According to a new Vanity Fair profile by prolific architecture critic Paul Goldberger, North London native Thomas Heatherwick is not only “part architect, part furniture designer, part product designer, part researcher, part landscape architect, and part Pied Piper of design,” he’s also “by almost any measure the hottest designer in the world today.” So, what, exactly has Heatherwick been working on?
The 46-year-old has certainly been busy. There’s the just-revealed $150 million “Vessel,” for one, an interactive “public landmark” made up of 154 flights of stairs resembling an angular cyclone that will be at the center of the new public square at New York City’s massive Hudson Yards development project. And the overhaul of the David Geffen Hall at the Lincoln Center. And the design of the Barry-Diller-Diane-Von-Furstenberg-backed public park and performance space Pier 55 off Manhattan’s West Side. And the joint-commission with that other starchitect wunderkind Bjarke Ingels of Google’s new headquarters in Mountain View, California. And the controversial Thames-spanning Garden Bridge park in London.
But what drives Heatherwick, and what is behind his ambitions? Here’s a glimpse inside the forces that led to his success, excerpted from Goldberger’s profile, which you can read in full here.
Heatherwick’s mother’s background as a jeweler informs the way he designs:
His mother was a jeweler with a home workshop, and his grandmother was a textile designer who set up a textile studio for the Marks & Spencer stores. He was brought up, he has said, to think of objects as what people make, not what they might collect, and he always viewed design as a matter of problem solving, not a purely intellectual exercise. He refers often to jewelry, and uses it as a way of explaining his attention to detail. The special light fixtures he was designing for the Garden Bridge, he said, require him to think about “the same issues the jeweler deals with—how the materials work. We are reconciling human experience and how things work.”
Heatherwick works closely with his team and shares credit with them, but his name is the only one that matters:
He sets the tone for every project, critiques work as it evolves, approves the final version, and generally presents it to the client. He rarely says “I” when referring to his work, and says “the studio” constantly, as in “The studio was asked to come up with a plan,” which reinforces the notion that the practice is a group effort. Still, it is a group effort with one name on it, Heatherwick’s, and it is likely to remain that way. Heatherwick carefully cultivates his celebrity, and it is almost unheard of to have anyone else from the studio quoted in the press.
Heatherwick keeps a full-size model of the rear section of the updated London double-decker bus (which he designed, natch) in his studio:
“It keeps us focused on making things,” Heatherwick said when I visited the studio not long ago. “It is three-dimensional things we are here to make.”
Why Goldberger believes that Heatherwick will be the 21st-century version of Charles and Ray Eames:
Heatherwick shares not only the Eameses’ determination to be wide-ranging but also their fascination with technology, their interest in communication, and, most important of all, their passionate belief in the meaning of actually making things and in using materials in new ways.
Massive private wealth has allowed for Heatherwick’s projects see the light of day ...
Many of Heatherwick’s real projects are the kinds of outrageous ideas that would have been dismissed as foolish, impractical, or naïve a few years ago but that now, in an age of vast private wealth and boredom with conventional ideas of urban luxury, take on a certain charisma.
... which also allows for Heatherwick to reinterpret what real estate development can accomplish beyond constructing buildings for people to live in:
In general, Heatherwick is less interested in real-estate development than in showing real-estate developers what kind of public places they can make when they step outside the realm of normal building. He does not design the kind of conventional projects that mayors and city councils, strapped by tight municipal budgets, would be inclined to commission on their own; his unusual and ambitious work generally requires both more vision and a larger pocketbook, which is why he has become the embodiment of a new type of privately sponsored public place, underwritten by billionaire benefactors, such as Barry Diller and Stephen Ross, who would like to be remembered as patrons of a new kind of urban planning.
But this “new kind of urban planning” is also troubling:
Writing about Pier 55 for the Web site Design Observer, the architecture critics Alexandra Lange [Curbed’s own] and Mark Lamster complained that Diller and von Furstenberg’s patronage would “set up an uncomfortable choice between supporting design innovation and letting donors set urban priorities.”
Still, Heatherwick doesn’t design with ulterior motives in mind:
The extreme cleverness of the work can sometimes give it the air of a conceit—as if ingeniousness were its very point. While Heatherwick is as ambitious and as inventive as any designer around, there is nothing particularly cunning about him. His work overflows with a kind of cheerful good nature, and there is never a hint of irony or edge to it, or to him. Heatherwick designs as an optimist, and his earnestness can sometimes even seem a bit naïve. “You’ve got to believe the best of others,” he said when we were discussing the political travails of the Garden Bridge and Pier 55. “Victorian and Georgian Britain were made by people who were optimistic and believed in public good,” he told me.
Via: Vanity Fair