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21st Century Renaissance Man

Thomas Heatherwick’s inquisitive mind has placed him as one of Britain’s leading creators of three-dimensional objects, incorporating architecture, sculpture and design into his practice.

21st Century Renaissance Man


April 2nd, 2008

Giovanna Dunmall spoke to him about his latest work, including the East Beach Café in Littlehampton, in the south of England.

It has taken a while to get through but here I am, finally speaking to Thomas Heatherwick on the phone. I am impressed by his perfect pronunciation of my first name and boyish well-spoken enthusiasm on this dank, dull Friday evening. Underneath the affability and openness there is also a more circumspect side to him – he is evidently keen to guard the intricacies of his latest creations (such as “the top-secret watches” he is currently developing in his studio that work totally differently from conventional watches) and the privacy of his clients.

And who can blame him. In the last few years his star has been very much on the ascendant and he is now regarded to be one of Britain’s most free-thinking and brilliant creative minds. As a result many people want a piece of him. And though he is mostly billed as a designer, he is also plainly an architect, artist and sculptor, in other words a bit of a Renaissance man. Accordingly, he tells me how dismayed he was when he found out as a boy that “there weren’t people called inventors anymore” and later that “engineers are there to serve other people” rather than being “creative artists in their own right”.

His upbringing in North London with an “idealistic” father and “artistic” mother (his parents later split up) sounds chaotic and more than a touch bohemian. He lived in “a large, run-down Victorian house with rickety floorboards, scrunched up carpets and beads caught between the floorboards”. The latter were testament to the bead shop his mother ran on the Portobello Road. There were always pliers and enamel powders lying around so this was a place where he could “experiment” and “try different things out”. The wide-eyed and deeply inquisitive young Thomas kept a sketchbook of his latest inventions and was often to be found taking things apart and putting them back together again. He was also influenced by his grandfather, a man fascinated by the “burst of industry and progress” and creativity that resulted from the industrial revolution.

The most recent project to confirm Heatherwick’s place on the international design/architecture firmament, and remarkably also his first complete building, is his East Beach Café (pictured) that opened in the south-eastern coastal town of Littlehampton in July 2007. His no-nonsense brief was to design something that kids could drag sand into and that would “get a good mauling in the summer and take a bashing in winter”. It was also supposed to look great and be cheap. Others might have baulked, but Heatherwick came up with a beguiling structure that could be a vast and unusually shaped rock or a mound of seaweed washed-up on to the shore; its varnished exterior giving it a rusty finish that exemplifies the idea of the organic coming together with the manmade. The simple rounded wooden furniture inside, the dominant seaside view and the nostalgic British seaside menu add the finishing touches to what was almost instantly hailed by public and professionals alike as a functional piece of art.

This is the type of project that lies closest to Heatherwick’s heart and imagination. Littlehampton is a small, provincial town and, unlike the big, trendy metropolises, has suffered from too little care, attention and investment in the last 50 or 60 years, he explains. “People love being by the sea” he says, “so this is just something that gives people that extra push…a catalyst to get people to go down to place they probably wanted to go to anyway.” Business is booming at the café, tourism is up in the town as a local and locals are constantly thanking him for what he has done for the place. “What are you talking about?” is his usual response, “it’s you that given me the brilliant opportunity”.

Read the whole article in indesign Magazine, Vol.32, in stores now.

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