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The Ingenious Thomas Heatherwick

I was about to go to bed last night when I flicked over to BBC1 and saw Alan Yentob describing the construction of a bridge made entirely of glass. As Alan said, it was like something out of a fairytale, so I settled down for a bedtime story.


Heatherwick’s Rolling Bridge (Not the glass bridge) (GNU licence)

The programme was The Ingenious [tag]Thomas Heatherwick[/tag], about the English designer and sculptor. The title sounds like a Roald Dahl novel, and the contents were just as fantastic. ‘Ingenious’ is a very apt word to describe Heatherwick’s work – suggestive of something at once mechanical and artistic, with the words ‘genius’ and ‘engineering’ struggling to get out. One of his inventions – ‘Heatherwick’s Rolling Bridge’ sounds as though it should be on display next to ‘Hargreaves’ Spinning Jenny’ in some Museum of Industrial Marvels. Even Heatherwick’s name sounds like a compound of ‘Heathcliff’ and ‘Pickwick’ – another whiff of the nineteenth century, age of invention and endeavour.

Terence Conran appeared on the programme, having had the foresight to commission the art-student Heatherwick to design and build a gazebo for his back garden. Conran compared Heatherwick to Leonardo Da Vinci, which I thought was a bit over-the-top when he said it, early in the programme – but by the end it seemed a pretty accurate comparison.

Both Heatherwick and Leonardo are prodigious creators in a variety of media, ranging from purely artistic pieces to machinery and structures at once practical and beautiful. They are both makers as well as designers: Conran emphasized that Heatherwick was remarkable not only for designing an unusual gazebo, but for having the capability to actually build it; Heatherwick’s partner was interviewed in the programme, describing him as “an imaginer” and “a maker happen”; and watching the footage he is clearly at home on the building site as well as in his studio. In an interview with Icon magazine, Heatherwick commented “As a practitioner, one feels like a vessel of trying to implement thoughts that are accumulations of influences of many people. I know people who have brilliant ideas but they just don’t make things happen, they don’t do that bit. I almost feel it’s my duty to help implement them.”

Watching the glimpses of Heatherwick’s Studio, I couldn’t help wondering what Leonardo would have made of it; as in the Renaissance, the Master works surrounded by his pupils and collaborators, with half-finished test-pieces scattered around to tantalise the imagination. The collaborative “accumulations of influences of many people” is very much in evidence. It was fascinating to see the degree to which he works through conversation, knocking ideas around with his mentor Ron Packman and other brilliant minds, playing with concepts and materials for fun, and finding unexpected uses for the ideas that emerge. As a coach I see conversation as a creative medium in its own right, and it was fascinating to eavesdrop on such a remarkable team.

The B of the Bang

[tag]Heatherwick[/tag]’s [tag]sculpture[/tag] ‘[tag]The B of the Bang[/tag]’ (photo by Nick Smale)

So what can we learn from Heatherwick’s creativity?
Clearly, a TV documentary (let alone a blog post) is far too small a space to do justice to such a multifarious imagination, but watching the programme I noticed a few recurring heuristics in Heatherwick’s creative process:

Work in any medium
I’ve written elsewhere about media-neutral creativity, which Heatherwick takes to astounding new levels. He doesn’t limit himself to the usual categories of ‘designer’, ‘sculptor’ or ‘architect’, but applies the same curiosity and formal inventiveness to a mind-boggling array of projects, including a handbag, a gigantic sculpture, a gazebo, a Buddhist temple, a skyscraper, a shop and an entire shopping centre.

Make it (much, much) bigger (or smaller)
On Heatherwick’s website I love the way the projects are ordered by size: large (buildings, giant sculpture); medium (more sculptures, ventilation flues, a bridge, a public square); and small: (a handbag, seats). Yentob’s documentary made it clear that scaling up or down between these categories is one of Heatherwick’s key creative strategies. So an origami spiral shell made of a sheet of A4 was scaled up to become giant ventilation flues near St Paul’s, his mother’s bead curtain inspired a 33-metre hanging sculpture, and a [tag]design[/tag] for a Longchamp handbag led to a commission to design their flagship store in New York.

Make it out of something else
Not many buildings are made of fabric. Ron Packman described how, when designing the Zen temple, the team had agreed on a basic functional structure for the building, but it didn’t really look or feel right. Then Heatherwick remembered the appearance of the robes worn by the Zen priest who commissioned the temple: they were stiff, forming definite ridges and a distinctive structure. So he wrapped the model of the temple in a flexible fabric and used its appearance as the basis of his design for the building’s shell.

