Inside Heatherwick Studio

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Who is Thomas Heatherwick?

British designer and inventor Thomas Heatherwick set up Heatherwick Studio in 1994, establishing a unique design practice with a spirit of discovery and invention at its heart, and placing the Studio at the forefront of a wave of New British Inventors.

You will undoubtedly recognise some of the Studio’s most iconic creations; the 160-strong team’s portfolio includes the London 2012 Olympic Cauldron, the UK Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and a reimagining of London’s famous red double-decker bus.

The Inside Heatherwick Studio exhibition is curated by Kate Goodwin, Head of Architecture and Drue Heinz Curator, Royal Academy of Arts, London. It is now touring Asia, supported by the British Council and the GREAT Britain campaign.

Current and upcoming exhibitions


Thomas Heatherwick with Plank, which folds into a side table or seat © Heatherwick Studio; photo: Steve Speller.

Thomas Heatherwick with Plank, which folds into a side table or seat © Heatherwick Studio; photo: Steve Speller.

Beginnings: the young inventor

Thomas Heatherwick wanted to study invention at a young age. Growing up in London he relished being taken to exhibitions, and these visits inspired an early determination to pursue a career in design and invention.

Thomas later studied three-dimensional design in Manchester and at the Royal College of Art in London. During his studies he was encouraged to experiment with materials and test them creatively. Even as a student, Thomas pursued projects of an ambitious scale. In his final year in Manchester, he designed a small pavilion, secured sponsorship and a site and enlisted the help of students and tutors to build it.

“Even from a young age, Thomas refused to be constrained by convention… He goes beyond existing limits to create something surprising and extraordinary.”

Kate Goodwin, exhibition curator

When he founded Heatherwick Studio at the young age of 24, Thomas further developed this ethos of experimentation, placing the workshop and the act of making at the heart of every design project.

You can find out about UK design education on the British Council’s Education UK website.


Thinking: ideas that challenge convention

Discovery and invention are central to how Heatherwick Studio operates. Throughout the design process, the designers repeatedly analyse and interrogate in their quest for the single, original and compelling idea that forms the essence of each project. This free approach to design allows them to challenge conventions and reinvent anything from a piece of furniture to a building.

“Ideas don't have a scale. Ideas are ideas… Most of our work in the studio is solving problems.”

Thomas Heatherwick

New Bus for London, 2012

If you visit London, you're likely to hop on board the new Heatherwick Studio-designed London bus to get around town.

The bus needed to take more passengers, so the designers rounded the corners to reduce the impact of its size, creating a distinctive and elegant shape. The windows wrap around the bus, following the movement of people going up and down the stairs.

Heatherwick Studio thought carefully about the interior too, designing new seats and – a subtle touch – softened lighting.

Image: © Heatherwick Studio; photo credit: Iwan Baan.

Spun Chair, 2010

How can the craft of metal spinning be used to create a chair? Heatherwick Studio's Spun Chair is a chair like no other. Borrowing the idea of an industrial spinning process commonly used to produce drums and lamps, the studio re-thought the idea of a chair, producing several mock-ups to refine the design. The result is playful but functional, and challenges the very notion of what a chair is.

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Image: © Heatherwick Studio; photo credit: Susan Smart.


Tools at Heatherwick Studio; photo credit (video still): Tapio Snellman.

Tools at Heatherwick Studio; photo credit (video still): Tapio Snellman.

Making: three-dimensional thinking

At Heatherwick Studio, experimentation is integral to the act of making. The designers use the workshop to generate ideas and try things out, testing the boundaries of working with different materials. This spirit of experimentation is carried right through to the building stage, with the studio often producing full-scale mock-ups to constantly refine the design during its production.

“He works with materials to understand what they will actually do. The making process is a way of discovering ideas.”

Kate Goodwin, exhibition curator

Learning Hub, Nanyang Technology University, Singapore, 2015

Heatherwick Studio was commissioned to design a new learning space for Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. The brief was to create a totally new type of building, fit for the digital age, when students can choose to work anywhere.

The building is formed of 12 eight-storey towers accommodating 56 circular tutorial rooms, bringing students and teachers together to learn, while balconies and breakout spaces aid interaction between students.

The concrete exterior is built from 1,050 unique panels. While other design companies might outsource the building work for a project like this, Heatherwick Studio managed the process throughout, creating an adaptable mould that was subtly altered to make each unique panel.

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Olympic Cauldron © Heatherwick Studio.

Olympic Cauldron © Heatherwick Studio.

Storytelling: creating extraordinary experiences

Stories play a vital role in Heatherwick Studio’s projects. Whether it's transforming a city's skyline with an extraordinary building or making a ride on a London bus a memorable experience, the designers strive always to evoke a sense of wonder in all those who encounter their creations.

Olympic Cauldron, London UK, 2012

One of Heatherwick’s most memorable and famous creations, the London 2012 Olympic Cauldron remains a lasting symbol of the Olympic spirit in the minds of the millions of spectators who watched the opening ceremony all over the world.

Composed of 204 copper petals representing each of the participating countries, the cauldron became part of the ceremony as a team member from each nation carried an individual petal into the stadium, building the torch piece by piece. The petals gently rose and closed together, standing for two weeks in the centre of the stadium with the Olympic flame burning within.

Images: model of the Olympic Cauldron on display at Inside Heatherwick Studio exhibition; photo credit: Fabian Ong; Olympic Cauldron © Heatherwick Studio (below).

He goes beyond existing limits to create something surprising and extraordinary.

Kate Goodwin, exhibition curator

UK Pavilion, Shanghai World Expo, China, 2010

Heatherwick Studio’s design for the UK Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 was unlike anything that had been seen before, and created a breathtaking experience for those lucky enough to see it.

Nicknamed ‘Dandelion’ by the awe-struck Chinese visitors, the pavilion’s bewitching, cube-like exterior revealed its secret only when curious passers-by went inside to explore. They were greeted by a ‘seed cathedral’ with an interior defined by the ends of the acrylic rods holding 250,000 seeds.

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Image: schoolgirls study a model of the UK Pavilion at the Inside Heatherwick Studio exhibition; photo credit: Fabian Ong.

All videos created by Proudfoot © British Council.

Current and upcoming exhibitions

D-Museum, Seoul
16 June – 23 October 2016

Past exhibitions

National Design Centre, Singapore, Beijing
11 March – 10 April 2015

CAFA Art Museum, Beijing
4 – 21 June 2015
Click here to view the Chinese version of this site.

Power Station of Art, Shanghai
9 July – 8 August 2015
Click here to view the Chinese version of this site.

Find out more

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