He has been called “the Leonardo DaVinci of his day”, and celebrated as someone who has changed the face of modern design. Yet you would never know by talking to this charming, softly spoken man. When we meet in his London studio, we’re not greeted by someone in an expensive suit with a firm handshake. Indeed, Thomas looks more like he has just popped down to his local cafe for a spot of breakfast on a quiet Sunday morning. His gentle manner belies the power of his designs, and his stellar imagination…
Heatherwick is best known in China for designing the magnificent Seed Cathedral, the British Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010. This sculptural structure housed 250,000 plant seeds at the end of 60,000 acrylic rods, had hundreds of thousands of people queueing for hours to go inside. In England, people know him better for the new Routemaster London Bus, and the Olympic Cauldron at the 2012 London Olympics – a beautiful copper sculpture that contained the Olympic flame.
Ever since Thomas was a “tiny little person”, he tells me that he was always curious about how things worked. “I wanted to be an inventor, but then I discovered that you couldn't study inventing at school, and the real world is divided up between all these different things – structural engineering, art, sculpture, and so on – so it was a natural evolution for me to study design. My bedroom was like a workshop really. Although we didn’t live in a particularly good area, we lived in a fairly big house and it was full of things like enamelling chemicals and powders and pliers and saws and drills.”
He went to London’s famous Royal College of Art, “where I was designing buildings. I was excited by reality – ideas and how to make them happen. I didn’t think of myself as an architect, because design was my true passion. I loved solving problems, how things make you feel and how they impact on people.” It was there that he met Terence Conran, world-famous designer and creator of Habitat furniture stores. “He came into the college and my tutor wouldn’t let me speak to him, so the only chance I had was to grab him in the stairway by the fire exit! I felt like a stalker, but he was the only person I knew of who understood how design connected to the real world.” They got on so well that Thomas even went to live with Conran. “He actually let me live in his house! There was a workshop there and they were manufacturing furniture, and they let me work. He was astonishingly supportive of his students.”
Heatherwick’s time with Conran must have made a huge impression, because he is now trying to do the same thing with young people in his company. Heatherwick Studio has around one hundred full time designers and seventy support staff. “I have tried to create somewhere that people can grow. My dream would be, when I get old, to have tutored people who are more capable and more empowered to do good projects. We have three very young graduate here today. I don't expect people to copy the way we do things, but hope it will give them confidence…”
Thomas thinks that Britain is a great place for studying design because, “it has built up a momentum of confidence to imagine things. Of course, I don't think we have a monopoly on imagination, but I think an old city like London is lucky to have so many different layers of history which have not been wiped away – Roman, Victorian, Georgian. Our institutions make it quite clear that there isn't only one way, whereas some societies are more ‘mono’. This outlook lets individuals take their own path. Our creative infrastructure, built over many years, has been handed down for many generations, which is why we’ve produced many ‘sparky’ designers.”
He thinks everyone from all around the world, “has capacity for phenomenal imaginative thought and problem solving. But it’s about how much someone is blocked from that, or supported. I have had enormous support and good fortune, with encouragement and positivity. Even my grandmother was the founder of Marks & Spencer’s Textile Design Studio. She escaped from Nazi persecution in Germany, so was somebody who didn't let those little things in life get in the way of doing your best. I have been exposed to people like that, who have given me encouragement. The most important thing is to not feel discouraged and constrained.”
His passion is infectious. “We try to find the right solution for the particular place, so if we design a new building for Shanghai then I feel a duty to invent something particular to Shanghai. I think it would be rude to Shanghai if I didn’t! It’s an amazing city so it’s a waste of time to leave your own signature on the building. It’s disappointing when you travel to different cities and they’re really similar to ten thousand miles away. I am thinking, I am now near the equator and I was close to the arctic yet the office buildings look the same! How could everything be so uniform? Whether we are designing a Christmas card or a new museum in South Africa, we are trying to draw out something authentic to that place.”
I ask him about the British Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010. “Our government told us we had to be in the top five, and do it for half the budget than most western countries had. We said, okay, the safest thing we can do is not to show kings and queens, castles, Sherlock Holmes and teabags – because that is what everyone will expect. There was an element to the design that was very focal, but there was also an element that was very calming to the space around it. Actually, the real Pavilion was the landscape, but you forget that, and we designed it for you to forget! We were thrilled to have won the top prize, and even happier with how Chinese people responded to it. That changed this studio’s path.”
Back here in London, Thomas has two big things on the go. First is the new Routemaster bus which is finally in service now. “It’s slightly spooky to see it as I walk down the street, I think, ‘wooh wooh!’ We were designing mobile architecture – they’re two-story building on wheels, but there’s no building in London that has eight hundred of them going around the city!” There is only one Garden Bridge project though, and this has been more controversial. “This was the idea of a James Bond girl from the nineteen sixties, and it caught my imagination fourteen years ago. It's progressing in a very exciting way, we've got planning permission, and almost all the money needed to start construction. It’s all about public space. London’s River Thames is two and a half times the size of the Seine in Paris for example, so all its bridges are big. The Garden Bridge is about making a place for people in the middle of the water, where you can sit and read your book, write a letter, propose to somebody or have a family conference. I have just got the last bit to do, so three years from now hopefully we can do another interview right sitting in the middle of it, fingers crossed!