On Nov. 8, one of Britain's most innovative design talents, Thomas Heatherwick, scooped up the coveted Prince Philip Designers Prize, the industry's equivalent of the Oscars. At just 36, the three-dimensional designer is already being hailed as the "new Leonardo."
"He combines the designer's natural problem-solving instinct with art, architecture, engineering and the craftsman's fascination with materials to create daring and inspiring concepts," says David Kester, CEO of the Design Council, which runs the annual event and whose mission is to promote the role of design in making business more competitive.
Heatherwick's creations are eye-catching, unique, and often audacious. They range from Britain's largest sculpture, an explosion of steel spikes in Manchester known as the "B of the Bang", to the almost magical, backward-somersaulting Rolling Bridge in London's Paddington Basin. Well established at home, Heatherwick is fast becoming a rising star abroad, too.
His international projects include a Japanese temple that appears to be made of folded fabric, and the "floating" staircase at the center of French luxury leather goods company Longchamp's flagship store in New York's SoHo. Next up is a redesign of Hong Kong's famous Pacific Place shopping mall. His brief: Give the 1 million square-foot, 20-year-old space a lasting redesign. "It is so enormous, it is like thinking about a whole town," he says.
Still, despite his impressive list of accomplishments, both Heatherwick and the design community were caught off guard by his victory. After all, the six other nominees for this year's prize included much more well-established and better known names, such as architect Richard Rogers, winner of this year's Stirling Prize for Architecture; Lucienne Day, the most famous British textile designer of the 20th century; design consultancy guru Rodney Fitch; and Stephen Payne, the man who designed the Queen Mary, the luxury cruise liner.
"It's supposed to be a lifetime achievement award and he's had a fairly short lifetime," jokes James Woudhuysen, a professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University in Leicester. The point is not lost on Heatherwick. "I really didn't expect this," he says. "The others have contributed an enormous amount during their lifetimes and I am really only just getting going."
That's not exactly true. Nicknamed "how why" as a kid for his fascination with figuring out how things worked, Heatherwick was cranking out impressive designs even as a student. While studying three-dimensional design at Manchester Metropolitan University, he became the first student in his class to build something. "I was amazed that thousands and thousands of students get through architecture school never having built anything," he says.
Determined not to be one of them, Heatherwick raised nearly $50,000 in sponsorship money and built a small pavilion, which today stands at Goodwood Sculpture Park in Sussex. His first real break, however, came while a student at the Royal College of Art, when British design guru Sir Terence Conran commissioned him to build a gazebo for his back garden.
Shortly afterward, in 1994, he set up his own studio with two colleagues. Today he has a team of 35 from various backgrounds ranging from architecture to structural engineering to landscape design. "For me, it is about the quality of the person rather then their technical profession. So we have a theater designer working for us, although we've never designed a theater," he says. "She is working on a building project and is investigating whether or not there is a way to make a bicycle hold up a building."
The Unusual Muse
Heatherwick's unique way of looking at things is a hallmark of his work. One of his latest projects is building an affordable wooden meeting house for a university in Britain. His idea? To make a round building by turning it in the way a pottery kiln turns and having seating and shelves "carved in."
For Heatherwick, every project starts with function. But he's constantly experimenting with new materials from metals to cloth to stone, and unusual forms and scale. Often, he says, it's while working with smaller items that he gets ideas for large-scale projects—and vice versa.
He got the idea for the design of a ventilation structure for an underground electricity substation near London's St. Paul's Cathedral from folding a piece of A4 (standard size) paper. "The form, when scaled up to the height of a three-story building, retains the proportions of the A4 sheet," he says. It's that kind of out-of-the-box innovation that ensures Heatherwick will soon become a household name.