Having met as design students at the Royal College of Art in London, Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby have since collaborated on designing products and furniture as BARBER OSGERBY and architectural projects for clients such as Stella McCartney as Universal Design Studio.
When Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby were asked to design a new bench for St Thomas’s Cathedral in Portsmouth, they were told that it had to be made from oak, the traditional material for English cathedral furniture, but must also be light and portable. Beautiful though it may be, oak is far too heavy to be easily moved. Barber Osgerby’s solution was to engineer the wood into such slender, but robust forms, that the benches would be light enough to be manoeuvrable.
The Portsmouth Bench emerged with many of the characteristics which are typical of Barber Osgerby’s work. Quietly elegant in style, it is equally subtle in structure. The confident simplicity of the bench belies the complexity of creating such a pleasing and practical object and one which fulfils Barber Osgerby’s objective of designing “things that people will find pleasing to use and own”.
Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby have worked together since meeting as students at the Royal College of Art in 1992. Born in Shrewsbury in 1969, Barber studied at Leeds before the RCA, while Osgerby, born in Oxford in 1969, was a student at Ravensbourne. One of their first collaborative projects was the Loop Table, a deceptively simple coffee table with a birch ply top looping around the base, which was produced first by Isokon Plus in the UK, then by Cappellini in Italy.
They continue to design furniture for Cappellini and Isokon Plus, which makes the Portsmouth Bench, but also have developed products for Authentics, Levi-Strauss and Magis as well as working on conceptual projects for Dornbracht and Abet Laminati. In 2001, Barber Osgerby founded Universal Design Studio to execute architectural and interior design projects, which have included Pharmacy, the west London restaurant, and fashion stores for Stella McCartney.
See Barber Osgerby's work at barberosgerby.com
Q. How did you meet and start working together?
A. We both studied at the Royal College of Art and our collaboration came through friendship but lead very quickly to real projects. We realised very early on that we had a shared affinity and passion for design.
Q. Does each of you play a distinctive role in the design process?
A. One of us will put forward an idea, the other one will react to the idea, possibly changing the direction completely. The idea goes back and forth, the process starts and this is how we work, a process of tacking, through which the design evolves. The definitive sketches that result from this become models and then prototypes. This dialogue continues even after a product has left the production line. A project is never mentally left alone.
Q. How did each of you first become interested in design?
Jay: An interest in design grew from a love of drawing and making things as a child. Growing up in Oxford allowed regular visits to the University museums. I found the crafted artefacts there deeply inspiring. I was interested in being a painter, sculptor or architect, I was unaware of ‘design’ as a profession then.
Edward: My first awareness of design came at an early age through sailing. I admired the streamlined and complex curves of wooden boat hulls and was fascinated by the craftsmanship they entailed. It was also my first introduction to plywood - using wood in sheets was rather intriguing. I felt the urge to be able to design things of equal beauty and simplicity.
Q. What was the influence of your design education?
Jay: Ravensbourne taught me how to make complex things, about processes and about materials. It made me aware of detail and gave me an appreciation of beautifully manufactured objects. I studied at Les Ateliers in Paris with the Erasmus program in 1991 and was confounded by the French approach to design. I was used to real pace in projects and a huge emphasis on the process of design development. The French students were in love with the big idea - the romance of the concept above all else. It was very useful for me to experience the pragmatic, professional approach in London and the romantic artisan approach in Paris.
At the RCA I enjoyed the collaborative opportunities that a multidisciplinary environment presents. We involved several other students in our initial projects and today try to engender that atmosphere in our own studios.
Edward: I seem to remember spending a lot of my degree life-drawing and taking photos – both of which have been invaluable tools ever since as both disciplines teach you to look at things in depth, objects change the more you look at them.
