Thomas Heatherwick talking

British Council & Colossal Photos

Thinking, Making, Storytelling

Heatherwick Studio seeks a single, compelling and original idea that will be the essence of each project. The studio’s creative process, therefore, involves an intense level of questioning and interrogation of all aspects of a brief and project rationale in the search for a fitting idea. The studio is not constrained by the conventions of a typology and reinvents anything from furniture to infrastructure. This level of engagement and rethinking continues through the design process and is most evident in the regular design sessions where project teams pin their work to the walls of the studio for review and invite open critique. Projects will often go through numerous iterations, with the essence revisited and new paths investigated until their final realisation. Although designs explore reoccurring themes such as repetition, texture, topography and kinetic movement, projects remain distinct from one another as a result of the creative process.

Bombay Sapphire Distillery

Iwan Baan

In tandem with this exploration, the process involves relentless form-finding to arrive at a coherent object that embodies the idea. For some projects, both the idea and object are generated directly from a crafting or manufacturing process. Extrusions, for example, a continuous seat without joints, was created in a factory in China through experimentation with extruded metal. In other cases, the studio has had to invent new construction or fabrication techniques to realise its ideas. Designed in 2004 for the lobby of the Wellcome Trust in London, Bleigiessen is an installation that evokes the elusive form of falling water, created using wire-suspended glass balls. The studio had to devise an assembly process that positioned 150,000 of the glass balls at specific points on 27,000 wires. Perhaps an even more extreme example is the artists’ studios in Aberystwyth, Wales, built in 2008. The studio was compelled to act as the contractor as no builder was prepared to fabricate a previously untested façade made from one tenth of a millimetre-thick metal sheets, rounded, crumpled and sprayed with insulation foam.

The studio’s most resonant projects definitively unite form and idea to generate a meaningful object and a coherent experience. This approach was exemplified in the UK Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010. When viewed from a distance it appeared as a shimmering cubic form, an effect created by 60,000 clear acrylic rods. Inside the pavilion, the ends of the rods formed an undulating, cavernous interior that became known as the ‘seed cathedral’ as each tip held seeds from the Millennium Seed Bank. Despite being open for less than a year, the pavilion remains a poignant, iconic image, and its story lives on in popular memory.

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