In 2006, when it was announced that British designer Thomas Heatherwick would lead the HK$2.1 billion redesign of Hong Kong's Pacific Place, eyebrows were raised. The wildly creative founder of Heatherwick Studio is now a household name, thanks to high-profile international projects such as the cauldron for the London Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai Expo Seed Cathedral pavilion, but in Asia he was relatively unknown and the prestigious retail project would be his first major architectural work.
Heatherwick, 43, soon proved that faith in his ability to marry his trademark creative design and the world of architecture was well founded. The 20-year-old shopping mall emerged with a refreshingly contemporary aesthetic, with subtle blending of warm earthy tones and textures.
"It was a project made of many details at a very human level," he recalls. "The business kept going, so it was like open heart surgery and brain surgery at the same time while keeping the person awake."
When we meet in Domani, the mall's modern Italian restaurant, where he created a mesmerisingly beautiful white ceiling composed of curving ribbon-like swirls of steel, he enthuses about the smallest of details that he believes are at the core of Pacific Place's redesign.
The roadside kerb, for instance, now features a sensuous curve, transforming it into an elegant, low-slung sculpture, while non-slip stickers required for the centre's new rooftop glass terrace (Heatherwick replaced pyramid glass skylights with a new flat glass strong enough to be walked on) have been designed as part of an intricate pattern etched on the surface. "Why not?" he asks. Elsewhere, natural shading of Rocheret stone floors feature deliberate clusters of darker undertones around entrances.
"There is a special value to qualities that are subliminal," he says. "When you are near something that has been made with love or care you want to touch it. That subliminal value is underrated in design now, but the 'madeness' - how something is created and the care taken to do so - is more important than the big postcard view."
Heatherwick credits his fascination with hands-on crafts to his mother, who painted, designed jewellery, and was a world authority on beads. His grandmother led Marks & Spencer's textile department, introducing a range of bright and colourful patterns during the post-war era. At the age of 60 she became an art therapist. "She was unfazed by anything, and worked until she was 93. For me, her influence that I can still very obviously feel was her utter determination."
When it came to choosing his own career path, Heatherwick says he was put off by the "cerebral world of architecture" and instead studied at Manchester Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art, where his earliest projects focused on materials such as wood, clay and metal. His projects soon evolved from shop fittings and furniture to more complex works like the Rolling Bridge at Paddington Basin - a coil-like steel sculpture that unfurls to reveal an elegant bridge.
In 2010 he was awarded the London Design Medal in recognition of his outstanding contribution to design, and last year the work of his eponymous studio was the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The rise of Heatherwick Studio is in large part due to his refusal to be stuck in an "artist's corner".
"I'm not interested in labelling who I am," he says. "I'm more interested in making things. Labelling creativity or dividing it into categories like architect, artist, designer, whatever, is artificial."
The breadth of work he is able to cover is, he says, thanks to his atelier of some 85 professionals, from architects to technicians, who collaborate as a think tank, bringing a fresh perspective to design challenges. "I always look for people who show that they have applied themselves to having a skill and who have self-confidence," he says.
"The way the office grows projects is through discussion, analysis, criticism and review. New team members can be inclined to keep quiet and think I have the answer, but the whole dynamic of the studio is that we treat each other on an equal plane. I want to know what people's thoughts are. That stimulates me. The way I work is to be in the middle of everybody, driving things and collaborating.
"The interesting thing behind projects is the strategy, like with our Seed Cathedral pavilion in Shanghai," he adds. "You could look at it and think, 'A hairy building', but to me it is utterly rational. I can explain every single bit of it. People like to think that things that are special or extraordinary, or that they regard as artistic, were dreamed up in the bath by an individual, but on that project we had half the budget so our strategy was clear: build something big, like usual, or go for the extraordinary. It is about applying your mind to a problem and then solving it."
Heatherwick finds working on an eclectic range of projects inspirational (the redesign of Pacific Place office lobbies is about to commence while he is designing a residential apartment building in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and a 200-passenger tourist boat for the Loire, France).
The greatest motivation, he says, comes from feeling he can make a difference. The current design of an eight-storey learning hub for Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, for example, offers an opportunity to create a stimulating learning space that encourages communication. The tutorial rooms are designed as communal places for students to meet rather than as a repository of information.
"The London bus project was another interesting project ... the buses hadn't been changed for a very long time and all the modern health and safety bits and pieces had degraded the environment. There was no coherence. Buses haven't been sexy and to me that made the project very sexy."
The design incorporates the iconic traditional hop-on-hop-off platform at the back of the bus along with sinuous windows that wrap around the corners and up to the top deck for a better view. The buses, which commenced operation early last year, also incorporate the latest environmentally friendly hybrid technology.
Heatherwick says Hong Kong's trams exhibit a similar authenticity and hence emotional value. "I think we won the London bus project because when I was presenting our proposal, I talked about the Hong Kong tram and how its design was so incredibly space-efficient. The Commissioner for London Transport knew exactly what I meant because he had worked in Hong Kong and knew instantly what I meant by the most important thing for any project is to have a true spirit. That is what shows the greatest respect for a city.
"We need to grow something specific for each place or project, to look for new solutions and not be constrained by what has gone before. That is why we only work on things where we can really make a difference."