'Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary' at the V&A, 2012. Copyright V&A Images. The V&A has just opened a mid-career retrospective
of the work of Thomas Heatherwick, whose studio has emerged over the last two decades as one of the country’s most innovative design practices. Their projects sit confidently at the intersection of different disciplines, such as architecture and craft or product design and art (the 42-year-old is represented by the blue-chip Mayfair gallery Haunch of Venison along with famous fine artists such as Richard Long RA and Ed & Nancy Kienholz).
Complex engineering processes are the foundation of many of the studio's larger-scale projects, from an octagonal structure that unfurls gently to become a pedestrian bridge to cross London's Grand Union Canal to public sculptures like B of the Bang (2005), an explosion-stood-still of suspended steel spikes in Manchester. Although the latter project ended in some acrimony (an out of court settlement in favour of the council after spikes started to fall off), local authorities and companies have continued to commission Heatherwick Studio to think outside of box on a range of important schemes, from a power station on Teeside to London's new Routemaster-style bus (a full-scale mock up of the rear of the bus is included in the show).
Functionalism can come secondary to the ingenuity, wit or originality of Heatherwick Studio's concepts. The work that opens the show - an automatic exhibition guide dispenser - is an example. Multiple rolls of print are stacked up in an attractive, sculpture-like machine, awaiting the visitor to roll out their own section with a hand-crank. The machine gives a thrill, but one is left with a long roll of paper that is very hard to handle and, especially in the tight confines of the gallery (there are too many objects, maquettes, illustrations and videos packed into a relatively small exhibition space), is hardly a product fit for purpose.
Rolling Bridge, Paddington Basin London, 2004. © Steve Speller
The most impressive of the studio's ideas manage to bridge the gap between wow-factor form and effortless function. One exhibition highlight, although less spectacular than some, is a kiosk that the studio designed to sell magazines and newspapers (Paperhouse, 2009). The pod's brass-clad exterior is shaped to correspond directly with the interior recesses in which the periodicals are placed, so no ancillary stands are necessary, and the front sections of the structure elegantly rotate around the main body to allow it to open for business each day.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine