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On the occasion of winning Harrison’s 2015 BritWeek Design Icon Award, Thomas Heatherwick spoke with the furniture designer about his work and visions for his firm’s future. We’ve selected a few highlights from Heatherwick’s interview below:
Harrison: Your staggering body of work has spanned the globe – is there a there a piece of work which you are most proud of, and is there one which is on the horizon which you are excited about?
Heatherwick: Every single project is exciting. I was always wary of friends I have known who had set up organizations or companies and then done some things which were supposed to be special things and then ‘bread and butter’ projects. I was always wary of that because it seemed a slippery slope. I was aware of how limited the resources of your brain and team are, and it seems to waste that on anything that you didn’t put everything into is crazy; because you diminish the energy for what you do really care about. So every one of the projects has got something that we are really excited about or motivated to work on, whether it is small scale or largest scale.
I wouldn’t say I am most excited about the latest thing. It is a case of I am, have been and continue to be really motivated by trying to make a difference with what we do. And so the projects where you feel you are most able to make a difference, you can’t help but hold particularly dear. […] Everything we are working on has something that drives us.
What is your mindset or outlook when you set out to work on an architectural design?
I feel the starting point is always to step right back and think about what matters, do a lot of research and try to have as few preconceptions as possible that you are starting from. When I was little I wanted to be an inventor. That is what I hold true now, my feeling is “What is the idea?” However the word Inventor unfortunately is so connected with the words ‘mad inventor’, and with clichés of eccentric whiz bang and Willy Wonkery world.
Actually the things we are really interested in – the entrepreneurial ideas, art ideas, science ideas, literary ideas – someone is coming with an idea that has freshness to it and that is what we all fascinated by. The future is made up of ideas. In a project you are trying to clear your mind as much as possible to really hunt down what is the really appropriate idea or collection of ideas that will sustain a project and act as a philosophy to drive every detail of a building and tell you what you need to do. So it is discussion.
My role is to convene us and the project leader and group of studio team. Each project has a team which goes through rounds of reviews together and then analysis. I feel rather than a sense of conjuring something up out of thin air, more than that we are searching and narrowing down, and eliminating from enquires, until you refine it down. And then, through testing and evaluation, you come down to what you believe to be the solution. And that takes the pressure off this notion of inspiration, that is so over spoken about, as if it is a magical elixir.
I think to some extent I feel people wold be very disappointed if they come and see how thorough and methodical the process is out of which things which might appear instantaneously exciting are so thoroughly cooked to that point until they turned into something real.
The last decade has been astonishing for the Thomas Heatherwick Studio. What do you envisage for the next decade?
I set up the studio twenty-one years ago. Building projects, parts of cities, major buildings – they take many, many years to actually happen. The studio has been going for twenty-one years, but I actually feel that we have only got going. We have just finished our first university building. In the last few years we have just concluded our first actual bigger projects. And now we are the getting the chances to really take the experience we have had over the last two decades and had the chance to finally really build and apply lines of thoughts and things we have been curious about and opportunities we can see that haven’t been done yet, and ways we can make better places.
I have made mistakes, I have done things where I have done that healthy thing of going ‘Oh gosh we learned a lesson there.’ It is having both the confidence and experience that comes from having tried and done certain things over a period of time and being much better placed to take forward certain ideas to the next level.
In your mind who are the icons in your life, who have inspired you to get to this place in your career?
There are so many influencers that you cannot help but admire and wish you had one nano fraction of their drive and abilities. I was very influenced by some of the great engineers, who saw no barrier between designing ships, railways stations, or finding the best railway line between London and Bristol for the first time, tunneling under the Thames or constructing steel ships. Some inspirations are people like Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Joseph Paxton. Paxton especially, to build the Crystal Palace in nine months; it was the first modern building and on such a scale. Still on any building project I have been involved with you still stop and think: “Nine months from beginning to end.” That was so unprecedented and is still now.
You admire not just the ideas, but the ability to make ideas happen. The people I admire most are people who not only have ideas, but use ingenuity to make project happen as well.
If you could create your dream project what would it be, where and what?
There are so many projects. But for example the end of my grandmother’s life was spent in a nursing home, and it was shocking how poor the quality of the environment of the nursing homes in Britain were. The shock was not so much for my grandmother – this was one of the better ones – but if you are growing up studying nursing you might think of working with newborn babies, accidents and one of the last things on the list would be people aspiring to go for a career in nursing rotting human flesh naturally at the end of an amazing life. It seemed that environment should be to designed to show how much we value the staff and to make it feel a choice, and not the default if you cannot get into the other forms of nursing. We will be all old and I think society should be valuing the people who look after us, making an environment in turn where they will be more likely to look after us better.
It is a design project – there are so many nursing homes in Britain and they are the most awful design. And that goes through everything from the spaces to the furniture and fittings. In care hospitals, you cannot get close to a loved one without bumping your knees on metal and getting a bruise. So there is both the bigger scale with the infract race across the country but there is also architectural as well as the whole mood, feel and design and detail. That is not conventionally regarded as a sexy area of design, but that is why to me it is very motivating. Old people don’t actually just want to be with old people, they love to be with younger people. Why aren’t things designed to facilitate that subtle social interaction of actually breathing life into someone despite their aging.
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