Make it something else
When commissioned to design the flagship New York store for French boutique Longchamp, Heatherwick faced a problem – the shop was on the second storey, meaning many busy/tired shoppers might find it too much effort to climb the stairs. Realising nobody likes to climb a ‘staircase’, Heatherwick ‘deframed’ the construction (“we weren’t building a staircase”) then reframed it as something unusual and enticing (“a landscape… a hillside… a waterfall… a space where you move up towards the light”). The result is a rippling cascade of shapes that look nothing like a staircase. It looks like something out of a children’s playground or a giant sculpture (which it is) – so instead of resisting the ‘stairs’ the film showed people eager to try them out, as if they couldn’t believe they are allowed to walk on the structure. Personally, I have never wanted to walk up a staircase so much in my life. One day I will.

Make it for fun (and keep it in case it’s useful)
Packman described how one day Heatherwick showed him the origami spiral ‘shell’ he made out of a sheet of A4. “It amused us for a while, then we forgot about it” he said – until they were commissioned to design the ventilation flues near St Paul’s, and were considering what shape to make them. At which point they both thought “almost simultaneously” of the paper spiral lying on the shelf in their studio…

Notice analogies
We usually think of analogies as something we ‘make up’ or invent, but ‘noticing’ seems closer to what Heatherwick does. For example, while considering how to make a bridge out of glass (with no glue or other materials, naturally) he remembered shifting books around in his bedroom. Like most of us, he got bored moving the books one by one, and discovered that if you grab two books about half a metre apart on a shelf and squeeze them together, you can lift out a whole section of books at once. Unlike most of us, he then realised you could apply the same principle to create a tough ‘girder’ of glass, by squeezing a whole shelf of glass sheets together (while scaling up the pressure several hundredfold). This formed a bridge strong enough for the courageous Yentob to walk up across.
We’ve already looked at the analogy between the Zen priest’s robes and the structure of Heatherwick’s temple. And try looking at the photo of his ‘rolling bridge’ without thinking of a caterpillar, or a lobster tail. The more we look at Heatherwick’s work, the more such analogies abound; looking at the world through his eyes must be something like this.

Find the creativity in a constraint
I can’t recall the details from the programme, but Heatherwick said he created the rolling bridge because the location made it impossible to create a conventional ‘lifting’ bridge to allow boats to pass through. The Wellcome Trust asked him to create a gigantic sculpture inside their London headquarters – but it would have to be small enough to fit through the front door. So he went one better, and made it out of glass beads small enough to fit through the letterbox!

Writing that list, it struck me how closely all the different patterns are interrelated in Heathwick’s work, so that it was difficult to separate them (and the examples) into discrete categories. This is typical of the complexity and unity of outstanding creative thinkers – replaying the documentary in my mind, I found myself mentally wandering around Heatherwick’s imagination, as if it were a holograph or one of his own extraordinary sculptures, and appreciating the variety and harmony of his creative process.

If you saw the programme, what creative themes or patterns did you notice?

Or if you’ve experienced any of Heatherwick’s works at first-hand, what impressions and learnings did you take away with you?

Finally, I’ve searched the BBC website but can’t see any sign of a repeat broadcast or online version – if you spot one, I’d be very grateful if you would add the details as a comment or e-mail me so I can alert any readers who missed it.

Edit (25.10.06) a good post about Heatherwick has just been added to Noisy Decent Graphics.


  1. John Lewis says:

    I agree with your report on Heatherwick this was one of the most enjoyable I have seen in a long time.

  2. Thanks John, yes great programme, kind of thing that makes you realise what a great medium it can be.

  3. Becky Anne says:

    i am a 20 year old designer at university, and i have to say that thomas Heatherwick is not only my role model, but is also one of the main influences in my design work. he is a mastermind in the design world. i think in the future he will definately be a house hold name. i worte an essay about his work, and spent weeks researching him, and have to say i have never been more interested in anybodies design work.

  4. Thanks Becky Anne, I can tell he’s a real inspiration to you. Sounds like you know more about him than me – can you recommend any good reading about him?

  5. I met him last year and he is a very genuine, intense man. He was also completely humble and very down to earth. There was a great article in the Observer a few years back which mentioned fans following his ‘B of the Bang’ down the M6 as it was transported to its final destination. What he does is very simple but beautiful.

