For each of the last 11 years, Sir Terence Conran has sent a notable figure from the world of design on a 30,000 pound ($54,000) shopping spree, in search of “things you’d like to live with” as part of the Conran Foundation Collection. When the popular 33-year-old English designer, sculptor and architect Thomas Heatherwick got the call this year, he decided to put a little extra legwork into the assignment.
“I wanted to see how many ideas 30,000 pounds could buy,” Heatherwick said on a recent afternoon in the Design Museum cafe on the banks of the Thames, as the river sparkled blindingly outside the all-glass windows. “It turned into like kind of a TV challenge show.”
Heatherwick hunted the street market stalls, websites, corner stores and catalogs of the world in search of nearly 1,000 objects, which are on show until Sunday at the Design Museum.
He lugged back booty in his carry-on from detours during business trips to Japan, China and Istanbul. And he turned every social encounter during the space of 18 months into an opportunity to solicit suggestions -- receiving hundreds of leads and submissions in the process.
Heatherwick says he set out to collect innovative and ingenious objects that normally wouldn’t have made it past the taste police in a temple devoted to design.
Upstairs on a recent afternoon, people strolled past aisles of individually lighted boxes containing such items as a life-size glass “wine rifle” and a “rum sword” loaded with their namesakes. Christian chewing gum with a prayer on every wrapper. Edible peanut-shaped packing material. A urinal with a sink where the water tank usually is. A biodegradable papier mache coffin. Japanese eyelid glue. Oven mitts for Kosher Jews. A compass for pointing praying Muslims toward Mecca. Yorkshire tea made for London hard water. An organ donor T-shirt.
Each object is identified, along with its price and the location it was bought, and accompanied by clever captions that read like scribbles in a notebook, snippets of conversation or brilliant short-story titles.
Next to a tub of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” the caption reads “I Can’t Believe They Called it This.” Then there’s Iranian cola in a package with Coca-Cola colors whose bottle bears the English-language words “liberate your taste” (“Anti-American cola brand.”). Anti-smoking labels for cigarette packs (“Tobacco brand image mired by message of doom.”). A plaster-of-Paris kit allowing men to cast models of their privates (“Somebody thought of this!”). Taxi-shaped taxi cab receipts (“Receipt in shape of service provided.”). A miniature three-way mirror found in a pet shop in Berlin (“Vanity mirror for budgie who needs own reflection for company.”)
“In a way, the caption was very important, because a lot of the objects are very ugly,” Heatherwick says. “The caption focuses you on why it’s there.” In this context, even the odd, familiar object takes on an anthropological allure: the fortune cookie becomes a “biscuit with printed paper inside”; the Pop Tart (which Heatherwick claims he has never tried) seems newly ingenious when defined as a cake you can cook in a toaster.
“My particular interest is in inventive thinking,” he says. “Quite often the kind of design that gets into museums actually has very little inventive thinking -- it’s more about inventive styling. There have been various collections and they’ve been very interesting, but 30,000 pounds hasn’t bought much thinking, in a way. I mean, it buys a very gorgeous motorbike and sometimes very familiar design objects. I suppose I was less interested in showing, you know, ‘This is the toaster I use and this is the table I think is so beautiful and I have one. I sort of didn’t want to get into me and my lifestyle.”
One of Heatherwick’s first commissions was a laminated birch summer gazebo for Conran’s garden in 1994. Since, he has made the U.K.'s tallest sculpture in Manchester and a “blue carpet” urban square in Newcastle. Works in progress include a pedestrian bridge at London’s Paddington Basin that folds up into an octagon, a Buddhist temple in Japan, an all-glass bridge in Kings’ Cross and a 25-story, mixed-use tower in North London. He recently designed Le Sac Zip -- a handbag that goes from day to evening using a clever zipper system -- for the French brand Longchamps.
He knows as well as anyone that the road from dreaming up a wine rifle to placing it above the wet bar is a long one.
“Most people have had ideas,” Heatherwick says. “And they go, ‘Oh, I should have done something about it.’ I admire the achievement of making something happen. Trying to make an object that is (1) something that you feel proud of and (2) that can be made at all and (3) that can be made for a price that can be not only manufactured but (4) that somebody would agree to distribute and someone else agree to retail and then that somebody might actually sell any -- I take my hat off to anybody who manages to get an idea from their head into people’s lives.”
Conran first met the designer when he was a student at the Royal College of Art. “He seemed to have a rather Leonardo DaVinci-like approach to life,” Conran said in a phone interview. “Constantly innovating, constantly full of ideas, constantly looking at things in an original way.”
Of Heatherwick’s unassuming presence, he said: “One of my great pleasures in knowing him is that he is not a pretentious, black-clothed designer.”
Conran found Heatherwick’s interpretation of the assignment equally refreshing. “It is not elitist design,” he said. “These are the sort of things that ordinary everyday people who don’t go to the Milan Furniture Exhibition can appreciate, because it’s their lives. And I think these objects reflect his character very much indeed -- this sort of very lateral thinking that he has, and also his sense of charm and humor.”
Heatherwick collected half the items himself, and the other half came through word of mouth. “I had to be quite strong about what I didn’t want to have in there,” he says, “because there is also a whole realm of silly ideas. Some might argue that many of my choices are dumb, but I’ve had to kind of strike my line through that so there is a strong sense of things we shouldn’t have -- which many people didn’t understand. They’d say ‘What do you mean you won’t have the potato clock in, when you’ve got that?’ ”
He has displayed the items in the order that he acquired them. “I didn’t want to create themes or imply any relationships between the objects,” he says, adding that he wants people to appreciate each item for what it is -- the result of an intricate series of choices. “My life every day is making design decisions and weighing up all these issues -- and the objects all represent to me interesting moments where somebody made a decision. We can all sneer now, but for that person at the time that was meaningful.”
If one could only peer into the heart of the person who brought us a glass bottle shaped like a stiletto. “The stiletto bottle is in there,” he says, “because even if you didn’t know what a stiletto is, it’s a really extraordinary shape of a bottle; it’s just really interesting for me to know that glassmakers can industrially produce a shape like that. So that’s kind of what something like that means to me.”
But he admits that he stood dumbfounded in front of many a man-made creation, asking himself such existential questions as “ ‘Who thought of that? Why is that a good idea? How would they justify that? What does it mean? Or what does it mean that I find it curiously interesting?’ ” The show raises such probing questions as well for the viewer, and unfortunately it provides few answers -- Heatherwick says he ran out of money and time to produce a catalog or detailed information to demystify the objects.
“I would have liked to have done the story of each of the objects,” Heatherwick says, adding that there is interest from a publisher, and he hopes a book might be produced that could accompany the show if it travels (there has been interest from museums in Japan, Dublin and Berlin).
“I’d love to take it to the States,” Heatherwick says. “That would be brilliant.”
Eventually, the objects will be stored with the contents of previous collections, in an old aerospace hangar outside of London. “Quite often, museum curators don’t collect very interesting things,” Conran says. “They collect the things that their colleagues and the public expect them to collect.”