Curiosity and Invention

There is no more appropriate title for a retrospective on heater wick studio than designing the extraordinary.

Thomas Heatherwick hardly needs any introduction. In the last 20 years, he has become a creative tour de force, a British design icon, a man with so many strings to his bow that he is hard to classify. I have always thought of him as a latter-day Renaissance man, someone with endless curiosity and the strength of vision to come up with inventive products and ideas. Now at the helm of a very successful design and architecture studio, Heatherwick has seen his practice become the go-to studio for anyone looking to create something that defies the laws of gravity and even imagination. All of which leads one to have very high expectations of his first solo exhibition, Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary, in London.

Located in the beautiful V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum), with exhibition design by Heatherwick Studio itself, the retrospective should be a fantastic and awe-inspiring experience. Sadly, it isn’t, mostly because it has been unwisely crammed into a small gallery off the main museum entrance. If I were kind, I would say it has the atmosphere of a Wunderkammer: a panoply of treasures and curiosities waiting to be discovered. If I were honest, I would say space is far too small to do justice to the array, the breadth and scale of projects on show. The chaotic and too-dense skyline of Perspex cases housing models and prototypes is bewildering and ultimately irritating. Covering 13 themes in such a small space is just too ambitious, and as I make my way around the exhibition, I start wishing someone had just given the show a good edit.

It starts promisingly with some of the Heather – wicks Spun chairs for Magis dotted outside the entrance. Before I enter the space, I crank the rather tough handle of a magnificent looking contraption and unroll my exhibition guide, which I tear at the pink dotted line. The dispenser is a low-tech and appealing piece of interactive engineering that captures the essence of Heatherwick almost boyish sense of wonder and inventiveness.

The studio large-scale experiments with extruded steel and a large-span double-rolling bridge designed for a town near Shanghai are given pride of place in the exhibition. The latter is quite plainly astonishing. When flat, the model is S-shaped; when raised, it produces steps so that people can still walk on it while boats can pass underneath. The technology is not futuristic – it uses a system of cables and gravity to arch upwards – but inventing new ways of doing things with simple technologies is Heatherwick at his most beguiling. The exhibition further documents the studio experiments with bridge building through models and photographs and if these are anything to go by, Heatherwick next bridge will be made of glass.

Highlights of the exhibition include expanding furniture designs, and sometimes the showier pieces are ingenious, beautiful and functional too. Design for a swimming pool in Worthing took inspiration from a wood stick that landed on the town beach in 2008. The helter-skelter wooden elements on the facade are not only sculptural, but they also provide structural cross bracing and sun shading.

Another standout project is the Pacific Place shopping centre in Hong Kong, where Heatherwick Studio devised 15 but interdependent improvement projects, ranging from new public spaces and better circulation to creating hinge-less doors for the toilet cubicles. My sense of wonderment at the hinge-less doors is only partly diminished by a video that shows the almost deceptively and rather simple mechanism within. The studio attention to detail is almost forensic.

Though the Perspex cases and lack of room make it hard to interact and walk around the prototypes and models, not everything is encased. There is a rear-end section of the studio redesign of London famous Route-master bus in one corner. I can warm to its sleeker silhouette, but perhaps that just nostalgia for the old buses. Mock-ups of two seats bearing the newly designed upholstery are also included. There are photographs on all the walls and black old-fashioned phone receivers that you can pick up to listen to project commentaries what adds a nice retro touch.

Another reason I am slightly underwhelmed is a more niggling one. Seeing all of Heatherwick projects in one room leads me to wonder whether he isn’t in danger of typecasting himself as the man who makes you go, how did he do that? It starts seeming – dare I say it – a bit one-dimensional. In the case of the Seed Cathedral, the question could be, did he waterproof a building with 60,000 holes in it? In the case of the mesmerizing sculpture in the atrium of London Wellcome Trust headquarters it is, did he make a 30-metre high wire-and-glass installation that could fit through a letterbox? When it comes to creating one-off bridges and installations, products or shop interiors, but perhaps less convincing when it comes to designing whole architectural developments or masterplans. Heatherwick extraordinary problem-solving capabilities, inventiveness, wit and engineering skills are not in question, but my feeling is that the work he produces will be better equipped to stand the test of time if it can occasionally go beyond the factor and his seeming need to exhilarate the viewer at all costs.

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