Published  12/11/2015

Thomas Heatherwick: ‘Art is like a hovering cloud of energy and attention that can find itself almost anywhere’

Thomas Heatherwick: ‘Art is like a hovering cloud of energy and attention that can find itself almost anywhere’

The designer and founder of Heatherwick Studio talks about growing up with Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase outside the loo, sending handmade Christmas cards, and why he wants to apply a sense of specialness to unlikely places


The gifted Thomas Heatherwick’s designs are fantastical, practical, earthy, sculptural, ethereal, occasionally all at the same time. They are also devoid of mannerisms and the limitations of a signature “style”, while rejecting any separation between the functional and the aesthetic. The seeds of his ideas are extensive and range from the exotic to the domestic: a desert rose crystal; an old-fashioned pram; animatronic dinosaurs; the Argentinean boleadora (a throwing device for capturing animals); a windswept field of grass; the voluminous, architectural folds of a shar pei; and molybdomancy, the art of divination using molten metal. Whether industrial, religious or infrastructural, the works forged at Heatherwick’s distinctly werkstatt-like studio refute relatively recent, and arguably misleading, distinctions between art, building and craft. And while he resists the notion that his creations should be called art, Heatherwick allows for potential artistry in any space of the built environment.

Angeria Rigamonti di Cutò: You’ve talked in the past about some early, quite disparate childhood influences: your mother’s bead expertise, seeing futuristic housing prototypes in Milton Keynes with your father, the ingenious drawings of Heath Robinson. What were your most immediate surroundings as a child: your room, your house, your view – and did you want to shape that environment from the beginning?

Thomas Heatherwick: I was brought up in a rambling house in north London, in Wood Green. My parents had been advised by my grandmother’s accountant that their house in Highgate that was £1,000 more was a bit risky and it was better to get the house in Wood Green that was £1,000 less – which was interesting in hindsight; one sees it with different eyes now. But it did mean that the house had big spaces, and my sister and I had quite big rooms and my bedroom became a workshop in a way.

At the time, it frustrated me that my parents weren’t interested in things like fitted carpets, like my friends had. Instead, you just had the floorboards, some mats and old, wrongly fitting carpets. We would go to jumble sales, what we now call car-boot sales, and pick up all sorts of amazing pieces of equipment, calculating machines and various devices. I had space where you could accumulate things like that. Rather than feeling that the buildings needed shaping, I was aware of how you felt around them. It was only when I was older that I started to understand the design of space, but the immediate impact was the physical, atmospheric reality created by different uses of materials. In other words, how the buildings from concrete made you feel, and the buildings made from brick, wood, fibreglass, or glass things, just noticing how dramatically different the feelings were, and how various materials were combined. And there were some unsuccessful early attempts – most new attempts have challenges – but I was intuitively feeling certain things that only as I grew older I could articulate better back to myself and direct towards my projects that we’ve been doing as a team.

ARC: You’re obviously very attuned to all possible sources in your design, from animals to natural forms and even cinematic images, but is art, in its narrower definition of fine art, also a source? I think you’ve referred to the fabrics in old master painting?

TH: My mother trained as a fine artist at Central St Martins but became interested in functionality as well – that’s what moved her towards becoming more of a maker. She went from painting to enamelling to jewellery making, with a specific interest in glass and semi-precious stones. But I don’t feel that in my brain there’s a sole line of influence, I feel more a sense of trying to collect as many impressions, because in each project you’re trying to evolve something specific. References can come from anywhere and the challenge is to try to capture that. The fantastic thing now with our smartphones is the ability to just catch things instantly. I’ve got 16,000 photographs and it astonishes me that it’s able to hold that many – luckily they upgrade the memory as quickly as I take the pictures. As you can see in the objects around us in the studio, the sources are many.

ARC: There also seem to be elements of kinetic art and constructivism in some of your works, such as the spectacular Bleigiessen and the so-called Seed Cathedral.

TH: I had a very broad art and design education, with architectural influences, and at the Royal College of Art was exposed to a very broad range of sources. I quite deliberately tried to be a sponge and absorb all those references, even if I didn’t know necessarily know the exact name of the shows, people, projects, techniques and places I saw. With each project you hope your brain will be able to draw from that to help you find a direction that can be particular for any one project.