Q. Which of your early projects were most important in establishing your reputation as designers?
A. The Loop Table was the first piece of furniture that we designed and put into production. It has proved to be the most important piece so far. Originally produced in the UK by Isokon, it was spotted by Giulio Cappellini and included in Cappellini’s collection at the Salone in April 1998. That established a regular work relationship with Cappellini leading to many pieces being designed for him, indirectly leading to many of our current and recent projects for other manufacturers. The Loop Table is now in the permanent collections of the V&A Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Q. How has your approach to design evolved since then?
A. When we started the excitement was in creating new shapes and working with materials we hadn't used before. Now the focus has moved towards designing objects that really have a purpose and some projects, like the Levis hanger, are extremely precise in their requirements. Inevitably projects grow in complexity as knowledge grows and that’s why early projects have that naive simplicity and true spirit.
Q. What are your goals as designers?
A. We believe that every project has to have a spirit of innovation. When we are commissioned to design a product we seek to re-evaluate the architype, to challenge precedents.
We always look at different ways in which products can be manufactured, not necessarily by using new materials or radical re-thinking, but maybe by using existing techniques in a more original or intelligent way.
Q. What inspires your work?
Jay: Inspiration comes when I have peace and quiet or when I am extremely busy. Travelling provokes thought and reflection and sometimes inspiration. In the same way, and again at polar opposites, I find that hand-crafted objects are often as inspiring to me as super technical things.
Edward: The rigorous design of strictly functional objects in nautical and aeronautical design is truly inspiring. Being in a quiet place, preferably near the sea, is where I’m best at formulating ideas. Jay and I regularly stay in a remote house on the Welsh Coast to work on new projects. The isolation seems to focus the mind.
Q. When design historians look back at this era, will they consider it to be an exciting period?
Jay: We are in a period where more is being produced than ever. Historians will no doubt judge this era as the time when consumption finally acknowledged ecology and global responsibility. It is important for us all as designers to design objects that will have a long life, physically strong and emotionally desired.
Edward: Historically designers/architects went straight to work in the studio of an established name for years, now designers are experimenting and making straight from college which gives a hugely diverse and interesting range of work. Also, large manufacturers are increasingly prepared to take a gamble on students and graduates on the merit of their work rather than relying on proven track record of established designers, which gives further opportunities to young designers.
Q. Which of your design projects have you found most satisfying – and why?
A. All of our projects have been satisfying in one-way or another but the Levi's project was a real challenge. Levi’s needed a hanger design that could maximise the expression of the three dimensional nature of their new garments (the Engineered Jeans range launched in 1999). They needed an inexpensive solution and a design that could be easily shipped to their 9000 stores worldwide. All within a six-month project programme.
Jackets and shirts are displayed on a curved hanger, which mimics the broad shape of the human shoulder but only uses the same amount of material as a conventional coat hanger. Their shape means that many hangers can be stacked together to minimise volume for storage and delivery.
We discovered that if the jeans were hung front to back they also took on a three-dimensional look – however this involved persuading Levi’s to sew loops into all their jeans for the hanger to work. After some persuasion they did this, and still do to this day.
Being able to deliver on a project like this with a precise brief in such a short time is a rewarding experience.
Q. How did the Portsmouth bench project come about? What would you identify as the most innovative or distinctive elements of the bench?
A. We were asked to design new furniture for St. Thomas’ Cathedral in Portsmouth, as part of an ongoing programme of renovation, which began in the early 1990s and includes work by Patrick Caulfield and Langland & Bell.
The only definitive criterion for the pieces was that they be made of oak. Solid oak is heavy and one key requirement for the furniture was that it be light and easily manoeuvrable. These two apparently conflicting demands were resolved by the engineering of the design, resulting in the slender form of the bench, the delicacy of which belies its strength.
Q. Similarly how did the Home table come about? And what are its most distinctive elements?
A. The Home table was an exercise in reduction. We wanted to design a dining table that through its simple form would express the intrinsic quality of its material. We designed it to be made in raw oak to emphasise its tactility. Its simple form belies the traditional woodworking methods used in its construction. The legs have the appearance of being made from a solid piece of oak but are actually made from planks.
Visit Barber Osgerby's website at barberosgerby.com
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain