"We've become experts in not being experts," Thomas Heatherwick said during a tour of "Provocations," a Hammer Museum survey of the work his London design firm has produced over the last two decades.
He was referring to the ability, which his office has become famous for, to jump nimbly between scales and design categories and to take on commissions that usually go to highly specialized firms.
FOR THE RECORD:
Thomas Heatherwick: A review in the March 1 Arts & Books section of an exhibition of the work of Heatherwick Studio at the Hammer Museum described artist studios designed by the firm as being in Aberystwyth in England. Aberystwyth is in Wales. —
The Heatherwick Studio, to use its official name, has designed pedestrian bridges, buildings, benches, tables, art installations and the caldron for the 2012 London Olympics, among many other projects. Last week, Google announced plans to build a headquarters in Mountain View designed by Heatherwick in collaboration with Danish architect Bjarke Ingels.
Perhaps not since the heyday 60 years ago of Charles and Ray Eames, the husband-and-wife designers based on the Westside of Los Angeles, has one studio gotten so much attention for such a wide body of work. Heatherwick's only real contemporary rival, in terms of design-world cachet, is Jonathan Ive, the in-house designer for Apple, who is also a Brit.
The first and most important thing to say about "Provocations," organized by the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and curated by Brooke Hodge, is that it's a delightful if slightly overstuffed tribute to the seemingly bottomless ingenuity of Heatherwick and his team of designers, which now numbers 160. There is a remarkable project everywhere you look — here a mosque in Abu Dhabi that seems to grow from a public plaza like a mushroom, there a long bench made of extruded aluminum, "squeezed out of a machine," as the wall text puts it, "the way you squeeze toothpaste out of a tube."
There is a crank that makes it possible to unroll a model of a drawbridge designed by Heatherwick to cross the Thames, although on the day of the press preview it was hidden behind a couple of other displays, making it unclear whether museumgoers would be allowed to operate it. There are artist studios in Aberystwyth, on the western coast on England, covered with a skin of crinkled stainless steel one-tenth of a millimeter thick.
Pride of place near the end of the exhibition is given to the almost absurdly photogenic British pavilion for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, which allowed Heatherwick to execute fully his longstanding dream of producing a "hairy building." The pavilion was dedicated to promoting the work of the Millennium Seed Bank, which preserves the seeds of nearly 25% of the world's wild plant species. It was covered with a fuzzy-looking skin of 60,000 clear acrylic rods; on the tip of each rod, inside the pavilion, a small handful of seeds was suspended so that visitors could examine them up close.
"Provocations" also offers plenty of unbuilt projects, including Heatherwick's design for the 2012 Olympic Velodrome, which lost out to a scheme by Hopkins Architects, and a boat with a sort of Mobius-strip structure, "to be constructed from aluminum in the shipyards of Saint-Nazare." Outside the gallery proper are two other projects: a full-scale model of the front end of the new double-decker bus Heatherwick designed for London, and (in the Hammer courtyard) several of the studio's Spun chairs, which turn like tops on a circular base.
Heatherwick, 45, has a charismatic, boyish, even elfin presence. He showed up for the Hammer tour wearing a charcoal-colored vest over a white shirt. When he wanted to show those of us on the tour an image or a short video on his iPad, he asked one of his younger designers to hand him "the gadget." Describing a new university complex in Singapore, he said his goal was to produce "the most bump-into-people-y building possible."
That's how he talks, strenuously avoiding any mention of theory or other designers. There is a sense that all the studio's products are sprinkled with a kind of high-design pixie dust. In the inevitable Heatherwick biopic, there is only one choice to play him: Martin Freeman from the Hobbit movies, who is almost exactly the designer's age.
When I had a chance to talk with Heatherwick after the tour, his eyes widened a bit when I mentioned the Eameses. And indeed, that comparison is a lot for any designer, no matter how talented or ambitious, to live up to. But there is a voracious curiosity that links them and an ability to express a consistent design sensibility across an almost dizzying range of objects and projects. Flipping through the Christmas cards in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition is enough to realize that what makes Heatherwick happiest, as it made the Eameses happiest, is to produce a design that is at once elegantly efficient and full of joie de vivre.
There is one crucial difference between Heatherwick and the Eameses, though, and it has mostly to do with the historical eras that produced and shaped them. Charles and Ray Eames were just as eclectic in their design work as Heatherwick. But their diverse approach was always in service of and existed under the wide umbrella of the modern movement.
Heatherwick's eclecticism, by contrast, has emerged within a design age that is itself eclectic, driven by no single theory or sensibility, except maybe the importance of exposure. That doesn't make Heatherwick's work any less impressive or enjoyable, just harder to parse.
And that's where Heatherwick's "experts in not being experts" line begins to ring with different echoes than he perhaps intends. In an Eamesian sense, there is joy in that approach, the idea that you stock your studio with as many talented young designers as possible — some trained in architecture, others in product design or fabrication — and let them loose on one difficult brief after another.
But that same mantra is most often used, at least in this country, by management consultants, whose job is to bring a kind of ruthless intelligence to the task of streamlining companies. And I'm not sure Heatherwick would be comfortable having his employees known as the management consultants of the design world.
In that sense, the title of the Hammer exhibition, "Provocations," is also richer than Hodge and Heatherwick imagined it might be. In November, plans were announced for a new park along the Hudson River, just off the west side of Manhattan, called Pier 55. Heatherwick designed it for the Hudson River Park Trust, though his main client was billionaire media mogul Barry Diller, who has pledged $130 million of the project's estimated cost of $170 million.
The reaction to the proposed park was decidedly mixed. Some critics wondered if New York wasn't essentially allowing Diller to buy a slice of the public realm, which he'd be able to close for corporate events or private parties. As Inga Saffron put it in the New Republic, "The billionaire's island, as some New Yorkers have called the project, is the latest, most extreme example of how big money and business elites are warping the way America's urban parks are funded, widening the amenities gap between rich and poor neighborhoods."
Some of this criticism is over the top, but I can understand where it comes from. There is a genuine populism and sense of democratic spirit in Heatherwick's best work, including the new London bus and the Shanghai pavilion. To see more and more of his time dedicated to designing for a 1% clientele is, well, a provocation — or worse — to many who have followed and supported his work, especially given that the public realm in cities like Los Angeles could so benefit from his design intelligence. This will be especially true if the Google headquarters turns out to be an aggressively privatized paradise along the lines of Norman Foster's doughnut-shaped new building for Apple.
To her credit, Hodge plans to include the Pier 55 project in the New York stop of "Provocations," which opens June 19 at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, where she is now deputy director. Any attempt to understand the Heatherwick Studio and what its work has come to represent should begin with a full examination of that project and its meaning in political as well as aesthetic terms.