Thomas Heatherwick East Beach Cafe by Leonora Oppenheim


We cannot claim to be experts on beach cafe architecture, but one look at Thomas Heatherwick’s East Beach Cafe and one can’t help but think that this is a woefully under-explored area of building design. Surely it’s rife with exciting and innovative possibilities, but then that’s the British designer’s great talent, creating unexpected forms in unexpected places which, on sight, make you reevaluate all your previous preconceptions about a building, sculpture or product. The East Beach Cafe, situated in the small seaside town of Littlehampton, is another hot contender for the Brit Insurance Design Awards. From last week’s post about Ma Ke’s sculptural fashion to this week’s sculptural architecture, the key is that form and function are blended to create something totally unforgettable.

Thomas Heatherwick, who surprisingly has not graced Cool Hunting’s pages before now, is the great British design star of the last decade, pushing forward concepts of what design can be on all fronts, from handbags and shop interiors to bridges, Japanese temples and 56-meter tall sculptures. He certainly doesn’t let the small detail of not being a trained architect stop him. His studio in London goes from strength to strength with each new project and now employs over 30 designers, architects and project managers.

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For the East Beach Cafe, as with many iconic creative works, it was the happy union of designer and client that helped realize the project. It is often the foresight of a open-minded client that creates great opportunity and in this case it was Littlehampton resident Jane Wood. She bought the site after the old beach cafe closed down and, appalled by the proposal for a new unsightly cafe, she moved to stop it. She said of her impetuous decision, “My house looked out on to East Beach. I felt I had to save this very special place and so I did a crazy thing and bought the business.”


That crazy thing turned into a golden ticket as soon as she commissioned Heatherwick Studio, knowing that only something extraordinary would be created by Thomas and his team. The risk paid off with Jane and her daughter Sophie now doing a roaring trade for queues of people who have that very British predilection of visiting the seaside in all weathers. The transformative effect of great architecture (otherwise known as the “Bilbao effect”) is taking hold in Littlehampton, where the masses are making the pilgrimage to eat fish and chips in the extraordinary East Beach Cafe.