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Review: Making - by Thomas Heatherwick

The book that charts Heatherwick's progress from craft enthusiast to the da Vinci of modern design.

New Statesman
Heatherwick Studio's UK Pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai, 2010

2012 has been a big year for Thomas Heatherwick and his eponymous design studio. His first redesigned Routemaster hit the road in February, with seven more slated to travel the streets throughout the Olympics. He also bagged the commission to design the “cauldron” that will house the Olympic flame as it burns throughout the games. Then there’s the studio’s behemoth retrospective opening at the V&A this Thursday, with the less than understated title of “Designing the Extraordinary”. Ten days ago the Guardian called Heatherwick the “new da Vinci of design”.

But how did it all happen?  Making, a hefty tome published by Thames & Hudson, probes that very question. It’s no short story. At 600 pages and weighing more than a rucksack, readers have the opportunity to digest more than two decades worth of Heatherwick’s output. The book is a beautiful, well designed object - one flick through will quell any suspicions that it might be merely coffee-table fodder.  Its dense swath of material is leavened by an airy layout, process diagrams and double page photo-spreads.

It’s also a look into the personal history of a man who stands – as many “starchitects” do – one step removed from the public spectacle of their work. Raised in London, Heatherwick descends from an artistic tradition. His grandfather was a musician who wrote pacifist poetry, his grandmother head of textiles at Marks and Spencer. His mother, Stefany Tomalin, was a painter, jeweller and authority on beading, while his father Hugh Heatherwick trained as a pianist before working as a creative mentor. Trips to exhibitions, crafts fairs, iron forges and futuristic housing projects in Milton Keynes were a routine part of young Thomas’ upbringing.

A fluidity of mediums was central to his education as an artist. Seven years of studies at Manchester Polytechnic and the RCA in London allowed him to dabble in plastics, glassblowing, ceramics, embroidery and woodworking. He lamented the disconnect between the “theoretic” discipline of design and the “practical” skills of craftsmanship. It was during his university years  – Heatherwick acknowledges – that he developed the ethos for which his is now celebrated: one of eschewing a hierarchy of materials, of tolerance for all forms of craftsmanship, of embracing the multivariate nature of design on large or small scales. He writes:

“At his time I became interested in the historic figure of the master builder, who combined the roles and skills of the builder, craftsman, engineer and designer, which mean that the generation of ideas was connected to the process of turning them into reality.”

Along with modernist founders, the bricklayer, the bread maker, the hedgelayer, the telescopic mirror maker and the thatcher all became Heatherwick’s muses. He notes, interestingly, that the division between the architect/engineer and the builder/craftsman was not all that wide until 1818, when the Institute of Civil Engineer was established, followed by The Royal Institute of British Architects in 1834. At this point paths diverged, leaving us with today’s version of the story: architects/engineer as elite conceptual thinker, builder/craftsman as skilled labourer. 

“Instead of rigidly dividing artistic thinking into separate crafts and professions such as sculpture, architecture, fashion, embroidery, metalwork and landscape, product and furniture design," he concluded, "I wanted to consider all design in three dimensions, not as multi-disciplinary design, but as a single discipline: three-dimensional design.”

In 1994 Heatherwick Studio opened for business. The book walks us through his projects chronologically, pausing to illustrate processes of conception and completion. Each project opens with a question, working backwards from the finished object to its driving impetus.  From the pragmatic (can a London bus be better and use 40 per cent less fuel?) to the philosophical (can an object be both abstract and representational?) to the downright near impossible (can a building be made out of a park?), it’s a clever format that lets the author explain his unique creative process. We see early exercises with chain link, plywood and old prams make way for larger experiments with furniture, commercial spaces and built environments. We see his love of dynamic curves, bold angles, natural forms and symmetry emerge, and grow more bold. Coursing throughout is a narrative of adaptability, of a desire to explore the possibility of a material rather than imposing a preconceived “design” or “shape”. 

The journey is peppered with fascinating anecdotes and lesser known projects. A polycarbonate pavilion – inspired by the pitched roof of a crumbling farm shed in Northumberland and built by the artist while still at university - is a particular illustration of a commitment to small scale innovations transposed onto larger buildings. It’s a beautiful gazebo with sepia-sheer walls and a sweeping, curvilinear structure. Other delights include upholstered furniture inspire by Shar-pei skin, a wooden waveform beachside café in Littlehampton, a post-industrial garden-come-power-station proposed for Teesside, and Bleigiessen (meaning “lead pouring” in German), a watery sculpture built from 150,000 glass beads, suspended in the atrium of the Welcome Trust.

The book also details the origins of the studio’s most iconic creation – the UK Pavilion at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. Their first “hairy building” was a 1999 proposed conversion of a WHSmith in Notting Hill, a quirky effort to transform a “tired-looking rectilinear shape”. The motif appeared again that year in a design for an outdoor "sitooterie", or Scottish gazebo, using 5,100 wood staves. They completed a permanent version of the project in 2000, this time using hollow aluminium staves, drawing thousands of points of light into the centre of the building.

In 2007 the studio won the chance to design the UK Pavilion at the World Expo, with one stipulation from the UK government: “When people vote for the best pavilion, make sure that you are in the top five!”. Heatherwick used the opportunity to hack away at outdated English stereotypes and instead reflect “the inventiveness and creativity of many people working in contemporary Britain”. They teamed a re-hashed - and infinitely more elegant - rendition of the “hairy building” with contributions from Kew Gardens’ Millenium Seed Bank. The Seed Cathedral was born. The building - with a façade of clear acrylic tubing, embedded with seeds, glowing by night, visited by over 8 million people - saw the UK take home the gold medal for Pavilion Design at the Expo’s conclusion.

The only sorrow felt while reading Making is that more of these building haven’t been actualised. The model for the glorious Doah Grand Hotel in Qatar sweeps up from the sea like a technocratic volcanic island, while an extraordinary spiralling seashell design proposed for the Great Hall at Windsor Castle (which burnt down in 1992) begs the thought, if only! The studio even pitched a concept for the 1996 Millennium Bridge. Beginning “tight and directional” at the corporate northern end and concluding “wider and more generous” on the shores of the artistic Southbank, the structure undulates open like a drop of ink in water, creating wide public berths. It is, somehow, an even more elegant vision than the Norman Foster/Anthony Caro design that won the space.

If any issue faces this book, then it’s the issue that faces nearly every art book (especially ones which tackle three dimensional subjects), and that is the issue of presentation. Can books, as a format, do justice to works of art designed to be seen in galleries, on screens or in public forums? This particular volume manages to sidestep what could have been a case of poetic injustice. By placing the emphasis on process, rather than result, we read the book for its insight rather than its high impact imagery. If you want to see a Heatherwick in the flesh, go sit along the 38 bus route. But read this book to get under his skin.