Q&A With British Designer Thomas Heatherwick

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By Aileen Kwun
We caught up with Thomas Heatherwick, eponymous founder of the London-based studio, at the opening of his retrospective exhibition, Provocations, now on view at New York's Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum through Jan. 3.

Since 1994, British designer Thomas Heatherwick and his studio have produced an impressively diverse body of work, from the cauldron for the 2012 London Olympics, to the U.K. Pavilion at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, and a number of city-wide projects throughout London, including an update to its iconic double-decker buses. Many of their projects have been designed with an eye to delight users and challenge the norm, engaging public social interaction through unconventional typologies. The Rolling Bridge at the Grand Union Canal in London, for example, curls up into a circular sculpture rather than opening up as a drawbridge; and the circular Spun chair is as much a seat as it is a ride that leisurely allows users to rotate like a spin-top toy.

Q&A With British Designer Thomas Heatherwick - Photo 1 of 10 - Thomas Heatherwick seated in the Spun chair he designed in 2010. Made from rotational moulded polyethylene, it's designed by a single profile rotated 360 degrees around an axis.

Thomas Heatherwick seated in the Spun chair he designed in 2010. Made from rotational moulded polyethylene, it's designed by a single profile rotated 360 degrees around an axis.

The studio's approach is driven with a curiosity, distilled down to a central query. Can you make a park out of a desert? Can a building express on the outside what goes on inside? What shape should make a monument make against the guy? Can you squeeze a chair out of a machine, the way you squeeze toothpaste out of a tube? Like riddles from the sphinx, these are among the many questions presented to viewers at Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio, on view at New York's Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum through Jan. 3. The show marks the third and final installation of the traveling retrospective, which began at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas last fall, followed by a run at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Collecting the studio's unique and imaginative design concepts to products and furniture, to temporary installations, large-scale building projects and infrastructure, it's the first major museum exhibition to present the studio's work in the U.S., where they currently have a number of projects in the works. Pier 55, a $130-million, manmade urban park on Manhattan's West Side, is slated for completion in 2018. The studio is also collaborating with Bjarke Ingles Group on the design of a new Google campus in Mountain View, California. 

Q&A With British Designer Thomas Heatherwick - Photo 2 of 10 - Entering the show, viewers are prompted to crank a large mechanical device for a takeaway exhibition brochure—a fitting representation of Heatherwick Studio's inventive, tinkering approach to design.

Entering the show, viewers are prompted to crank a large mechanical device for a takeaway exhibition brochure—a fitting representation of Heatherwick Studio's inventive, tinkering approach to design.

We spoke with Heatherwick at the Cooper Hewitt to discuss contrariness, collaboration, designing for the public sector, and the process of putting the retrospective together.

Q&A With British Designer Thomas Heatherwick - Photo 3 of 10 - Provocations presents an assemblage of models, prototypes, videos, photography, and product designs produced by Heatherwick Studio since its founding in 1994.

Provocations presents an assemblage of models, prototypes, videos, photography, and product designs produced by Heatherwick Studio since its founding in 1994.

 

Q&A With British Designer Thomas Heatherwick - Photo 4 of 10 - In designing the U.K. Pavilion at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, China, the studio extended 66,000 acrylic rods from the exterior of a structure to create a shimmering, dandelion-like surface that forms an optical Union Jack pattern when seen from a distance. Inside each of the rods was a collection of 250,000 seeds from the Millennium Seed Bank at London's Kew Gardens, lending the pavilion its unofficial name, "Seed Cathedral."

In designing the U.K. Pavilion at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, China, the studio extended 66,000 acrylic rods from the exterior of a structure to create a shimmering, dandelion-like surface that forms an optical Union Jack pattern when seen from a distance. Inside each of the rods was a collection of 250,000 seeds from the Millennium Seed Bank at London's Kew Gardens, lending the pavilion its unofficial name, "Seed Cathedral."

Your studio celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. How has reaching that milestone provided perspective on your practice?

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