A 10-step insight into the life and works of Thomas Heatherwick

STIR celebrates the design exponent's 50th birthday by revealing 10 intriguing aspects that make him an unstoppable force in the field of architecture.

by Meghna Mehta Published on : Feb 17, 2020

Thomas Heatherwick, the coveted and well-known British designer, turns 50 today (February 17, 2020). His prolific and varied work over the last two decades is characterised by ingenuity and originality. Heatherwick is known to have defied convention through 25 years of his architectural and design practice. Having founded the Heatherwick Studio in 1994, today, he is known for leading one of the most flourishing practices in the world.

British architect and designer Thomas Heatherwick | Thomas Heatherwick | Heatherwick Studios | STIRworld
British architect and designer Thomas Heatherwick Image Credit: Courtesy of Creative Commons

Following the success of the UK Pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, Heatherwick Studio went on to win exciting design briefs including the Learning Hub at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and the Google campuses in London and California in collaboration with BIG.

UK Pavilion, Shanghai, China, 2010 | Thomas Heatherwick | Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
UK Pavilion, Shanghai, China, 2010 Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Celebrating an important milestone in Heatherwick’s life, STIR lists down 10 intriguing facts about his inspiring work and life.

1. Thomas Heatherwick grew up surrounded by design in its varied forms

His mother was a jeweller and his grandmother a textile designer, who set up a textile studio for the Marks & Spencer stores. In his works he refers often to jewellery, explaining his attention to detail. The special light fixtures he was designing for the (now scrapped) Garden Bridge, he said, require him to think about ‘the same issues the jeweller deals with - how the materials work. We are reconciling human experiences and how things work’. As a child he attended various exhibitions and was involved with hands-on experiences with materials and crafts.

2. His mentor, Terence Conran, invited Heatherwick to build his first structure on the grounds of his own estate

Heatherwick met Conran at the Royal College of Art, London, who then became his first patron. Mesmerised by Heatherwick’s graduate thesis - an 18-foot-high gazebo consisting of 600 curved wooden slats put together to form two enormous curving surfaces - was too big to be built at the school, and hence, Conran opened the doors to his estate in Berkshire for Heatherwick to live there and build the project, treating him as a protégé.

Bombay Sapphire distillery, Hampshire, UK, 2014 | Thomas Heatherwick | Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
Bombay Sapphire distillery, Hampshire, UK, 2014 Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

3. The designer finds abstract briefs given to architecture students in schools frustrating

Heatherwick asserts that the focus on fantastical situations and hypothetical futures distract from the real challenges that architects can currently address. He believes the real world is exciting in itself. In an interview to World Architecture News, Heatherwick has been quoted as saying, “Genius loci doesn't work by itself anymore to amplify difference,” referring to globalised procurements of places, which means places can be considered generic in many ways and local factors that influence a place are slowly taking a backseat. 

4. He is a designer who does not drink coffee

Surprisingly, as opposed to coffee being every architect's most preferred drink, Heatherwick prefers tea and cake.

Learning Hub, The Hive, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, 2015 | Thomas Heatherwick | Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
Learning Hub, The Hive, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, 2015 Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

5. Heatherwick has been called the ‘Pied Piper of Architecture’, soon-to-be ‘21st-century version of Charles and Ray Eames’, ‘Poster Boy for Manhattan’s west side Renaissance’ and the ‘Leonardo da Vinci of our times’

Paul Goldberg, a New York-based architecture critic, in his 2016 article for the Vanity Fair called Heatherwick the ‘Pied Piper of Architecture’ and on his way to becoming the ‘21st-century version of Charles and Ray Eames’, for his similarity to the designers impacting everything from furniture to film to exhibition design and becoming a household name synonymous with modern design. Conran was probably the first to recognise the talent that Heatherwick possessed and the waves he would create in architecture, by calling him the ‘Leonardo da Vinci of our times’ and wishing he would have had some of his genes. A recent Wall Street Journal article by Katherine Clarke addresses him as the ‘Poster Boy of Manhattan’s west side Renaissance’, where the British designer rejects the starchitect label reflecting on three of his New York City projects, including an under-construction condominium building – the Lantern project that sits on the High Line, close to his other favourably celebrated project – the Vessel.

