When British industrial designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby approach a project, they try to do one of two things. Either you solve a “problem” with an existing design, or you capture the “essence” of that design in a new way. “People are very comfortable understanding an archetype,” says Osgerby. “But to bring something new, you have to change it. So our job is to update and improve these archetypes. “
Take their Pacific chair. With its casters, professional-looking armrests and high rectangular backrest, it is undoubtedly an office piece of furniture. Except that Barber and Osgerby have concealed all the controls and sliding levers now required (by law!) To adjust the seat, arms, backrest, etc. in the body of the chair, creating a “visually clean” version that responds to the person’s individual weight. It’s no longer “a contraption,” as Barber puts it, but the most beautiful office chair you’ve ever seen.
Not sexy enough for you? Jony Ive disagrees. When Barber and Osgerby visited Apple headquarters to lecture the in-house design team a few years ago, work on the new £ 3.5bn Cupertino campus for its 12,000 employees was almost finished. “The only thing we can’t find,” Ive said, “is a really nice office chair. “
His guests fished out a phone and showed him their Pacific Chair, then in pre-production with Swiss furniture company Vitra. “When is it ready?” ” I answered.
This year, Barber and Osgerby are celebrating 25 years in the business; not just that of updating office furniture, but large-scale architectural projects, interior decoration, sculpture, fabrics, tiles, desks, luggage, silverware, exhibits, installations, hangers, showers, telephones and shop fronts. They made lighting for Flos, chairs for Cappellini and tables for B&B Italia. Commissions came from Louis Vuitton and Hermès, BMW and Sony, Coca-Cola and Levi’s. They designed the torch worn at the London 2012 Olympics and the £ 2 coin commemorating the 150th anniversary of the London Underground.
Barber and Osgerby have two more birthdays this year: their 10-year-old Tip Ton chair, a stackable polypropylene design originally for schoolchildren that reclines with the sitter, thereby straightening the pelvis and spine; and their first design, dating from 25 years ago, their Loop table, made up of two U-shaped plywood sections joined seamlessly together, a deceptively simple idea that from some angles seems to float above the ground. .
Their diverse output is unusual, but so are they: Top-notch design studios tend to be Italian, German, or Scandinavian. There aren’t many contemporary British duos whose work is in the permanent collections of museums around the world. In 2013, they both received OBEs. It’s all the nicer since, sitting in their studio on the first floor in Shoreditch surrounded by boxes and sticks, they are amusingly modest.
“’I’m a designer’ – it’s like the worst thing you can say,” says Osgerby, the smallest and most lush of the pair. “It’s embarrassing. We don’t wear pink suits and stand on the table and say, ‘Yeah! The design is now. ‘”
“I don’t know if these people still exist,” sighs Barber, the tallest and funniest. “They certainly did when we started.”
It was then that they met as architecture students at the Royal College of Art in South Kensington; their Loop Table born from experiments with “carte blanche, cutting mat, Uhu glue and scalpels”. “We worked really, really, really hard,” Osgerby says. “Like, ridiculous hours. But not on university work.
The Loop table became the first new design taken over by Isokon Plus, the furniture company that counts Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer among its former patrons, in more than 30 years. Within months, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had purchased it for its collection. “Then he got into the V&A,” says Osgerby. “We were very surprised. We thought, “It’s good! “”
The Tip Ton chair was commissioned by the Royal Society of Arts Academy in Tipton in the West Midlands. Sent to find out if school furniture was fit for 21st century use, Barber and Osgerby decided it wasn’t at all. “We spoke to all the staff and asked them what was working and what was not,” says Osgerby. “Then you talk to the janitors and they say, ‘Come take a look at this.’ And you come out in the back and there are just piles and piles of broken chairs.
“School furniture, the things you can buy, you get through that kind of cartel,” says Barber. “The budget in this country is £ 11 per chair. What can you seriously do that will last, for £ 11? “
Osgerby: “We wrote all these things and we said, ‘Why don’t we design a new chair?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, great! Who is going to pay for this? ‘ “
The designers reached out to Vitra, who initially thanked them but explained that they don’t make children’s furniture. But they persevered, and Tip Ton – light, sturdy, stackable, with a rocking motion meant to increase the model’s oxygen supply – is now a Vitra bestseller, in and out of classrooms.
They moved to their Shoreditch base in 2005 with a team of eight. They have since grown to over 70 years old. With their salt and pepper beards and their daddy sneakers, they fit in perfectly; fashion-conscious designers who grew up with their surroundings, which was instructive. For example, when they designed the neighboring Ace Hotel in 2013, they noticed how the culture of portable cafes had transformed the neighborhood and planned accordingly.
“We designed this long table in the middle of the lobby, with the expectation that hotel residents will come to work,” says Barber. “And it was completely taken over from day one by the local community. “
This led them to launch Soft Work in 2018: essentially a range of table-height sofas with power outlets, arm-mounted desks, partitions, wireless charging tables and super-padded upholstery, a modular system that can be clipped in and out of. endless ways. It was intended to fit as well in an art gallery as in an airport or hotel lobby.
“The office has had its day,” they announced at the time, shortly before the office followed suit. “The things that we planned in the company have accelerated,” says Barber. “But what I think we’re particularly good at is seeing the flow of change and then bringing it to the manufacturers. “
They recently launched a perennial version of their Tip Ton made from German post-consumer waste – yogurt pots, to be exact. (“You can sometimes get a little yogurt pot brand on the side,” Osgerby agrees.)
Solving problems, capturing the essence of design: this is their happiness. For Barber and Osgerby’s most visible creation, the torch from the 2012 Summer Olympics, they designed a curved aluminum tube in the shape of a lantern, die-cut with 8,000 holes to reference the number of torchbearers (8,000) and their common race distance (8,000 miles). It had to be big enough to be seen but light enough to carry, sturdy enough to keep gas burning at 700C but safe enough for kids to run around with. Even the flame had to be a certain color in order to be seen on television. More importantly, he had to not go out.
“That was the main thing,” says Barber. “At the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, [Switzerland] we have, under our torch, the “Best performing torch”. “
He only died twice, apparently. Once when someone put the wrong kind of gas in it. And once on a canoe slalom in Hertfordshire, when he got caught white water rafting. “And that,” Osgerby says, “was never on file.”