  6. Thanks Claire, that was my impression of him on the TV programme, he seems to be a genuinely insprational person.

  7. I too saw this programme and was so fascinated that I made notes about it and promised myself I would try to see first hand as soon as I was going to be anywhere near. This weekend I hope to achieve this ambition. My friends all think I am crazy staying up so late and watching television. However, that is when all the interesting programmes are on. I am not a soap follower. I need to know more about Thomas Heatherwick. What an amazing designer – such fantastic ideas – quite futuristic without being out of my realms of understanding. We need more of his work about us. And such a nice, normal sounding guy! Give me more. I need to know where to find a book about him. Please.

  8. Hi Vi,

    I’m usually too sleepy to get much out of late-night TV, but this programme was so intriguing that I couldn’t tear myself away. And I had to write about it the next morning, even though I had lots of other ‘important’ things to be doing. I’ve been looking for books but haven’t found anything so far – will let you know if I find one.

    Which one of his works are you going to see at the weekend?

  9. I vaguely remember seeing something about that bridge before – not sure where though. Heatherwick’s work is nothing short of intense. Nice post.

  10. claudia lourenco says:

    i am portuguese and have 29 years i come for this country for study graphic designer and learn more about the culture this country,two weeks ago my tutor told us for we find new designers this new generation and when we show us a video about Thomas Heatherwick i let me envolve in all that.i belive how much genuine he is,after try find more about him i wont espress here “THOMAS HEATHERWICK is the FATHER of this new generation the designers…” for more i learn we need take the”HAT”to him, i hope come one day to meet him and learn with him, continues like you are and never change we need you for learn thanks your “PARENTS” for put you in this world… good luck for the future a big kiss this portuguese claudia .thanks for the programme…

  11. Hi Claudia, thanks for the comment, I’m glad you enjoyed the film. Good luck with your studies.

  12. Hi,

    I am a design student from Manchester, I am using Thomas Heatherwick as my main inspiration for a resaurant design. Is there any way of getting hold of the programme about his glass bridge?


    • cmc033098 on September 19, 2011 Giving away this laptop bsucaee i just got a macbook pro so theres no need for me to have it all you have to do is comment saying GATEWAY FAVORITE LIKE SUBSCRIBE THANKS FOR WATCHING! Category Film Animation

  13. Hi Sam, I’m afraid I haven’t found a way of getting hold of the programme. I’m still looking though – if anyone else knows, please let me know and I’ll post it here.

  14. Hi

    I’m currently writing my A level dissertation, in which I have chosen to compare Tom Heatherwick to Leonardo. As you express so clearly the point I am trying to make about the importance of a studio I was wondering if you had any other pointers? I would be grateful for anything you could offer me; be it your own opinion, some kind of literature or other websites.
    Apart from that it was thoroughly enjoyable to read an article by someone Heatherwick had made such an impromptu impact on also

    Thank you in advance

  15. Hi Rosa,

    Thanks for your comment. Your dissertation sounds really interesting, I’d like to see it when it’s done if you wouldn’t mind sending me a copy?

    Re suggestions, I’ve been looking for more material on Heatherwick, without much success I’m afraid. Re Leonardo, I assume you’re looking at his notebooks and some biographies. Have you seen the book ‘How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci’ by Michael Gelb? It’s a good practical book that teases out some of the patterns in Leonardo’s thinking and working habits. I’m kicking myself for missing the Leonardo exhibition at the V&A recently.

    Re the importance of studio, a good book is ‘The Art of Work: An Epitaph to Skill’ by Roger Coleman. He only mentions Leonardo a couple of times, but he’s very good at describing how the Renaissance studios developed out of the Medieval guild and craft traditions. So it may be worth considering modern studios and agencies as a return to the collaborative creative working patterns of the past?

    I’ll let you know if I think of anything else that might be worth reading.

  16. Jordan Nelson says:

    Thomas Heatherwick is a genious! I was aware of The B Of The Bang before I knew who Thomas Heatherwick was and to be honest I didn’t think much of that sculpture, infact I think it is one of his lesser pieces. Then I saw the programme The Ingenious Thomas Heatherwick and I was totally blown away by his talent. He has so many pieces that are truely awesome that it is hard to pick a favourite.

    I am a 3rd year graphic design student of Duncan of Jordanstone, University of Dundee. The brief I am working on at present is: pick an artist or designer that inspires you and create a piece of packaging that is representational of that artist and their work. So as you have probably guessed I chose Thomas Heatherwick and the pieces of work that I am focusing the packging on is ‘The Rolling Bridge’ and the ‘Bleigiessen’.