Heatherwick Studio. UK Pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010. The Seed Cathedral is a box, 15 metres high and 10 metres tall. From every surface protrude silvery hairs, consisting of 60,000 identical rods of clear acrylic, 7.5 metres long, which extend through the walls of the box and lift it into the air. Inside the pavilion, the geometry of the rods forms a space described by a curvaceous undulating surface. There are 250,000 seeds cast into the glassy tips of all the hairs. Photograph: Iwan Baan.

UK Pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010. The Seed Cathedral.

ARC: Although I don’t think they’ve been defined as such, perhaps unintentionally you’ve made remarkable contributions to that quirky genre, correspondence art, which has an interesting lineage in people like Marcel Duchamp, Alighiero Boetti … Was there something about that particular form that appealed to you?

TH: I’m wary of calling my studio’s projects art. That was something we did for 17 years and it was the evolution of a child making cards and a culture around me where handmade cards were valued more highly than bought cards. It was also a case of not being able to afford thank-you gifts to all the people who helped us, but feeling that you could give them an idea, and your effort and craftsmanship, even if you couldn’t buy them an expensive bottle of whisky. So there was a real need behind it, you were fulfilling a function and had a purpose while working within these funny, narrow constraints of the postal system.

Heatherwick Studio. UK Pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010. The Seed Cathedral, interior view. Photograph: Iwan Baan.

ARC: Presumably you had the collaboration of the post office, given the perfect positioning and symmetry of the postmarks on some of the cards, sometimes the postmark essentially was the card?

TH: We worked with a man called Mr Mann from the special Royal Mail hand-stamp centre at Mount Pleasant near here. Every year we’d go there and in effect collaborate with them to see what we could do. They have this incredible group of people who would do the first-day covers and they would position those stamps with millimetre accuracy under a microscope. It was all part of the service – all you had to do was buy the stamps and that service would come with it. And working with us was also part of their Christmas each year, waiting for us, so we had adventures.

But the limitations grew, in that originally you could send anything as long as it was a certain weight, but about 10 years ago they introduced a rule that it had to fit through a cardboard slot of a certain size. It then got to a point where people stopped opening them because they perceived them to be valuable and collectable, which was disappointing. Others would come and say, “Put me on the list”, and you would think: hang on, this is something meaningful that allows us to thank all the people who helped us do what we do. So there was a moment where I thought, let’s just draw a line there.

ARC: Just as for some conceptual artists who made mail art, there was an idea or a feeling that imbued the object itself?

TH: But in terms of art I got very interested in the futurists, I loved the dynamism of works like Umberto Boccioni’s walking man [Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913]. And when I was growing up I had the Duchamp Nude Descending a Staircase near our loo in Wood Green from when I was tiny, and you didn’t think anything of it because you were just brought up with it. You realised there was this dynamism coming out of the Eadweard Muybridge photographs of motion, so it was an exciting time when people were understanding movement and translating it into art. I’d experienced quite a static-feeling world around me in the new design and architecture of the 70s and 80s, so the futurists seemed to be the ultimate in dynamism.

ARC: It’s interesting that you mention the futurists because you seem to share some attitudes with the designer Bruno Munari, part of the second wave of futurists (and, like you, he was dubbed a contemporary Leonardo in his day). Referring to the status of the various arts Munari said: “The designer is therefore the artist of today, not because he is a genius but because he works in such a way as to re-establish contact between art and the public … he responds to the human needs of his time and helps people to solve certain problems without stylistic preconceptions or false notions of artistic dignity derived from the schism of the arts.”1 This almost reads like a manifesto of your ideals?

TH: Fantastic … It felt to me that artistic thinking is very interesting but the question is, where is it? It can be on a canvas with oil paint, or in the way a piece of marble is shaped, but it can also be where you don’t expect it, and that can sometimes have greater power. I find it interesting that art is almost like a hovering cloud of energy and attention that can find itself in the area of food, or bridges, or move almost anywhere. Some of the most incredibly creative people I’ve known are painters but equally some of the least creative people I’ve met are painters, it doesn’t mean the art is really there. Art is ideas that can mean something to people and that can manifest anywhere, even in a business idea or a technology breakthrough, a political idea or something you drink. And that for me is much more interesting than the notion that art is within art galleries, which I find quite a clichéd framing. I actually find the gallery very unartistic in the framing of art, which is striking.

I aspire to some extent to some of the things that have moved me and those have often been in places where you wouldn’t expect to find artistic thinking. That’s not to undermine functionality, but there are so many parts of our lives that are rubbish, and we expect them to be: hospitals, streets, buses, and I want to apply a sense of specialness to those kinds of places where you’ve never experienced it before.

