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Olympic Cauldron Designer Heatherwick Looks to Future

November 18, 2012

Thomas Heatherwick

Thomas Heatherwick, designer of the 2012 London Olympic Cauldron, has also created a new hybrid version of the red London double-decker bus. Photographer: Farah Nayeri/Bloomberg

A stylish new fleet of red double- decker buses is fanning out onto London’s streets. You can hop on and off them, as in the old days.

The hybrid vehicles (which use 40 percent less fossil fuel) were commissioned by Mayor of London Boris Johnson. They’re by Thomas Heatherwick, designer of the 204-piece Olympic cauldron, which a billion television viewers discovered in the London 2012 opening ceremony.

The wunderkind of British design first came to world attention with the British Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. A generation younger than his better-known peers Zaha Hadid and Ron Arad, the designer-inventor-engineer-architect brings a childlike, rule-bending enthusiasm to his trade. I ask him why design is important.

“The word ’design’ has become associated with what color curtain something is,” replies the curly-haired Heatherwick.

“Everywhere we are, everything we wear -- even the bits of the world that we think aren’t designed, like plants and trees - - are based on ideas which little people like us have had, and that have accumulated into the environments we’re in,” he says. “So it’s all design.”

We meet in the skylit foyer of his cosy London studio, where teams sit at unpartitioned desks. Heatherwick sinks cheerfully into a spindle-shaped armchair of his own design.

Heatherwick was born into a creative family. His German- Jewish grandmother fled Dresden during the Nazi era, and went on to run the textile design studio of Marks & Spencer Group Plc (MKS), now the U.K.’s largest clothing retailer. His mother is, he says, an authority on beads and bead threading.

Enameling Workshop

Young Thomas grew up in a north London home watching things get made. To get to his mom’s bedroom, he’d tiptoe past the kilns, powders and pliers in her enameling workshop.

“There didn’t seem to be any lines between things,” he says. “As I grew up, I discovered there are lines between everything. So I resisted that somehow.”

As a boy, he loved taking cameras and typewriters apart, and figuring out ways in which objects -- even a toboggan -- could be better put together.

He designed his first building when he was 21 years old. That trapezoidal timber-and-polycarbonate pavilion remains his most important project ever, he says.

After a masters degree from the Royal College of Art, he set up his own practice in 1994. His first break came three years later, designing the shop windows of the Harvey Nichols department store in London. Heatherwick wove a massive piece of carved, veneered wood in and out of the 12 tall vitrines.

Shanghai Pavilion

For the Shanghai Expo, the U.K. government demanded that its pavilion rank in the top five. It won first prize -- with a budget that was half that of other rich Western nations.

Heatherwick ruled out producing another “cheesy advert for Britain” complete with “historic castles and Sherlock Holmes and bowler hats.” He played up the U.K.’s contemporary profile as a hub of creativity.

His pavilion was a horticultural homage to Britain: home of the world’s very first public park (the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew), its capital city endowed with more green spaces than any city of its size. Heatherwick designed a “Seed Cathedral” made of 60,000 transparent acrylic rods. Each contained seeds you could see from inside the pavilion.

The London 2012 Olympics cauldron commission came with one proviso: “Whatever you do, no moving parts.” Heatherwick boldly shunned the requirement.

Moving Parts

“When we proposed the most moving parts ever in an Olympic cauldron, we were nervous and feeling a bit guilty about that,” he says. “But the same man who’d said that to us was the first person to say yes.”

In his spare time, Heatherwick enjoys cycling -- a fast and fascinating way to experience London -- and being with his twins, a boy and girl who turn six at Christmas.

Coming up next are a university in Singapore and a distillery in Hampshire, plus a slew of projects under negotiation that he can’t talk about.

In the meantime, Heatherwick is getting plenty of post- Olympic calls from around the world.

“There aren’t more cauldrons to design,” he sighs. “And people tend to ask you to do what you’ve done before.”

Heatherwick Studio’s illustrated book of projects is titled “Thomas Heatherwick: Making” (Thames & Hudson, 600 pages, 38 pounds; Monacelli Press, 600 pages, $75). To buy the book in North America, click here.


To contact the writer on this story: Farah Nayeri in London at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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