Designing the Extraordinary

Monday 11 Jun 2012

New exhibition takes a closer look at Thomas Heatherwick’s diverse output over the past two decades

The V&A in London is currently showcasing the first major solo exhibition of one of Britain’s most inventive design studios. Led by Thomas Heatherwick, the eponymous Heatherwick Studio was set up in 1994 and has since produced a plethora of experimental - yet extraordinarily simple - designs that span the fields of architecture, engineering, products, sculpture, urban planning, transport and fashion.

Before even entering the exhibition space, the Heatherwick experience begins; what appears to be a kind of Victorian mangle connected to a stack of paper reels turns out to be the exhibition guide dispenser. Visitors are encouraged to turn the archaic handle, thus releasing the spool until the full length of ‘guide’ is in their hands. It encapsulates the essence of what Heatherwick’s work is about; no aspect is designed for the sake of its style or attractiveness - these are elements that naturally emerge from the language of his functional solutions. In other words, his work is defined by experiments with innovative yet essentially simple functionality, which in turn dictate the form. Hence, the method and its formal manifestation are inextricably, organically interwoven - and it is this that makes the work so memorable.

The exhibition, curated by Abraham Thomas, comprises a collection of over 150 objects that typifies Heatherwick’s broad spectrum of productivity over the past two decades, from his student explorations to the Studio’s most recent commissions. It was therefore surprising to find that the exhibition was confined to a single room - yet the reasoning became clear. Arranged in clusters of conceptual similarity, each section was rigorously informative, accompanied by photographs, mock-ups and audio clips accessed through telephone receivers, and after two hours of tireless perusal there were still areas left unexplored.

It is a tired axiom that simplicity is the key to good design, but it could rarely be more aptly exemplified than in the case of Thomas Heatherwick. One of the highlights of the show is undoubtedly the video demonstration of the snail-like Rolling Bridge at Paddington, alongside perfectly formed maquettes of the bridge at its various stages of unfurling. Equally stunning but in a completely different way is the scale model of Bleigiessen, a glass sculpture commissioned for London's Wellcome Trust headquarters in 2005. Magnificently descending through the eight-storey atrium, the sculpture consists of 142,000 glass spheres suspended on 27,000 high tensile steel wires - that’s 15 tonnes of glass and just under a million metres of wire. But perhaps the most delightful aspect of the sculpture is its concept; basing their idea on the behaviour of falling liquid, Heatherwick Studio conducted experiments by pouring tiny amounts of molten metal into water and examining its various contortions. Having created hundreds of these tiny, unique beads, one of them was selected, digitised and replicated as the basis for the final sculpture.

The interplay of form and function is perhaps most neatly personified in their bag design for French luxury label Longchamp, which was based entirely on the structural potential of a zip. A continuous length of zipper ribbon is wound around itself to form the body of the bag, which can then be expanded to double the size by simply unzipping it to reveal the excess material sewn in between. In contrast, the largest feature on display is a full-scale model of the Studio’s design for the new London double-decker bus, which reintroduces the classic Routemaster 'hop-on hop-off' system and features a continuous window that loops around the bus from upper to lower deck. And if you’ve ever wondered what those seeds look like at the end of the UK Pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo 2010, this is the place to come.

Through one of the telephone receivers, a member of the Studio explains that their process is not so much defined by ‘development’, as ‘persistence of vision.’ Rather than just designing in response to a commission, their work constitutes an unstoppable flow of ideas that continuously seek the possibility of execution. Their ‘Extrusions’ project certainly demonstrates the persistence of Heatherwick’s ingenuity. The intention was to build a bench whose seat, back and legs were extruded from a single block of metal. After 18 years of research and a string of disappointments, the studio finally found a facility in China that was capable of attempting this pioneering feat of manufacture. The bench was produced using aerospace industry technology, which was the only thing capable of exerting up to 10,000 tonnes of pressure to squeeze the aluminium through a die.

Martin Roth, Director of the V&A, says: “[Thomas Heatherwick] is an extremely exciting and forward thinking contemporary designer whose work spans a fascinating breadth of disciplines. He is constantly challenging us with his ideas and pushing boundaries in art and design.” Indeed, the full extent of Heatherwick’s almost amusingly diverse range of output is demonstrated in the juxtaposition of Extrusions with a collection of hand-made Christmas cards, sent to family and friends over the years.

With its demonstrations of ingenious design solutions and maquettes so elegant they seem worryingly effortless, this is the sort of exhibition that will make design students rush to their studios in a panic about their final year show. And that is definitely a good thing.

Amy Knight
Arts and Media Correspondent

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