ARC: Certainly in some of your projects there are strong elements of pragmatism, even thrift, a sense that necessity really is the mother of invention in the way you transform things, or make use of existing elements, or give them multiple purposes. But there are also moments of real poetry in some designs, for example the swirling Cloud Bridge, one of my favourites, and one of your many inventive bridge designs. Even in potentially prosaic projects, a mobile phone mast, a power station, or electricity pylon with its delicate reticular mesh, you seem to want to transcend pure necessity or the solution of a problem as you’ve defined it?

TH: I don’t see aesthetics or practical problems as separate things. I view how something looks and feels as part of its functionality. How something makes you feel and how you interact with it is part of functionality. We’ve got used to thinking of them as separate and accepting that a building that is soulless and basic is practical, yet it’s deeply impractical if we wouldn’t mind it being demolished the very next day.

Heatherwick Studio. Rolling Bridge. Pedestrian bridge spanning an inlet of the Grand Union Canal at Paddington Basin, London. Photograph: Steve Speller.

Rolling Bridge. Pedestrian bridge spanning an inlet of the Grand Union Canal at Paddington Basin, London.

ARC: You also tend to resist cliché in your designs, whether by avoiding certain platitudes of art deco marine posters in the design of a beach cafe, or shunning the use of hi-tech, interactive formulas in projects such as the UK Pavilion or the Conran Foundation display you curated and designed at the Design Museum. Is hi-tech-worship tiresome and lazy? And do you draw?

TH: A word like technology can get misused. A pencil is technology, or this table: the word technology’s been hogged by electronic things. Sometimes I find it useful to remind myself that the bandsaw and sled are technologies. We all work with whatever technology is appropriate for a given project. But I also find it useful to remind myself of the fact that some of the most incredible buildings people have ever seen in their lives are cathedrals, phenomenally complex forms, and did a computer go anywhere near them? Those complex forms were defined by little human beings like you and me just working our way through without a computer facilitating the process. Gaudí didn’t have computers, and our forms are less interesting now. So, for me, it’s just a tool, available to use perhaps to push something, but it can be a lazy tool that makes you feel you’re slightly doing something rather than wholeheartedly doing things.

ARC: And are you a drawer?

TH: I do draw but I work in a team and very deliberately don’t come in with “Thomas’s drawing”. The most thrilling thing for me is working with the team and together we’ll draw, together we’ll talk, think something’s ridiculous, do more research. A lot emerges through discussion or almost willing something into existence through layers of conversation and dialogue as a team. Then everyone will go and work on something and we’ll come back together. But the idea of the “master’s” pencil …

ARC: No, but perhaps more in the sense that scribbling something down by hand might be a first step for a writer in getting an image or thought out from their brain into their world, drawing can be the first step in giving an idea material form?

TH: I do draw but I love it when we draw collectively, in a way that you can’t remember, “Did I do that? Did you do that?” So today, for instance, I have been drawing, there were four of us drawing in that discussion and another five people were contributing to our thinking together, but it’s the thinking that matters more than the drawing. If the drawing, or equipment, or technology helps that’s fine, but it’s amazing how basic the process can be.

ARC: Going back to this dichotomy between the practical and the imaginative in your work, some of your designs have quite dream-like elements that remind me of [Italo] Calvino’s Invisible Cities, particularly when you combine landscape and architecture. I’m thinking of projects such as the Baku tea house, where you seemed to peel up the park’s “floor” and turn it into the building, or your park under a cracked desert floor [Al Fayah Park]. Do you sometimes conjure up fantasy constructions or cities in your mind?

TH: I love cities and find it very moving that there are tens of thousands of us who are all interacting and coordinating, generally not knocking one another over or getting in each other’s way. That quiet coordination and support of each other I find very moving and the definition of what a city really is. The richness of a city for me is that it isn’t controlled by one person, there isn’t one voice but many voices and there’s a richness to that. So however good a designer I might think I was, I wouldn’t wish on anyone a whole city designed by myself. My passion is for things to be wholehearted; it’s half-heartedness that’s disappointing in some places. I like a whole variety of different things and try not to have a vindictive, taste-police approach to other people’s work. It’s just moving when a project is ambitious for what it could be and whether that’s my taste or not doesn’t bother me at all. Cities are layers and layers of things.

ARC: Your cooperative vision of cities is interesting in the sense that the usual received idea is the notion of the urban being “alienating”.