    My design operates exactly like Heatherwick Rolling Bridge, retracting and contracting creating a hexagonal shape when contracted. The outside graphics of the packaging has taken influence from the arrangement of the circular glass spheres of the ‘Bleigiessen’. I thought it would be apt to package cognitive enhancers as Heatherwick truly is a genious. The packaging has taken on the visual language of an organic herbal detox treatment and is clean and crisp reflecting the Heatherwick studio website.
    I was thinking about sending the finished peice of work to Thomas Heatherwick to get his honest opinion and some feedback on my packaging design.

    What do you think?

  17. Sounds a great idea – let me know if you get a response from the great man!

  18. Dat Pham says:

    Hi there

    I just watched the programme about Thomas – Imagination – is what it is called I believed – on BBC World. I don’t know if this information is of any help to anyone out there looking to see the programme again. I believe they may show it again..


  19. Graham A. Brown says:

    I just saw this program today on BBC World, here in Vancouver, BC. I have been aware of the objects Thomas has designed but never really caught his name before. Needless to say I was blown away with the program. One of the issues the program brought to my attention was the role of his parents played in the formation of his “intellect” and his identity of self and how that contributed to his since of reality. I only wish there was more, but thats an new program. As designers we all recognizes and appreciate the achievements Thomas has done to pushed design and the understanding of the creative process. His work makes me appreciate Ellen Dissanayake concept of making special even more.

  20. Yunusa Isa says:

    I am an electrical engineer working with a leading telecoms company in Nigeria. I watched the BBC programme “The Ingenious Thomas Heatherwick” and was really amazed by the creative genius of Thomas. I am particularly amazed by the Rolling Bridge and the Glass Bridge.

    Thomas’s creative designs are simply remarkable. And hoping BBC would re-air this programme in the near future.


  21. Dat, Graham, Yunusa – thanks for the comments, it’s good to know the programme’s being repeated although I can’t find a reference to it appearing again in future.

    Graham – yes the programme it was a bit tantalising, he’s such a fascinating guy I’m sure they could have made a whole series about him and we’d still want to know more.

    I did notice that the BBC now has an Imagine home page – it looks like there’s a new series being broadcast, which is great. I can’t find any resources to do with the old series featuring Heatherwick though.

  22. Hi Mark,

    My father sent me a wikipedia entry of Thomas Heatherwick, as he’d just watched the programme you’d mentioned. He usually has no interest in such things but was blown away by Heatherwick and the fact he is my age, and I am a designer must have struck a cord with him. Well, after looking at his work I was so fascinated I did a bit of searching around for more and came across your blog which I really enjoyed. I am dying to see the programme so also tried to find how I could buy it and the only thing I could find was this: http://library.mdx.ac.uk/ipac20/ipac.jsp?profile=bg&index=.BW&term=p1298705#focus
    showing that the Middlesex University Library has a copy of the DVD. It was very hard trying to find out how to contact them and eventually it seemed my only option was to register with the library and am now waiting for a response!
    What I have done, and what you might try too, is contact my local library to request that they purchase the Imagine series for the library. While BBC might not sell to the public (and I’m not sure of this either), it is encouraging to know that the series is on DVD and is in circulation.

    Hope this helps!!

  23. Yvonne H says:

    We watched the BBC World programme on 16 June in our cabin on a ferry from France. We were spellbound!! Thomas Heatherwick has been blessed with an amazing imagination AND he appears to be such a nice man. I came across your website Mark, when searching the Internet for any books about his work but, sadly, have found nothing. Here’s hoping someone in publishing will see that this would be a best seller!

  24. Tessa – thanks for the info re the DVD, at least we’ve confirmed that it exists! I still can’t see it on the BBC Shop website though.

    Yvonne – well I know some people in publishing read Wishful Thinking, let’s hope one of them takes the bait!

  25. I loved the bit about finding the creativity in a constraint. It doesn’t have to be a physical design or product. It can be any situation we come across every day.

  26. Ben Raybould says:

    Hi, im a student at Nottingham Trent university and i watched the programme about a year ago!ever since ive tried to find it, i cant believe no-one has publised the programme onto DVD format. Heatherwick is my idol and his work is amazing. I would love to get the oppurtunity to see some of his work. Anyway just a quick comment to say well done with it all, and as soon as i catch word of a DVD i’ll be straight on here to let everyone know.

