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The 46-year-old Briton’s latest projects—whether London’s Garden Bridge, New York’s Pier 55, or Google’s new headquarters—are making him the most talked about designer in the world. Paul Goldberger explores how he’s pushed the limits of possibility, and created unconventional and controversial results in the process.
Thomas Heatherwick, who is by almost any measure the hottest designer in the world today, has a soft-spoken manner and an eagerness to please that make you think, at first, that he must be surprised and slightly uncomfortable about his success. He comes off as a good-natured enthusiast, not as a hard-driving entrepreneur, which may be why so many hard-driving entrepreneurs, corporate chieftains, moguls, and politicians—in London and New York, where he has recently taken on large-scale public projects, and in Silicon Valley, where his skills are being harnessed for Google’s new headquarters—have suddenly decided that what they need most right now is to commission him to do something extraordinary for them.
A 46-year-old native of North London whose soft features and curly hair give him a vaguely Pre-Raphaelite air, Heatherwick is part architect, part furniture designer, part product designer, part researcher, part landscape architect, and part Pied Piper of design, and the things he comes up with manage somehow to be at once charming and brash.
A Heatherwick design is invariably ingenious, and there is usually an element of surprise to it: who doesn’t remember his design for the Olympic Cauldron at the 2012 London Olympics, made up of 204 copper petals—each one representing one of the national teams and brought into the stadium by one of its athletes—which were then set atop one of 204 copper pipes and magically fused together to become the cauldron? If it was the kind of design that seemed a bit too aware of its own cleverness, no one could deny that it was beautiful, and that the moment of its reveal was breathtaking. […]