Monday, July 09, 2012

Book Review: Thomas Heatherwick

Thomas Heatherwick: Making by Thomas Heatherwick with Maisie Rowe
Monacelli Press, 2012
Hardcover, 600 pages

If the size of a monograph is an expression of a designer's ego, Thomas Heatherwick has plenty to share. Clocking in at 600 pages and over two inches thick, this first retrospective publication on the British designer collects what must be everything Heatherwick has ever produced (and not had realized) since his school days in the early 1990s. The monograph coincides with the first solo exhibition on Heatherwick Studio, what the V&A calls "one of the most inventive and experimental British design studios practicing today." While one could debate if the beefy monograph and solo show are warranted, what is most rewarding about the book is its insight into the namesake designer's thinking. Process is key, and it comes across both in the illustrations and the conversational descriptions that accompany the designs.

Unlike many monographs, Making does not include essays from outside practitioners, academics, or authors praising the designs and author. A short essay by Heatherwick, "From I to We," starts the book, laying out the collaborative studio environment that has fostered designs like the UK Pavilion for the Shanghai Expo that graces the cover. The projects start less than 20 pages into the book, not breaking until page 590, making for a book packed with projects. More than individual designs, what stands out are the continuity between some of the projects and the yearly Xmas cards. The former is particularly evident in two projects -- Belsay Sitooterie, Barnards Farm Sitooterie -- that are obvious precedents for the UK Pavilion. They exhibit a working out of ideas at different scales, culminating in the studio's most distinctive work, one that has guaranteed international exposure for Heatherwick.

The UK Pavilion clearly brings Heatherwick into the realm of architecture (not his first architectural project, mind you, and certainly not his last, as his commissions grow in scale), but his projects range from the large down to the small, such as the Xmas cards. These clever creations were a great surprise, particularly for the way each one exploited the potential of materials -- envelopes, postcards, stamps -- that are now eschewed in favor of electronic greeting cards and social media notes. As much as the commissioned designs, the Xmas cards give insight into process, revealing the diversity of creations for what is basically the same design problem year after year. The cards also convey how design extends into every aspect of Heatherwick's and his studio's lives; design is not just a job that is done after clocking out at 5pm. This is hardly news to designers, but it's refreshing to be reminded of it in books like this one.

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