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Exhibit explores range, imagination of Heatherwick Studio's design

06/30/2015 07:54 EDT | Updated 06/30/2016 05:59 EDT
NEW YORK, N.Y. - The imaginative and wide-ranging work of Britain's Heatherwick Studio may still be little-known in America, but a travelling exhibition aims to change that.

"Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio" is now at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York through Jan. 3. The major mid-career survey was organized by the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, and has also already been on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

It explores designer Thomas Heatherwick's joyful takes on everything from furniture to architecture, holiday cards to arty air vents. His range of interests led his mentor, designer Terence Conran, to call him "the Leonardo da Vinci of our times."

Heatherwick is more prominent in London, where his projects have included the mechanical cauldron used in the 2012 Olympics; it consisted of dozens of small petal-shaped torches — one for each nation — that dramatically rose and joined together forming a single flame.

In the United States, his only major completed work is the interior remodel of the Longchamp store in Manhattan, which features an unusual, ribbon-like staircase and a clear, slumped, glass handrail.

But more is on the way. Heatherwick is behind the dramatic design for Pier55 in Manhattan, featuring an undulating park landscape, outdoor theatre and performance spaces, all built on enormous concrete piles. It's slated for completion in 2018. And the studio is designing a new Google campus, in collaboration with BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), in Mountain View, California.

"He's poised to break through in North America," said Brooke Hodge, deputy director of the Cooper Hewitt, who curated the show here.

The exhibit looks at 43 projects through prototypes, presentation and sketch models, full-scale mock-ups, objects, photos and video footage.

Born in 1970, Heatherwick studied design before establishing his own studio in 1994. He was inspired by the traditional concept of a master builder, who combined the roles and skills of builder, craftsman, engineer and designer.

His studio consists of over 160 people with "backgrounds in engineering, architecture, product design, landscape architecture, project management, sculpture, photography, theatre design, craft and making," Heatherwick wrote in the recently revised and reissued edition of his mammoth book, "Making" (written with Maisie Rowe and published by Monacelli Press).

Each project is approached as the search for an answer to a single guiding question. For the Olympics cauldron: How can every country in the Olympic Games take part in making and lighting the cauldron?

"They tackle everything from furniture and handbags to really major architecture projects with this unique approach to problem solving," Hodge explained. "There is no one signature style, and every solution is unique."

The studio combines novel engineering with new materials and technology. Its approach first gained international recognition with the 2004 hydraulic "Rolling Bridge" near London's Paddington Station. Designed to be as beautiful when raised as it is when spanning a small channel, the bridge rolls into a geometric snail-like form when not in use. A large working model of it is on view in the show.

Heatherwick's striking new design of the classic London double-decker bus recently took to the streets of the British capital. The show features a pair of seats (with Heatherwick-designed fabric) and a full-scale mock-up of the new bus' rear section (the studio's answer to "Can a London bus be better and use 40 per cent less fuel?").

A number of Heatherwick's furniture designs are also on display. "Plank Furniture," on sale in the museum shop, resembles a plank of wood, albeit a posh one. It can be folded in several ways to become a bench or table, or remain inconspicuously plank-like.

Also in the exhibit is the rotation-moulded 2011 "Spun" chair. Recently acquired for the museum's permanent collection, it resembles an enormous toy top, and has been designed for both sitting still and spinning.

Heatherwick buildings are no less imaginative. The Bombay Sapphire Distillery in Laverstoke, England, features two enormous greenhouses that appear to be poured from two high windows of a former paper mill.

His ideas do not come easily, Heatherwick explains, but "are an intense mixture of certainty and doubt, breakthroughs and dead ends, tension and hilarity, frustration and progress."

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This story has been corrected to show that the Hammer Museum already showed the exhibit.

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