Thomas Heatherwick – Olympic Cauldron Designer Carries Torch for the Art of Making

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The coup de grâce of London 2012 Olympics’ opening celebrations was the ceremonial lighting of the cauldron, signaling the start of the competition. That spectacle — a piece of pure theater…

The coup de grâce of London 2012 Olympics’ opening celebrations was the ceremonial lighting of the cauldron, signaling the start of the competition. That spectacle — a piece of pure theater in which 204 copper petals were carried in individually, each by a competing nation, then laid together, and lit by a young athletes who took the torch from soccer player David Beckham. Then the petals rose in tandem from the ground into a unified torch of blazing flames, intended as a symbol of peace.

The receptacle and the process of the lighting was designed by Thomas Heatherwick, the British designer who who remade the English Routemaster bus and channeled Britishness in a remarkable and unique way in the Seed Cathedral at the Shanghai Expo in 2010 (The Seed Cathedral’s concept of seed-tipped spines, that would be distributed after the Expo to schools across China, perhaps foreshadowed the final stage of the cauldron; the petals will be dismantled at the end of the Games for each departing nation to take with them.)

While in London a few weeks ago, hubby Bennett Stein (aka TheGood4Nothing Connoisseur) and I had the good fortune to meet Heatherwick in his studio near King’s Cross Station. I conducted an interview (to be heard in full later; his observations about the challenge of designing the cauldron, made prior to the Olympics so he could not give anything about the design, are aired on this DnA) and Bennett Stein took notes on the experience, which he relays here:

While accompanying the wife, I was taken to a surprisingly enchanted, underworld, workshop kingdom called Heatherwick Studio. Turns out Thomas Heatherwick (whose work is the subject of a new book, Making) is not only a designer–half of whose projects are top secret–and a metaphysician but also something of a pointy-headed mystic.

I felt I’d tripped a wire and–BANG-WHOOSH—like Alice, bloomers over knickerbockers down the bunny hole I tumbled only to end up hanging out upon a mushroom cap with a Druidic folk rocker, Fotheringay-style, in a butterfly wing-whipped grove, being served a tea infusion called “Keep An Open Mind.” I felt suddenly tricked, but for my own good. How did I end up in the presence of a highland shepherd who thinks of himself as a Victorian engineer? Who then proceeds to radiate more than enough moral imperatives, grace and care to go around. And he is quintessentially English, and made you realize why all the world has always looked to England for style, meaning, glam and utter wonderment.

Welcome to “Swinging London,” baby, I thought. For all its faults and corruptions, London is still a hot spring for exports of enchantment for all of earth. All the archetypes like Caractacus Potts, Merlin, Sergeant Pepper, Flashman, Happiness Stan, Smiegle. Gulliver, and Puck—I thought those were just characters from English literature and a concept album. I mean didn’t you? Nope, turns out they are real.

Through the hostess of DnA over the past decade I’ve met many “starchitects,” but never one like Sire Heatherwick (though he trained as a designer, his firm, now with almost 100 employees, includes many architects). He is the polar opposite of Norman Foster with all the throbbing muscular, sky-piercing, missiles of epic steel and glass. I love Thom Mayne, Gehry, Wolf Prix, Zaha, Renzo and Rem, but while they are all thrilling, 100-proof, uncut male ego rock stars (yes, even Zaha), Heatherwick decidedly designs from the crypt of human consciousness — nothing showy or slick about this conscientious Keats in billowy poet shirt, genie pants and Robin Hood slip-ons.

He’s some kind of gentle wizard or old country doc who speaks of “sick building syndrome,” the necessity for authenticity, and seems genuinely worried for the dire state of the human race. But do not mistake this cat for some 2-bit spineless mantra-burbling Hippie. Mock him or try and break him to the ground if you must, but be prepared to be brought to heel via dandelion Kung Fu, and shamed into repentance.

Heatherick is bent on restoring wonder and is quite playful, demonstrated at his current exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum where tourists were driven to extremes of fiendish joy whirling around tipsy top style, Heatherwick-designed “Spun Chairs,” that look like spools off a giant’s loom.

FYI, he won first place for design excellence in the 2010 Shanghai Expo for the English Pavilion he designed. Did you see it? It was called “Seed Cathedral” and looks like a large bushy blond sea urchin into whose belly you could just waltz. At the end of each slim fibrous rice noodly tentacle there gently bounced a living seed, preserved within, later to be planted somewhere in the world to benefit medicine or hungry mouths. It was breathtaking. We attended that Expo, took in each country’s offering–this was the one you could not walk away from. You just stared at it, sat down and purred and thought deeply about personal things, your favorite grandparent or item in your life that could use a little healing.

Everything he makes–like a remix of London’s traditional Routemaster, red double-decker bus, a few of which tear around London, a handbag that is an optical illusion of zippered triangles, to a bridge meant to span a river made of glass and light—appears like some warm-blooded species of undersea creature. You want to name his inventions or pet them. His work makes you feel the whole span of evolution in your gut, and it fills you with a sense of the sacred. You become relaxed, you smell the air like a little girl in a summer dress, or first violinist in a dress rehearsal of Bach’s Violin Concerto Number 1 in A Minor. He imparts an everything-is-possible feeling, but don’t wait too long, fellow citizens. Let us hope Heatherwick gets to rebuild a city or a building near you, all permits granted, all funding escrowed, all hands on deck, all stops pulled out.

Thomas Heatherwick: Making by Thomas Heatherwick ( Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary, sponsored by Ernst & Young, will be at the V&A through 30 September 2012 ( Heatherwick studio: