At the entrance to the latest exhibition to open at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary, are stacks of large spindles loaded with ready-printed paper. Here, visitors can crank out their own exhibition notes – a metre-long scroll that finishes with a red-dotted line and an instruction to “Tear here”. It takes a satisfying effort to turn the old wooden handle that turns the spindles, and it offers a clue about the exhibition inside.
Don’t expect the digital, the interactive and the virtual to prevail here. The world of British designer Thomas Heatherwick is an altogether more analogue one, of delightful objects and buildings in comfortably familiar materials that sometimes do exciting things – a wood and steel bridge that curls up into itself like a mechanical hedgehog; a completely rotational polyethylene chair like a massive spinning top that turns joyfully on its base when sat in. It is fantastically seductive stuff.
Designers don’t get offered monographic exhibitions at the V&A. The last one was Ron Arad in 2000, whose catwalk of chairs and other pieces was more like an installation, snaking through a central corridor space. So the fact that Heatherwick has been given a gallery of his own and a four-month run suggests he has achieved a certain status, not just in the design world, but for a wider public. And it’s not the first time he’s been up for special treatment. In 2006, the BBC series Imagine – in-depth, hour-long documentaries devoted to artists of merit – profiled Heatherwick, who was only 36 years old at the time.
Since then he has created the much-applauded Seed Cathedral, the UK pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, which bristled with 60,000 acrylic rods, and reconfigured the iconic Routemaster bus. Currently he is working on the cauldron where the Olympic torch will end up at the start of the London games on July 27.
Abraham Thomas, the V&A show’s curator, has spent many months making his selection from the enormous creative range. “I wanted to make it feel like you’d been let into Heatherwick studio,” he says of the show, where exhibits are pushed right up to the ceiling in the gallery’s four corners and a new Routemaster bus – rather spectacularly – seems to be driving out of the building through its back wall. There are models of projects at every stage: inspirational objects, such as the massive lumps of confectionery rock that led to an extruded aluminium bench; the actual machine that steel sheeting was rolled through before it clad the outside of a series of artists’ studios in Aberystwyth; things that Heatherwick made while still a student (a series of interlocking ceramic tiles, some experiments in embroidery); and films and all sorts of audio featuring everyone from members of his team to celebrity artists such as Antony Gormley talking about various aspects of the Heatherwick oeuvre. All this layering is intended to convey the idea that the process of design is itself a very complex and layered one. And it does just that. There is a sense simultaneously of chaos, movement and order in the gallery, which is what a working studio is like in its most exciting and productive moments.
In the 1990s, designers such as Philippe Starck led us to believe that design was a matter of flamboyant bluster and style that a master practitioner (such as himself) dashed off moments before falling asleep. More recently, the world of the limited-edition piece has been prioritised where work relies on narrative, history, precious materials, high prices and unavailability. Heatherwick is neither showy, nor precious. Some of his best work appears in public and turns a negative into a positive. The best example here is the Paternoster Vents next to St Paul’s Cathedral, which look like soaring origami towers and transform a piece of essential servicing (a cooling system for an electrical substation) into a beautiful piece of sculpture.
He has, however, dipped his toe into the limited-edition market, making his extruded aluminium bench under the auspices of the London gallery Haunch of Venison in 2009 (a super shiny example of the undulating result is shown at the V&A). One was auctioned by Phillips de Pury the same year, and just fell within its £32,000- £38,000 estimate at £37,250. But for Heatherwick the project was a means to an end. He had, since his Royal College days, wanted to make a piece from a single material. When he finally found a factory in China that could produce a single piece of aluminium 100 metres long, the money that Haunch was willing to put up for this initial experiment enabled the project.
His ambition is to create superbly functional, cost-effective long benches to furnish future airports and shopping malls rather than art collectors’ houses. If he ever appears at Design Miami, for example, it would be as the designer of the specially commissioned piece that is created each December outside the tent, rather than networking inside it.
He was also inducted into the luxury world when the venerable French leather company Longchamp agreed in 2000 to make a bag he had first devised in 1993, using 200 metres of spiralling zip. He then went on to design the company’s SoHo New York flagship store in 2004. The model of the store in the exhibition shows how a continuous ribbon of stair continues up several storeys, mirroring the coiling concept of the Zip bag. And yet, while both are ingenious solutions, the store is not a great retail concept (it encourages customers to move upwards, but not to stop) and the bag is not a great bag. Sometimes Heatherwick’s mechanical brilliance means he forgets about other considerations, aesthetics among them.
Some criticise Heatherwick for his endless and sometimes repetitive 3D form-making, his conspicuous lack of theory and even intellectual framework. And indeed, as a practice, his is certainly not radical. What the exhibition does prove, though, is that as a designer Heatherwick is remarkable in his tenacity, his sense of adventure and his absolute delight in finding solutions. And the results often have a uniquely accessible and playful appeal – hence his public profile. A mammoth book he has also put together this year, with his partner Maisie Rowe, of 140 projects both real and dreamt of, only underlines the point. And the fact that it’s called Making rather confirms where his preoccupations lie.
‘Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary’ is at the Victoria and Albert Museum from May 31 to September 30;
‘Making’ by Thomas Heatherwick is published by Thames and Hudson, priced £28