Look around - Thomas Heatherwick has designs on everything

Exhibition at the V&A: the designer behind the new London bus has gone public with a passion for improving the space we live in
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Thomas Heatherwick, with one of his Extrusions
Visionary: Thomas Heatherwick, with one of his Extrusions
Thomas Heatherwick is a very special designer. Sir Terence Conran even calls him "the Leonardo da Vinci of our times". Not only does he design anything and everything, from handbags to power stations, benches to bridges, but he manages to convince clients and authorities that his unusual solutions to their problems should get built.

Heatherwick, 42, is known to Londoners as the man behind the Rolling Bridge in Paddington, the new London bus — a replacement for the iconic Routemaster — the Paternoster vents near St Paul's Cathedral and the "Boiler Suit" at Guy's Hospital.

He also designed the British Expo Pavilion — the stunning Seed Cathedral — in Shanghai in 2010. He has a wide selection of projects on the go, including two more buildings in Shanghai and a housing complex in Kuala Lumpur.

His studio in King's Cross employs 80 designers, engineers and architects, who work on schemes around the world. And now he is the subject of a new exhibition at the V&A. Heatherwick is not a trained architect; he is a 3D designer who believes passionately that buildings should be as well designed and executed as small-scale craft projects.

Born into a family of designers, artists and social innovators he grew up drawing and making. From an early age, he says, he was "convinced that it was essential to understand materials and gain practical experience of them, in order to develop ideas and find ways of making them happen".

London's new 21st century hop-on bus, tested for "head banging"
Room on top: London's new 21st century hop-on bus, tested for "head banging"
His studio has a well-equipped workshop, where staff work collaboratively and are encouraged to make models and experiment with materials and manufacturing techniques.

He says: "We made a full-scale model of the top floor of the London bus to see if passengers might bang their heads or if they could they move their elbows." Though it had all been worked out in drawings, Heatherwick was keen to experience the real thing.

"We're greedy to see it, to see and confirm that it is special or spot a problem, revisit and rethink," he says. He trained in 3D design at Manchester and the Royal College of Art, before setting up a studio in Camden 18 years ago.

His early pieces were often art projects intended by the commissioners to improve often rather blighted public space. He was interested in improving the space but didn't want to be labelled as an artist.

"I'm interested in publicness," he says. "Early on I did a couple of projects in private homes and they involved the same amount of effort and work that go into things which are public."

Heatherwick's Spun Chair
Spun Chair: an experiment to see "if a symmetrical form made by rotational casting could make a comfortable chair"
That hasn't stopped him designing furniture, such as his Extrusion benches, and his Spun Chair, an experiment to see "if a symmetrical form made by the new technique of rotational casting could make a comfortable chair".

His projects are remarkably varied. He designed a Zip bag for Longchamp, as well as its iconic New York store, where the aesthetic echoed the bag.

He has designed a Buddhist temple in Japan, a monastery in Sussex, a mosque in Abu Dhabi and a Parsi funeral site in Mumbai.

His solutions to the design problems take account of cultural sensitivities and ecological concerns, but are always aesthetically challenging and different. Heatherwick doesn't have a recognisable style, except to be recognisably independent and innovative.

"I'm both deeply interested in everydayness and then also the opposite of that. Both are very important. Special is only special when you love ordinariness," he says. "If everything is trying to be special things become very strained and fry your mind. Sometimes a lot of effort is to try to re-clarify ordinariness and accept generic aspects, in order to create focus on one part."

Heatherwick's Seed Cathedral pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010
Best in show: Heatherwick's Seed Cathedral pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010
He cites the landscape around his "hairy" optical-fibre Expo pavilion, which doubled as a seed bank, saying: "People didn't realise we designed a large piece of landscape that framed and calmed the Expo clutter like noodle bars and canopies for queues."

His buildings might look as if he had conjured up something extraordinary from his imagination, but in fact they are a painstaking solution to the brief, in this case the British government's requirement that the pavilion should be in the top five best. It came first.

"The Expo pavilion I can explain as if it were a mathematical formula, I see it like solving a crime. The answer exists and the question is how to find it."

At the V&A, exhibition curator Abraham Thomas can barely contain his excitement. He says: "No one else does what Heatherwick's studio does. He is a polymath. He collapses theoretical design and making into one." Heatherwick's design process is about asking questions and the exhibition answers the how, why, and what of his work.

Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary is at the V&A from May 31 to September 30. Open daily 10am to 5.30pm, or 9.30pm on Friday. Tickets £7, concessions available. Visit vam.ac.uk


Thomas Heatherwick: Making is published by Thames & Hudson on May 28, priced £38, but readers can buy it for £28, including UK postage, by calling Littlehampton Book Services on 01903 828503, and quoting "TH180".

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