Who is Thomas Heatherwick? It’s a valid question, and one that fuels a larger crosscurrent of identity politics at his retrospective, Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary, the latest addition to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s British Design Season. And so, who is he?

Terence Conran, an early champion of Heatherwick’s work, has referred to him as a modern day da Vinci. While the younger man refutes this, feeling uncomfortable with the moniker of 'inventor', you can, on the strength of this exhibition, certainly see where Conran is coming from. The inventor label sticks precisely because da Vinci, as the archetypal Renaissance man, was a man whose identity was so hard to define, certainly as a practitioner. So it is with Heatherwick. As you investigate the 150 objects presented in the Porter Gallery, representing two decades worth of endeavor, your first compulsion will be to try and decide whether you are looking at the work of an artist, engineer, inventor, planner, fashion or product or industrial designer.

One answer is the most unremittingly simple. Heatherwick, while undoubtedly a polymath, is only the titular head of a studio of 83 talented practitioners in a range of specialist disciplines. What this exhibition does, then, is to redress that balance between the media portrayal of Heatherwick, the man-inspired, and Heatherwick, the orchestrator of a dynamic, modern design firm. He has said that one of the most exciting things about the exhibition for him and his team is the opportunity to stand back and examine the trajectory of an 18-year period in which there has been little time for reflection. It is fascinating to imagine them circling these exhibits and sharing some of the naïve visitor’s fresh-eyed wonder, that they will also be forming ideas about how their studio should be characterized, and from this, gain an insight into its future direction. More than most solo exhibitions, this show is not merely descriptive, but potentially instrumental in the development of a young British practice, and that lends it a joyful, expectant energy.

One difficulty, however, is where the exhibition positions itself in terms of Heatherwick’s familiarity to the public. While the recipient of undoubted success, the studio is far from a household name. Part of that may stem from the amount of work they acquire from middle and east Asia, or it may be from the discrete or embedded nature of their more local commissions. Some will recognise the Rolling Bridge in Paddington Basin, others the vents in Paternoster Square or the Bleigiessen sculpture that hangs in the atrium of the Welcome Trust, but as yet the studio have yet to complete a project that can generate widespread, public interest.

That is, perhaps, until this year. With the introduction of the new Heatherwick-designed London Bus earlier this year (a riff on the iconic 1950s Routemaster), there will be a constant and visible reminder of the studio's capabilities, just as the capital becomes the focus of global attention. Though only two are currently in operation, their numbers will increase as the months progress and will hopefully culminate in the Mayor placing an order for several hundred in Autumn. A full-scale model of the rear of the bus dominates the back left hand corner of the exhibition space, marking the importance of the project to the practice's future. Heatherwick has also been asked to design the Olympic Cauldron, very much the symbolic heart of the 2012 London Games. It’s a commission of considerable prestige, and once it is unveiled in a few weeks’ time, a new exhibition will be installed, extending the sense that this talent is being captured in its moment of arrival.

These latest projects build on the studio’s reputation for successfully navigating one of design’s greatest challenges – the representation of national, cultural or religious identities. This was made evident in their 2010 Seed Cathedral for the Shanghai Expo, which won them Best Pavilion Design (and later the RIBA’s Lubetkin Prize) for its surreal convocation of Perspex filaments, some of which are on display here. It is also clear from the number of places of worship, models of which punctuate the exhibition, that the studio has a unique sensitivity in this area - it is ironic that they should find it so easy to express others’ identities while they struggle to resolve their own.

The curation by Abraham Thomas clusters objects that show similar developmental processes, rather than a more typical arrangement by chronology or type, and this is largely effective, making coherence out of a panoply of maquette, image, prototype and material sample. The sense is that you are wondering through the practice’s working space - their past triumphs scattered around to inform their future achievements.

This exhibition is caught somewhere between being an introduction and a retrospective: an odd dynamic but not an unpleasant one. For the uninitiated, it offers a thorough overview of a thriving British design practice; for the more familiar, it adds a depth of understanding as to their working methods. Not least, for Heatherwick and his team, it will likely mark a watershed year for the studio, an important moment of self-recognition.

Heatherwick Studio, at V&A MuseumPeter Maxwell reviews the new retrospective exhibition at the V & A Museum on Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary.4