TH: But to answer your question about dreams, one thing I noticed when I studied and was growing up was that there would be ideas for places and projects and concepts that got presented, but the reality was never like that concept. So I remember witnessing a presentation where someone claimed they were going to build a hospital like a Tuscan hill town. It sounded lovely but then you’d see this horrible looking building with a few nasty terracotta bits stuck on the side. And I found this interesting: why do things die in translation? And how do you allow something that has clarity to still be there in the outcome? Competitions are classic for this. Somebody wins something for a vision and then you look at what’s built: it just goes downhill from there; it doesn’t represent that competition outcome. Because my background was in making, I was really interested in reality, my passion is reality so it’s interesting to talk about Italo Calvino’s book. But I’m interested in the real and not what’s in films or books or virtual worlds.

ARC: Having said that, the final outcome can look visionary. It’s also the case that, however visionary Calvino’s fictitious cities can seem, some of his descriptions refer to a real, if improbable, city: Venice. In that respect, some of your works, although grounded in the practical, have an enchanted aspect that perhaps you underestimate, even the Seed Cathedral for example?

TH: But maybe what contributes to that is the attempt to distil or hold an idea that’s complete and wholehearted. The site of our UK pavilion was the size of a football pitch and we allowed only a sixth of the site to not seem compromised at all because we allowed all the compromises to be made within the other five-sixths of the site, for example the staff training rooms, conference facilities, broom cupboards, toilets. None of those spaces needed to go on the cover of, say, the Caracas Times so there was the freedom for that one part to have total clarity and, if you like, a dream-like quality. I’d be disingenuous if I made out we weren’t trying to attain something of that.

ARC: You’ve designed religious structures for various faiths, including an aviary for a Parsi tower of silence: do these projects require an extra dimension of thought or research, above and beyond the process you’d normally work through to understand a building’s location and cultural context?

TH: We feel a huge responsibility with the gravity of people of faith, whether that’s a Benedictine order of monks or the Parsi community in Mumbai, though to an extent we feel a weight on our shoulders with any project, the importance of serious things to understand. With our first project, the Buddhist temple in Japan, which unfortunately we didn’t get to build, we’d never worked on a religious building before and we felt so much responsibility. We actually asked the principal monk if we could have four months without actually being asked for a quick sketch, something that some commissioners ask for. We knew we really needed time to immerse ourselves and having quick interim meetings we wouldn’t have the chance to bring ourselves to the right point. So we just asked: “Could we have 16 weeks and you don’t even ring us?” It almost sounded like a religious instruction, but he said: “I understand, I will not call you.”

ARC: A rule of silence …

TH: A rule of silence. We were saying, we want you to be available to ask you anything, but we don’t want you to be worrying about us because we’ve never done anything like this so we need time to go through a process, to really immerse ourselves. And he understood that.

ARC: Many of your projects develop from unexpected, micro starting points, a grain of sand, the folds of a shar pei. At the same time, more public projects can potentially conflate with wider, sometimes fraught political debates. Does the possibility that a project might enter a polemical sphere affect your approach, or is your objective simply to produce the best design you can?

TH: My passion, and the main drive of the studio, is to work on projects with a public dimension. I was never really interested in things within art galleries or private homes because we expect those to be special – it’s too obvious. The parts where you have the lowest expectations are the parts we all share: the streets, medical environments, schools or public transport infrastructure. I knew that part of the reason those public spaces are often not so good is that there are many complicated factors involved, organisations, or permissions required, but I also knew Heatherwick Studio had a determination and a real interest in these projects. Rather than giving up and blaming the rest of the world for why things don’t happen, we thought we’d engage with that. The triumph of democracy is that everyone has a voice and if you do projects you believe are motivated from the right place, there will be many people backing and supporting and willing them forward.

I remember an engineer I once worked with on a challenging project saying: “My back is broad enough.” It was a powerful image. You need to have a broad enough back and not become cynical or worn down by the world. I’ve wanted to carry on believing the best of the people around me and I believe the best projects come out of that. For instance, we’ve come across some fantastic city planners, they’re often disappointed with what’s brought to them and actually want things to be more special but so often get blamed for not allowing things to be done.

ARC: So they welcome the chance to collaborate on an interesting project much as the postal workers enjoy working together on the Christmas cards. People respond to what you give them?

TH: When it’s wholehearted, yes, and you’re engaging them and trying to understand what would be exciting for them. What would they like to tell their grandchild they worked on?

1. Bruno Munari, Design as Art, published by Penguin Classics, 2008.


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