Lantern House project on High line, New York | Thomas Heatherwick | Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
Lantern House project on High line, New York Image Credit: Courtesy of Related Companies

6. Heatherwick’s dream project is to design prisons

He wishes to design better environment for prisoners in order to create a place of learning rather than hurting people. Not wanting to bring in humanism in prisons alone, he wishes to design anything where people will be more hopeful such as housing in the UK, hospitals, and schools where he can make a difference.

7. The Garden Bridge and the Vessel have been centres of critical discussions and controversies

Innovation and out-of-the box thinking brings speculation. Two of Heatherwick Studio projects have been widely discussed, more for their political context than the design itself. The Garden Bridge in London, designed to be a fully pedestrian and cyclists bridge, faced challenges as most of the cost was being born by taxpayers, the budgets increasing every few years and the eventual non-realisation of the project. The Vessel in New York as part of Hudson Yards development project is being critiqued to hamper in the near future the character of the original meat district of New York that will be transformed with soaring skyscrapers.

  • The Vessel at the Hudson Yards Plaza, 2019 | Thomas Heatherwick | Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
    The Vessel at the Hudson Yards Plaza, 2019 Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • Design of the Garden Bridge, London | Thomas Heatherwick | Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
    Design of the Garden Bridge, London Image Credit: Courtesy of Creative Commons

8. The drawings and model of the Vessel were kept a secret - locked in a cabinet at the owner’s office for two years

The owner Stephen Ross claims the design ‘blew his mind’ and decided to build it even when the price escalated to twice the planned figures. Even before it was built, Ross believed that Heatherwick’s Vessel would become not only a symbol of Hudson Yards but of New York City itself. To make sure it was a well-kept secret for two years, Ross kept the model and all of Heatherwick’s drawings in a cabinet in company’s office to which he had the only key.

High Line flanking condos by Thomas Heatherwick, Lantern House | Thomas Heatherwick | Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
High Line flanking condos by Thomas Heatherwick, Lantern House Image Credit: Courtesy of Related Companies

9. Heatherwick likes to call his team, the ‘problem solvers’ and has a full-fledged wood, metal shop and three-dimensional printers

Unlike most architecture and design offices, Heatherwick Studio is able to create prototypes for almost every design it produces. It is big enough to have contained a full-size mock-up of the rear section of the red London double-decker bus—the updated Routemaster.

Towers of Silence, Mumbai, India | Thomas Heatherwick | Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
Towers of Silence, Mumbai, India Image Credit: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio

10. Some of Heatherwick’s unknown projects - design of Christian Louboutin perfume bottles, the Longchamp tote bag, the Towers of Silence for the Parsi community in Mumbai and the Temple in Kagoshima

Heatherwick expanded his portfolio to product design, and the studio collaborated with Christian Louboutin to design a collection of bottles for his debut range of women fragrances in 2015 and designed a tote bag for Longchamp with a spiralling zipper. The Towers of Silence is an aviary designed for the Zoroastrians in Mumbai to carry out their burial practices to give the dead privacy as well as seclusion. The Buddhist temple in Kagoshima in Japan designed as a place of worship as well as a depository for cremated remains was inspired from the falls of silk fabric of Buddhist priests.

Christian Louboutin perfume bottles, 2015 | Thomas Heatherwick | Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
Christian Louboutin perfume bottles, 2015 Image Credit: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio

Excerpts derived from Heatherwick’s interviews, conversations and articles published on Vanity Fair, Designboom, Dezeen, Wallpaper, World Architecture News and Wall Street Journal.

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