SPACE Magazine
SPACE Magazine
Thomas Heatherwick: Design Has No Boundary

Thomas Heatherwick is the man behind a diverse range of three-dimensional innovations, from furniture and product design, buildings to urban planning. As a figure who has been commended by the grandfather of British design, Sir Terence Conran as ‘the DaVinci of our age’, he is an inventor, working in a space between the professions of designer and architect. He is continuously questioning projects and creates things that have not before been seen in our world, through a process of experimentation and realisation. SPACE met with Thomas Heatherwick on his visit to Seoul for the opening of his exhibition ‘New British Inventors: Inside Heatherwick Studio’. interviewed by Park Sungjin | edited by Harry Jun | materials provided by D Museum

Thomas Heatherwick, a British designer who has shown originality and innovation in his deliberate crossing between various disciplines, has been acknowledged as a worldclass master. Established in 1994, the Heatherwick Studio is famous for its vast portfolio created by an integrated idea covering architecture, urban planning, sculpture, design, and so on. His projects include the UK Pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010, the renovation of traditional London Bus, the London Olympic Cauldron and now he is carrying out Google’s new California HQ in collaboration with BIG.

UK Pavilion in 2010, Shanghai Expo ©Iwan Baan
Park Sungjun (Park): You studied product design at the Royal College of Art. Due to this, there is a rumour that the conservative architectural community doesn’t see you with favourable eyes. Your design spectrum is so broad – to the extent that you have designed handbags as a creative director at Longchamp. Whether it comes to fashion or Google HQ, what does an act of ‘making’ mean to you?

Thomas Heatherwick (Heatherwick): I wrote my thesis when I was 20 years old. My big essay for my undergraduate degree was about how work should have a connection to the experience of making, and the lack of construction in the education of designing the buildings. I found at that time that there wasn’t any educational course that centred upon making buildings, in any of the courses, and that designing a building had become a very intellectual exercise. Even the people who seemed most sensitive would use words like ‘assembling the pieces’, ‘putting the pieces together.’ I was interested in putting together the pieces. I had been around people who when I was a child would make objects with clay, which as a material, clay is to be turned and made in the hands. Or maybe that they were chiseling, and exploring the feeling of really shaping the clay. There was a passion in making, but in assembling I just didn’t have passion for it. To my eyes the outcome didn’t have compassion or feeling.

NTU Learning Hub ©Hufton + Crow

Park: Your works range from tiny products to furniture, interiors, works of architecture and city planning. The most intriguing thing about your portfolio is, in fact, not its extensive scope transcending these different areas or fields. What surprises me is the way you handle extremely different scales. Even in architecture, apart from the more functional issues, this can cause very sensitive issues related to proportion and form, perception, order, technology and space. How do you overcome such radical differences in scale or apply them to different areas? As I can see that the Heatherwick Studio website is categorizing the studio’s works by size and not by genre or function, I believe there must be some special tactic to deal with work of different scales.

Heatherwick: No matter how big a project is, from a master plan to a quarter of a city, in some ways it isn’t actually big, because it is made from small pieces. The scale comes down. A district of a city will be made from a series of spaces and buildings, and each building is made from components, from construction elements right down to door handles, so for me ‘very small’ is within the very big. I also don’t see them as separate things, I see them all as one discipline. So to me, being a furniture designer is the same thing as being a building designer. One could say a building is made from furniture sized pieces. For example, Pacific Place in Hong Kong was a 150 million pound project. It is actually made from lift buttons, balustrades, details in the glass, toilet doors. It is composed of a family of ideas, furniture-sized ideas that adapt to bigger projects. If you remember, in the old days before smart phones, we had small cameras. We all had little digital cameras that you could zoom in and zoom out, I feel like that is what we do. We zoom in and zoom out. We look big if you zoom in to test the big and you look big to small, testing in different scales. 

Garden Bridge ©Arup

Park: I can see your architectural works are focused particularly on ecological and environmental issues. Yet, that doesn’t seem like it is part of your holistic discourse as it doesn’t appear in your furniture, product and interior works. Is there any special reason for your architectural works to highlight ecological issues?

Heatherwick: I don’t feel I have a mission to preach to the world. I am not trying to be a preacher but I am very focused on the human experience. I feel that nobody bothers to do a project unless it is very big, particularly now, particularly in Asia; everything is big. So how do you make the human scale within that largesse? Nature has been one of the devices that can be used to create a variety human scale, to break down the bigness. 
Extrusions ©Peter Mallet

Park: What technological and industrial developments first bring to the areas of craft and architecture is the people’s loss of meticulous sensitivity to materials and to their physical properties. But, the Heatherwick Studio is still holding on to such sensitivities while accepting advanced technologies. Somehow it’s like having two contradicting elements at the same time. Thus we can read traces of technology deep inside your handcrafted materials. Whereas people are easily inclined to technological advancement, you are keeping a balance between the two. Do you have any particular stance on this? 

Heatherwick: It is an interesting observation and a question with which I agree completely, which is that people get very excited by ‘Rapid Prototype Printing’ techniques like 3D printing. Actually most 3D prints, when you look at them, are interesting in form, but they are not beautiful in their materiality. When I was little, I was exposed to lots of different kinds of materials and craft processes. My grandmother would have used the word ‘beauty’. The word ‘beauty’ was not fashionable during my education and in an architectural world. ‘Beauty’ sounds too sentimental, but somewhere inside of me, I was interested in ‘What is the beauty?’, ‘What is that?’

Rolling Bridge ©Steve Speller
Park: Now for the final question. The Heatherwick Studio seems to answer to a question of form, with something existing outside of form rather with a form. Like movement or function. Where do your forms come from?

Heatherwick: Each project begins with a conversation like this: ‘What matters in this project?’, ‘What are the opportunities afforded within this project?’ When the design process works well, the shape just emerges from discussing your experience of the project, and answering the question, ‘How could it be?’ Then you start making solutions to the design problems and you start making sacrificial shapes as a test to say whether it is a potential solution. You know it is going to be a victim of the design process, but it’s already begun. You sometimes make a move in order to decide ‘What’s wrong with it?’ You might come up with a rough shape or form that captures all the ideas, and bring them into one coherent thing, but then you criticize it and maybe rethink. 

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