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Thomas Heatherwick is the wunderkind of large-scale 21st century design. He is equally revered and resented.

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Thomas Heatherwick
Thomas Heatherwick

Thomas Heatherwick is an internationally celebrated designer and landscape architect. He is the creator of the 2012 Olympic Cauldron and the landmark Vessel structure in Manhattan. His design firm Heatherwick Studio has won commissions in Hong Kong, New York, Singapore, Shanghai, and elsewhere.

Born in London in 1970, Heatherwich studied three-dimensional design at Manchester Polytechnic and at the Royal College of Art. He founded Heatherwick Studio in 1994 with the support of eminent designer Terence Conran. He quickly became known for his imaginative and ingenious designs, including a bridge that unfurled over a London canal, the city’s futuristic New Routemaster hybrid public buses, and the iconic spiked Seed Cathedral at the 2010 Shanghai Expo.

Among his numerous awards Heatherwick has honorary degrees from several British Universities and was named a Commander of the British Empire in 2013.

Transcript

For the past 25 years, the British designer Thomas Heatherwick has led a studio dedicated to finding new ways to make everyday life a little less mundane. 

Thomas Heatherwick: We, as a team, try to make sure that projects have vision, at the biggest scale, but also have some, it sounds sentimental, but love, love in the detail. 

Heatherwick cares deeply about building delight into urban landscapes. As a child growing up in 1980s London, he was always disturbed by the lack of imagination he saw in the built environment. And ever since, he’s been obsessed with finding new ways to fix that, whether designing a massive, swaying, living structure for brief encounters, masterminding a new urban landmark, or engineering a symbol of global unity on behalf of his home country. Heatherwick Studio is driven by his belief that the viewer’s emotional response is an essential part of any object’s function, and that this idea should have been central to all kinds of design a long time ago. 

Heathewick: One city is starting to be more and more similar to anywhere else you go to! And so often, I’ve traveled, and you go somewhere and think, I wish I’d come here 40 years ago, before it became homogeneously just like the place I came from. And you just think, it’s just like we value each other for our differences, we now have to amplify idiosyncrasy because the trend is towards homogeneity so much that it needs people who will dig in and fight for distinctiveness. 

Thomas Heatherwick was drawn to fantastical designs from a young age. Much of his early childhood was spent poring over his grandfather’s Edwardian Invention books, and the comic inventions of the early 20th century cartoonist W. Heath Robinson, as well as tinkering in his own bedroom workshop. The Heatherwick household was teeming with creativity. 

Heatherwick: In a sense, I’m a very obvious outcome of my upbringing. I was brought up around a father who’d studied child development, and someone very interested in lateral thought, but I was also around people who were self-employed. My mother had a jewelry business, and my grandmother was a designer, and my grandfather had been a designer as well as a writer, and were interested in engineering and pattern, color, and also art therapy, through my grandmother, so there was this side very interested in how you empathize with people and understand them. And so, in a sense, I don’t think there was any precocious anything. I could see that I was weak at all sorts of things, and that meant I didn’t think I had the answers, and that meant that when I met people who were interesting or experienced, I wanted to learn from them and over the studio’s history, I’ve been very lucky to have people who want to help me. Maybe I just look in desperate need! I think I just look needy. But people have really helped! 

One significant early champion of Heatherwick’s was the pioneering British designer Sir Terence Conran, whose Habitat stores made stylish furniture and housewares available to the average Brit. 

Heatherwick: He treated me like I was an equal with him, which was astonishing. I get genuinely inspired when I spend time with him. And you see someone who has that focus, it’s somebody who really cares, and is very indignant when things don’t achieve their potential! 

Today, age 50, Heatherwick’s enthusiasm for designing a tangibly better world has not waned. Yet for every completed project, there are other plans left unrealized. Take for instance 2017’s Garden Bridge project. This $2 million footbridge more than five years in the making was canceled when newly-elected London mayor Sadiq Khan came to power. That same year, Khan took the eco-friendly London buses Heatherwick had designed in 2010 out of production, calling them “too expensive.” Yet even with this and other setbacks, Thomas Heatherwick remains a relentless defender of the idea that design has the power to turn a place into someplace. 

Heatherwick: A lot of what we’re talking about and thinking about and have got very passionate about is the human experience, that so often, buildings are thought of from postcard view, and we discuss in London endlessly, “Oh, should tall towers be allowed?” And you just think, it doesn’t matter. The tower doesn’t matter, it’s what’s happening at the ground, where we all are.