Thomas Heatherwick, Designer and Master Builder

Great design combines a strong artistic vision with the fulfillment of a real-world need. Thomas Heatherwick, the builder behind the Vessel, exemplifies great design. The first time I saw the Vessel, I was biking along the West Side Highway and saw this wonderful staircase being built. Two things went through my head at the same time: “This staircase would be amazing to climb” and “There’s no way that I’ll be able to climb it because it’s going to be part of some new building.” When I learned that this was going to be an interactive sculpture that you can walk through, I had another two thoughts: “This is so amazing! I’m going to be able to climb those stairs!” and “What kind of person would spend $200 million on a bunch of stairs?!”

The Vessel in Hudson Yards

But the more I learned about the history of the stairs, the more fascinated I became. As part of the Hudson Yards project, the developers needed to build public art. Stephen Ross, the CEO of The Related Companies, the builder of Hudson Yards, had been to this rodeo before. When he built in Union Square, he collaborated with local art societies to build The Metronome, an unsuccessful work of art at One Union Square South.

For Hudson Yards, Ross decided that he was going to make the public art his own way and hired Thomas Heatherwick. Heatherwick and Ross collaborated on a piece of art that would meet the various needs of the space like drawing visitors and unifying the development. That’s the fundamental challenge of design, taking all of these requirements and creating something beautiful.(1)I enjoyed The New Yorker’s history of Stephen Ross, Thomas Heatherwick, and The Vessel in Thomas Heatherwick, Architecture’s Showman.

Mixing form and function is the core of the design. I think of design as “Practical Art.” Heatherwick started his career as a designer but moved to three-dimensional design as he finished his education. He decided to be a Master Builder, combining design, building, and engineering. Master Builders rarely exist anymore because each of these disciplines handled by distinct experts.

When I picked up the catalog of Heathwick’s work, Making, I saw this design sensibility come through. Each item in the book starts with a question like, “Can you make someone eat your business card?” Answer: “Yes, if you make your business cards popsicle sticks and spend a month making popsicles at the end.” Or the question, “Can you steal the picture from a postage stamp and use it as a festive image on your Christmas card?” Answer: “Yes. Take at the Christmas card below.”

Heatherwick’s 2001 Christmas Card of a Stamp Encased in Resin

The Christmas cards show why I like Heatherwick so much. Each year from the creation of his studio in 1994 until 2010, he put together a thoughtful gift for the people who have helped make his business a success. Christmas cards are often a formality or a nuisance. I even wrote about the commercialization of Christmas cards in Christmas: The True Story, the first piece I got paid to publish. The New York Times describes Heatherwick’s Christmas Cards as “great DIY Design: inspiring, original, ingenious, surprising and sometimes slightly baffling.” It was also a great design challenge because postage was only charged by weight until 2006, allowing the cards to be any shape as long as they were light. These cards have been also been featured at the Victoria and Albert Museum where Heatherwick takes us on a video tour of the cards.

Though giving Christmas Cards is an annual rite of passage doesn’t mean they can’t be fun and exciting. Just like building your mandatory public art as a staircase sculpture may seem silly at first but doesn’t make it any less wonderful and extraordinary. That’s the beauty of great design. It takes a need in the world and fulfills that need as a great piece of art.(2)For more about the Vessel and lots of beautiful pictures, check out Paul Goldberger’s book The Story of New York’s Staircase. When you open the book, it even makes a little Vessel.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I enjoyed The New Yorker’s history of Stephen Ross, Thomas Heatherwick, and The Vessel in Thomas Heatherwick, Architecture’s Showman.
2. For more about the Vessel and lots of beautiful pictures, check out Paul Goldberger’s book The Story of New York’s Staircase. When you open the book, it even makes a little Vessel.