  27. Hi Ben, thanks for your comment – yes do let us know if you find a DVD. I’ll do the same.

  28. Hi, like many of you i’m also interested in seeing the programme again – has anyone had any luck in tracking it down? thanks.

  29. Hi Ben, no luck here I’m afraid, will post if I do find out…

  30. Hi , Just been looking for information on Thomas Heatherwick, I teach design technology and would love to inspire my ‘conservative’ thinking students and show them anything on this inspirational designer.
    I have also been looking for books and that bbc programme.
    Any ideas, places to visit in london, workshops etc?

  31. Hi Maggie, afraid I’ve not unearthed any books or a DVD of the programme, but if you’re in London you can take your students to the rolling bridge in Paddington: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rolling_Bridge and the Bleigiessen sculpture at the Wellcome Trust building. I believe the Wellcome Trust run public tours once a month and you may be able to arrange a private tour for your students: http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/About-us/Contact-us/Visit-us/Public-access/Bliegiessen/wtd015326.htm

  32. Hi Mark
    Thanks for your advice.
    I have contacted the bbc who have told me this:
    ‘Copies of this programme aren’t commercially available and for copyright and contractual reasons, we are unable to supply a one-off copy from this department. However, it may be worth trying BBC Active, which is the educational arm of the BBC, in case they’re able to help. Their contact details are:
    e-mail: bbc@twoten.press.net
    Now waiting for their reply have also sent a message to the ‘Heatherwick studio’ to ask for their advice. Also ‘The Design Museum’ have a building that he designed as part of the ‘Brit insurance designs of the year’ and he is giving a leacture at the V&A in May but dont think there are many tickets left!!
    Will let you know if I hear anything!

  33. Thanks for the information Maggie.

  34. Hi,
    I’m an art student and I had to find an artist to link my work with. After a couple of weeks searching on google, I found Thomas Heatherwick. His work is perfect! I tried emailing Heatherwick studios, but I’ve been unsuccessful as to a reply. I hadn’t heard about this programme until now, but it sounds wonderful. I would certainly be interested in watching it. It’s just a shame that so far there’s no news of a repeat. Also, does anyone have a good quality photograph of the rolling bridge? It is this piece that I have based my final project on, and a good photo would be greatly beneficial.

  35. Hi Becca, sorry I don’t have a photo, there are some Heatherwick photos published under a Creative Commons licence on flickr, but can’t see any of the bridge. http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=heatherwick&l=4&ss=1&ct=5

    I e-mailed Heatherwick Studio last year – it took a while for them to reply, but I received a very nice response to my query (sadly they didn’t have a DVD available of the programme).

  36. Manchester’s decision to remove the “unsafe” B of the Bang clearly demonstrates that art on such a grand scale requires an artist to be far more than just an artist. I am curious to know if the services of a structural engineer were engaged and where the blame is apportioned to such a failure – artist or engineer or both and in what proportion? From my personal perspective, architecture is not art as it is properly function led. But when the art is of such a large scale, the proper consultation with engineering consultants should be fully undertaken to ensure that the art remains safely where it erected and ideally for more than 5 minutes. This should prevent it from becoming the F of Failure.

  37. Peter — good points! My impression from the TV programme was that Heatherwick was working with a team that included structural engineers.

    In defence of Heatherwick as a Renaissance man, I guess one could point to the fact that Leonardo’s flying machines would have never got off the ground — even for five minutes …

  38. Unfortunately I did not see the TV programme so I was unaware if he was working with engineers. I am glad to hear he was. That being the case I would start with checking the calcs to see if the problem is in the structural design or the fabrication of the art itself.

    Not sure about defending TH with the mastery of LDV! The latter was an exceptional creator of more than art, more than machines, more than anyone else really! His fundamental concepts were generally sound and whilst some could not be implemented in his day, some have been acheived as recently as a bridge in 2001! I think it is reasonable to allow such an early and prolific “creator” of art and engineering to have a problem or two. But with technology being what it is today, getting something akin to a hedgehog standing on its back legs to be stable and safe is not such a large engineering challenge to get right – all IMHO of course ๐Ÿ™‚

  39. with technology being what it is today, getting something akin to a hedgehog standing on its back legs to be stable and safe is not such a large engineering challenge to get right

    I think we have an early winner for February’s comment of the month! A giant hedgehog is on its way to you … ๐Ÿ™‚

  40. heyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy what up?
    that bridge is awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1


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