all of the work, however technically driven the projects are. Take the Cor-ten steel-clad East Beach Café at Littlehampton in West Sussex, designed by Heatherwick architect Peter Ayres, which takes the form of a weathered sand dune, or the spun moulded plastic chair for Italian furniture manufacturer Magis.

Of course, such innovation and diversity demands varied expertise and Heatherwick has collaborated with many people. The V&A show reflects this, paying homage to all involved in the work. A neat feature is the recorded interviews and discussions with commissioners, collaborators and Heatherwick team members accessible via telephone handsets throughout the show.

This openness is typical of Heatherwick, who, for all his success, remains deeply aware of the part others play in his projects, especially on the craft side. When asked how he manages to stay down to earth, his response is how could he not be humbled when working with so many different people of such great skill. Which brings us back full circle to his student concern about the scant recognition that makers receive and his pledge to change that.

Would that more designers pushed the boundaries of science and art as much as Heatherwick seeks to do. And would that more showed as much respect for all involved in answering the questions the work poses.

Heatherwisk Studios: Designing the Extraordinary

Venue: Victoria & Albert Museum

City: London

Dates: Until 30 September 2012

See work by Heatherwick Studios featured in the January 1998, April 2002, August 2006, July 2009 and December 2010 issues

The Heatherwick Archive

Selected pieces from the AR Archive charting the trajectory of Thomas Heatherwick’s career

May 2010

Autumn Intrusions at Harvey Nichols, London

July 2009

Creative Business Units: ultra-thin steel to clad cabins

August 2006

Stairway to Heaven: Longchamp Boutique, New York

December 2005

Rolling Bridge

January 2004

Sitooterie, Essex: Precursor to the Seed Pavillion

April 2002

Surface Tension: Urban Square in Newcastle

January 1998

Autumn Intrusions at Harvey Nichols, London

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