Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

If you want a brochure to help you navigate a new exhibit dedicated to the U.K. design studio, you’ll have to make it yourself.

If you want a brochure to follow along as you explore “Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio,” at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, you’ll have to crank one out by hand.  

The steel contraption, with its stacked rolls of brochures, are inspired by the mechanics of an old newspaper printing press. It’s a pretty good representation of what the designer Thomas Heatherwick displays in so much of his work: a belief that objects we typically associate with impersonal mass production should have a human touch.

Heatherwick and his 170-person studio in London (established in 1994) have made a name for themselves designing everything from benches to bridges, using modern materials to create sleek, clever, handcrafted looks. In the 640-page book that accompanies the exhibit, Thomas Heatherwick: Making ($50, Monacelli Press), Heatherwick traces the origins of his signature style back to his childhood. His mother would take him to model engineering shows and craft fairs, while his father, who helps out in the studio today, took him to car shows and to visit housing prototypes in Milton Keynes (a U.K. “new town”).

A section of Heatherwick Studio’s London bus. (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)

As a student, Heatherwick dabbled in plastics, glassblowing, and ceramics, becoming interested in “the historical figure of the master builder who had combined the roles and skills of the builder, craftsman, engineer, and designer.” He cites a disappointing turn in the early 1800s with the establishment of the Institute of Civil Engineers (1818) and the Royal Institute of British Architects (1834). From that point on, Heatherwick writes, “engineering and architecture seemed to have evolved into elite professions with separate identities from the rest of the building trade,” while “the craftsman became the employee of a new figure called the general contractor.”

In Making, each project is introduced with a question, such as, “Can you make a park out of the desert?” (Al Fayah Park, Abu Dhabi), or “How can you make someone open a Christmas card 24 times?” (2010 holiday card). Provocations shows some of the best answers in 3-D. Starting with a full-scale section of the studio’s London bus on the first floor, patrons walk up two floors, crank out a brochure, and take in the rest of the show: elaborate company Christmas cards, spinning chairs, an unrealized curling bridge (with a daily demonstration of how it works), and plenty of architectural models.

Heatherwick Studio has long been associated with sculpted objects, but in recent years, attention has turned to their ideas for the urban environment. Stars of the emerging “offshore park” trend, models for Manhattan’s Pier 55, and London’s Garden Bridge (never mind their non-design issues of private control and public funding) get prominent exposure at Provocations.

(Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)

Missing from the show, which first launched at Dallas’s Nasher Sculpture Center back in 2014, is the studio’s vision for Google’s new headquarters in Mountain View, California. But projects that got limited press coverage, like a grain silo-turned-art-museum in Cape Town (Zeitz MOCAA) and a school in Singapore spell out Heatherwick’s urban mission quite well. Like any of their objects, each public space and structure the studio designs aims to connect with whomever comes in contact with it.

At the 2012 groundbreaking for the “learning hub” at Nanyang Technological University, Heatherwick recalls in Making, “Singapore’s Education Minister joked that he hoped this human-scale building might even help improve Singapore’s birthrate.” A good Heatherwick Studio project makes its users even happier than its clients.

Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio is on view at the Cooper Hewitt in New York City through January 3, 2016.

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