How can one question the nation’s most engaging designer without seeming a curmudgeon? How can one express any doubt whatsoever about someone beloved by Boris Johnson, David Cameron and Sir Terence Conran, the last of whom has called him “a Leonardo da Vinci of our times”?
How can one criticise work as adorable as Thomas Heatherwick’s without seeming, metaphorically speaking, to punch a puppy in the face? And why would you want to?
I ask these questions because there is no doubting Heatherwick’s talent and appeal, yet he prompts a nagging sense that somehow, somewhere, something is lacking.
People smile when they get into his Spun chairs, objects like spinning tops that make you feel as if they’re about to tip you out, but never do. At the Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum an assistant cranks a handle that makes a model of a bridge curl up and uncurl, and the assembled press burst into applause. He has an ability to do unusual things with materials and objects, such as make buildings that look hairy, and long benches formed of aluminium that has been squeezed out of a machine like toothpaste out of a tube.
Always opposed to the boundaries between design, architecture and art, he now applies his skills to very large projects – a park in Abu Dhabi, a biomass power station in Teesside, a colossal hotel in Doha, a shopping mall in Hong Kong – as well as to tables, bowls, Christmas cards and sculptural thingummies in public plazas. One of his most notable recent designs is the new version of the London routemaster double-decker bus.