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Thomas Heatherwick’s Torch at the Olympic Opening Ceremony

Work / Product Design

Designing London 2012: Thomas Heatherwick’s genius lights up bonkers opening ceremony

All last week #savethesecret was trending on Twitter, a hashtag-plea for anyone involved in or lucky enough to have witnessed the dress rehearsals for Friday’s Olympic Opening Ceremony to maintain the mystery.

The lack of leaks was genuinely impressive and as an estimated worldwide audience of four billion people settled down to watch Danny Boyle’s vision come to life there was a real sense of anticipation.

BBC presenter Hazel Irving called it “breathtaking in its beauty and its ambition” and there’s no doubting it captured people’s imaginations. A rural idyll giving way to the Industrial Revolution, a celebration of children’s books from Harry Potter to Peter Pan based around the NHS and a modern, musical mash-up and ode to internet-inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee made for an engaging and exciting spectacle and certain images etched themselves on the popular consciousness.

The five fiery rings raining down sparks on the arena was the first breathtaking moment of the night, the ghostly ethereal blue-winged bikes were stunning and the rural scene though slightly twee was undoubtedly well-put together (complete with real farm animals). Elsewhere two of our most famous cultural exports Bond and Bean played memorable parts in the increasingly bonkers evening.

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Green and Pleasant Land from the first section of the ceremony

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The rural scene gives way to an industrilaised landscape

But from a design point of view it could be argued that the whole thing needed too much explanation to be universally comprehensible. American sprinter-turned-pundit Michael Johnson joked that only because he has spent so much time in the UK could he follow the event and there were times when Danny Boyle and his team seemed to be trying a touch too hard – The Daily Mail suggested the show as aimed at “us Brits rather than the rest of the world” (although on the whole the reaction from foreign correspondents seems to have been positive).

You have to wonder though how Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Brunel quoting The Tempest went down overseas while the second section, reflecting on the UK’s heritage of children’s literature and the NHS relied on an esoteric J.M.Barrie/Great Ormond Street link. In The Guardian Peter Bradshaw’s five star review of the ceremony carried the subheading: “It’s didn’t make a bit of sense but what a thrilling spectacle and what fun.”

But design-buffs were rewarded if they made it through the final 20 minutes of the ceremony with Thomas Heatherwick’s magisterial torch the crowning glory of the evening for many. Made from 204 petals each of which was inscribed with the name of one of the competing countries, it was beautiful, delicate and jaw-droppingly impressive, and communicated a series of ideas with grace and simplicity – something the rest of the ceremony could perhaps have learned from.

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Thomas Heatherwick’s Torch at the Olympic Opening Ceremony

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Thomas Heatherwick’s Torch at the Olympic Opening Ceremony

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Thomas Heatherwick’s Torch at the Olympic Opening Ceremony

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The five fiery Olympic rings

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Beautiful ghostly bikes

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Beautiful ghostly bikes

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The fireworks at the end of the night (from BBC.co.uk)

Thomas Heatherwick is giving the keynote address at our creative symposium Here being held in London in September. Find out more information and get your tickets here.