Andrew Lambirth

Beyond the expected

Beyond the expected
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Designing the Extraordinary | Posters with a Purpose

V&A | Christie's, 8 King Street, St James's, SW1, Heatherwick Studio |, until 30 September | until 24 August

Thomas Heatherwick (born 1970) is one of our most exciting and inventive designers, so it is somewhat unfortunate that he is much associated in the public mind with a project that failed, the memorably named ‘B of the Bang’. This was a sculpture commissioned to commemorate the 2002 Commonwealth Games held in Manchester, and the idea was to create a sunburst of tubes and poles to symbolise an explosion of energy. It was a good idea and a formidable undertaking. Erected in 2005, it was plagued with technical problems and bits even fell off. It was taken down in 2009, and only the documentation remains. As I said, an unfortunate association, but also a salutary one, for it reminds us that the path of an innovative designer does not always run smooth, dependent as every visionary is on the skills of fabricators and engineers.

Heatherwick himself comes from an engineering background, but his work is not limited to straight design and readily crosses the border with art. This is such a frequent occurrence today that it poses the question — do all designers secretly yearn to be artists? Certainly, you might expect an artist (rather than a designer) to be commissioned to make the ‘B of the Bang’ monument, if contemporary public sculpture were not in such a lamentable state. Heatherwick obviously came up with the best proposal, so it was just a question of implementing it. As the current, fascinating exhibition, sponsored by Ernst & Young, shows, it is always easier to come up with seductive and impressive ideas than to realise them.

This does not mean that Heatherwick is a theoretical or research designer — his practice is firmly grounded in ways and means. He has a good sense of materials and explores their more extreme possibilities. Furthermore, he has a fertile imagination, and encourages those around him (since 1994 he has worked with a highly skilled team, hence the Heatherwick Studio appellation) to experiment and exceed themselves. This is what good design — or, for that matter, good art — is all about. Going beyond the possible, or at least beyond the expected, while staying rooted in the purpose for which it was created.

The exhibition, in the V&A’s Porter Gallery, is piled high with objects and models, a stack of inspired thought, laid out and designed by the Heatherwick Studio itself. Thus models for the air vents in London’s Paternoster Square, designed to cool an existing underground electricity substation, are placed well up in this tall room, and almost every available space is filled with virtuoso solutions for projects.

The exhibits are interspersed with listening stations equipped with headphones, which offer rather long-winded explanations; these would benefit from editing. The famous rolling bridge, made in 2004 for Paddington Basin, so that boats can navigate the waterways — a kind of hedgehog version of Tower Bridge — still looks poetic and impressive, even as a model. There’s plenty of drama in Heatherwick’s work: look at the East Beach Café at Littlehampton, with its stacked French toast profile, or the wire and glass sculpture for the atrium of the Wellcome Trust’s Gibbs Building, or the Seed Cathedral for the Shanghai World Expo (2010).

The overlap with sculpture is a constant, evident in the affinity of some of Heatherwick’s forms and materials with sculptors such as Eilis O’Connell (who has used woven metal) and Anish Kapoor and Richard Evans (who have both in the past made good use of a diminishing contour laminate approach). If our contemporary sculptors are jealous of Heatherwick Studio’s success, then it’s time they themselves tried a bit harder. The relationship between design work and architecture is intimate, never more so than when the Studio designs a power station (for Teesside) or the extraordinary-looking crumpled studios for artists in the woods of Aberystwyth. (Seeing these intriguing designs I wanted to be instantly transported there and question the occupants about their feelings for these unusual workspaces.)

Heatherwick Studio is very visible: among its recent realised designs are a new London bus (which I have yet to travel on), a spinning chair (several examples in the V&A foyer to roll around in) and an expandable zip bag. The freedom of ideas present in all this work is hugely beguiling, though rather brought down to earth by the hefty 600-page tome called Making (£38 in hardback) that accompanies the show. Heatherwick unites two qualities often absent from contemporary art: a sense of intellectual and emotional fun, and a desire to make not just strange but beautiful things, too. Long may his studio continue to surprise us.

I don’t often preview auctions in this column because the turnover of sales is so brisk that there’s hardly time to forewarn the public of what’s on offer, but over the summer Christie’s is showing highlights from the London Transport Museum Sale, and the auction doesn’t take place until October. Before you all start worrying that LT is selling off its crown jewels, the contents of this auction are posters drawn from duplicate stock held by the museum, and all proceeds will be used strictly for future acquisitions, as well as conservation and restoration of the existing collection. The sale is called Posters with a Purpose and contains more than 300 lots featuring the great names of English poster design in the 1920s and 1930s, such as Edward McKnight Kauffer, Barnett Freedman, Edward Bawden, Paul Nash and Edward Wadsworth, as well as a host of lesser-known artists. Among the latter a powerful image from 1929 of open umbrellas, by Frederick Schneider Manner, bearing the legend ‘No Wet, No Cold’, echoes ironically through our English summer.

Frank Pick, the legendary manager of LT who initiated this colourful poster campaign, said it wasn’t just about attracting passengers, but was also about establishing goodwill and understanding between the public and the transport service. There is a glorious optimism to these images, a vision of London and its environs which looks on the positive side, to its real beauties and attractions. And there is idealism, hope for a better future, something we seem to have mislaid in our hectic consumerist lives. If you want to view the entire sale, this can be done online, or in person at Christie’s South Kensington from 29 September until the auction on 4 October. Meanwhile, the highlights at King Street offer upbeat holiday viewing.