Thomas makes an exhibition of himself

He's an unclassifiable designer whose range and sculptural approach delivers extraordinary results. The transforming genius of Thomas Heatherwick
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The Independent Online

The day before the recent opening of the Venice Bienalle, I met a well-known mover and shaker in the arts and mentioned a British designer to her, a quietly intense young man whose work I'd followed closely ever since seeing the stunningly sensual plywood gazebo he'd produced for his Royal College of Art degree show six years ago. I suggested that it was interesting that his public profile did not seem to match his talent; and that it was odd that his status as a genuine innovator remained opaque.

The day before the recent opening of the Venice Bienalle, I met a well-known mover and shaker in the arts and mentioned a British designer to her, a quietly intense young man whose work I'd followed closely ever since seeing the stunningly sensual plywood gazebo he'd produced for his Royal College of Art degree show six years ago. I suggested that it was interesting that his public profile did not seem to match his talent; and that it was odd that his status as a genuine innovator remained opaque.

The woman gave me an appalled look. "Oh, but everybody knows Thomas Heatherwick," she murmured airily.

"But what exactly do you mean by everybody?"

"Oh, just everybody."

A few weeks ago, walking in a malodorous downpour to his new studio a few hundred yards north of Kings Cross, it was hard not to recall that small but telling exchange. It illustrates the peculiar position that many of Britain's leading designers find themselves in: they are simply not known by many people, regardless of the extents of their talents.

Mr or Ms Everyperson may well know something of Rogers' Lloyds building or Foster's "Erotic Gherkin". But what about that remarkable pretzel-like sculpture that wove in an out of the ground floor windows of Harvey Nichols department store 18 months ago? Or the huge, gloopily striated "tactile sandwich" that hangs in the Science Museum, illustrating hundreds of organic and inorganic materials? Or the hairy sitooterie, a bizarre gazebo that sits on the lawn at Belsay Hall in Northumberland?

They're all Thomas Heatherwick creations, highly visible things produced by a person who is still essentially invisible. It's not that visibility is important in itself. But what phenomena like Heatherwick could do, if they were more "public", is to encourage the next wave of genuine innovation in young designers.

Designers like Heatherwick - he's 32 and after several years of graft is running a profitable studio with about a dozen staff - highlight another important issue which should be foremost in the minds of younger designers: that expression in design, the strange interzone where form and function must somehow be fused together, is an organic process; it can take time. The desire to come up with a single, hugely profitable product early on is the last thing that should be aimed for. Powerfully engaging design is invariably part of an arc of expression over time.

In Heatherwick's case that arc is tied to the physical making of things. He likes to get his hands on materials; finger them, cut them, mould them. Those who work with him on projects are taken on as much for their hand-crafting skills as for raw creativity. The general method at work in the Kings Cross studio may be described as morphy: designs are developed partly in response to what materials can be made to do, and original forms often morph into something else entirely.

If Heatherwick's designs have a hallmark it is in this transformational aspect - one thing becoming another in sculptural forms. He has, for example, proposed hairy buildings, structures that carry an outline-breaking haze of spikes. The idea broaches an interesting question: is it possible to create a building where surface and structure are somehow rendered ambiguous?

The Belsay Hall sitooterie poses just such a conundrum. Its central structure is a plywood box. Yet the box is pierced with hundreds of elm "wands" which not only blur the central box, but actually hold it above the ground. Are the wands "surface" or "structure"? They are, of course, both.

Such considerations may seem a shade arcane. But they can't be ignored because they're the markers of true talent - the kind that wants to transcend purely natural gifts, the kind that is drawn to deeper questions of form, use and perception.

Such is the stuff of Heatherwick's burgeoning oeuvre and in a matter of weeks Joe Public will experience this combination of powerful form and deep subtlety, and in spades. The designer, at long last, is going fully public and two projects are involved. The first will be an extraordinary field of dreams created by Thomas Heatherwick Studio for a trade and brand marks exhibition at London's V&A museum.

Heatherwick has a tall order on his hands: the event succeeds the hugely successful Art Nouveau show. To follow the Lalique posse will certainly take some doing. But it's already clear that Heatherwick's design scheme contains at least one potential showstopper: visitors moving into the first of several spaces will find themselves in what can only be described as a crop of photographs, thousands of them, fixed to the tops of thin, bendy metal rods waving in an artificial breeze.

Heatherwick commissioned photographer Bettina von Klammeke to find random images of brand marks old and new, all over the world, to demonstrate the subliminal "background noise" aspect of their effects on people's minds and emotions. The V&A had originally set out guidelines for a bolder, more obvious approach. But Heatherwick wanted to develop spaces that layered the ideas and reactions generated by the subject matter. The vision was quickly approved by the exhibition's curator.

The second project which will put Heatherwick on the map - and quite literally - is his creation of a new city square in Newcastle. Due for completion before Christmas, the space he has produced is being carpeted with deep blue tiles.

The tiles are rucked up around trees; they are cut and lifted to form apparently unsupported seating over underlit, glass-covered glimpses into subterranean archaeological remains. There will be nothing like it anywhere in Britain and it may well become the city's first postmodern iconic image, balancing the city's essential trademark, the Tyne Bridge.

By Christmas, Thomas Heatherwick will be known to a wider public; not by everybody, of course, but by more than enough to give design another face and name to join the thin ranks of the visibly talented.

Brand.New will take place at London's V&A Museum between 19 October and 14 January

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