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When I visited Thomas Heatherwick in his London studio, the first thing he wanted to talk about was not one of his own design projects, but the Serif television that he’d recently bought. The freestanding set, designed by the French duo Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec in 2015— quite simply a screen surrounded by a metal frame that sits atop slender splayed legs—offers the viewer an enclosed picture. (It’s called Serif after the typographical term for the strokes added to letters; from the side, the TV’s frame looks like a capital I). Heatherwick was singing its praises. “Look at this big black void,” he said, pointing to the 55-inch monster screen that’s used for presentations in his otherwise curio-filled studio. (Based on his shelves, which heave with objects from ceramics and cowboy boots to a rainbow-colored Slinky, it’s clear that Heatherwick is the sort of designer who likes to learn from the real.) “We know that framing is a good thing, and that’s one of the reasons for the way the windows are in the Lantern House.”
The Lantern House, which will open later this year, is a 181-unit apartment building that overlooks the High Line on West 18th Street in Manhattan. It is Heatherwick’s first residential building in New York City, and though it’s likely to generate less controversy than Vessel—the series of stairs and platforms Heatherwick designed at Hudson Yards that time and the public will eventually designate as folly or fabulous—the Lantern House is a new landmark in its own right. Its walls are studded with big semicircular bay windows; when the lights are on at night, it glows like a beacon.
“We were given a very specific set of conditions,” said the 50-year-old Heatherwick, clad in his customary baggy pants and loose shirt and jacket and brimming with his usual enthusiasm. “The shape designed itself, really, so it became a materials study.” The building’s glazed lobby is inserted right beneath the High Line’s sturdy early-20th-century engineering—and two original pillars cut through the space. Two towers, of 10 and 22 stories, flank it.
When he was starting the project, Heatherwick became preoccupied by the prices of the many high-design apartment blocks that have sprouted in the city in the past 20 or so years—from Frank Gehry’s fluid-looking New York tower to Herzog and de Meuron’s super-transparent 56 Leonard—and discovered that dwellings in metal-and-glass buildings sold much more slowly. “You could say it’s conservatism, or that people don’t want to live somewhere that could be an office. But it’s definitely the case that certain materials age well and look good dirty and feel part of the New York language, and that’s why we decided to work with brick,” he said. “That’s when I got interested in the bay window as a typology. It means you can look out straight ahead and sideways, and it adds visual texture when viewed from the street.” True to form, Heatherwick’s windows make a statement. “We’ve all been in the tall buildings with those huge single-pane windows, and you feel like you’re in a helicopter. There’s a total disconnection from the outside world.”
The interiors of Lantern House are by British super-duo James White and Elliot March, whose clients include the likes of Simon Cowell and Stephanie Arnault. They have chosen warm materials such as burnished bronze and milled and fluted woods, with occasional flashes of brilliant color and rugged stone. “We worked very closely together,” Heatherwick noted. “We agreed that this building is on a very public corner, and there needed to be a sense of intimacy inside.”
Heatherwick seems born to collaborate. When he set up his studio, he thought he’d be making idiosyncratic objects and tinkering at the edges of the public realm with projects like a pedestrian bridge in London that curls up like a caterpillar when it’s not needed, or his dazzling cauldron for the London 2012 Summer Olympics—its 204 petals unfurled to reveal the fire within. “I thought I’d be working in spite of the world around me,” he said. Instead, he has found himself with a studio of 230 employees and huge projects all around the world. In Shanghai, he’s working on a 4.5 million-square-foot mixed-use development with Foster + Partners; in Singapore, an airport terminal with Kohn Pederson Fox. In the U.S., he’s creating offices for 23,000 Googlers in Mountain View, California, with Bjarke Ingels—huge hangars with 40-foot ceilings that look like a quilt of inverted canopies. “I call them squomes,” he said with a grin.
New York, however, has a special importance for Heatherwick, who first came to the city at age 17 in 1987, stayed with a great aunt, spent days walking the streets “looking at Art Deco buildings that lifted the spirits,” and ended up joining a Wigstock parade. “You saw an energy that London didn’t have at the time,” he said. “New York has that energy all over again, and I’m getting the chance to shape pieces of the city. What people need now is things to bring them together, and I want to change the way things happen in public. I want to make a difference.”