If you were to create a bespoke duo as a symbol for contemporary British design, you’d come up with something like BarberOsgerby: two handsome designers who meet at the Royal College of Art, found their own studio, get discovered by Cappellini in their first year at Milan and are then associated with the glamour of Established & Sons editions and the detail of craft work in Italy – yet still with the same charm and humour that made them so approachable when they first started out in a tiny room in Chiswick. Perfect!
As a workplace design magazine, you watch these guys, eagerly waiting for them to launch their first office furniture project – you see side tables, soft seating chairs, candelabra, and then there it is, finally, a bold commission from the then-president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Jack Pringle of Pringle Brandon (see profile on page 77). BarberOsgerby has designed the new reception desk at the Institute.
The project took over two years due to the restrictions of the premises: “It’s a listed building,” Edward Barber explains, and English Heritage was concerned about the existing desk. “Not that it was the original desk but it was listed and they believed it was a permanent fixture,” Jay Osgerby adds. “We got so frustrated that we kicked it… and it moved instantly, so two weeks later we got the letter that we could go ahead.”
Despite their boyish charm, BarberOsgerby’s designs have a high level of maturity, particularly on the detail level. Their forms are less dramatic explosion and more considered elegance. To choose them for the RIBA reception desk, however, was a curious commission considering how traditional the institute is seen to be. The design is very sculptural and at first seems as if it will contrast with its environment, but when you see it in-situ you realise how it mirrors the surrounding interior, tying the historic building in with the modern desk.
“We needed to use a durable material that will last for 30 years, so we went for stainless steel,” says Barber. “We also needed to focus on aspects like security and public facing.” The desk clearly functions as a signature piece for the RIBA, and in the end BarberOsgerby was quite surprised by the feedback. “We were ready for bad press and antagonistic responses, but it’s been 99 per cent positive – I guess it’s a sign of forward-thinking at the RIBA.” They actually seem a little disappointed that no one was shocked or threw a fit. But Osgerby says they argued their case all the way through. “The shape at the front of the desk, for instance, that recess, may seem sculptural but it’s actually an access point for wheelchair users.”
Fortunately, BarberOsgerby was also able to incorporate into the desk its Tab lamp for Flos – a bespoke, double-headed version that Flos made specifically for this project. “It’s all about integrating technology, the screens, cables etc, elements that are invisible but essential for a good reception desk,” Osgerby says. So, it looks like the duo is venturing into the sphere of workplace design. Keep an eye out for the upcoming launch of Tab this summer, which translates from a desk lamp for the office into a wall or floor lamp.
BarberOsgerby became famous about ten years ago when Cappellini decided to produce the pair’s Loop table. They’ve since become a household name in furniture design, even though originally they had planned to focus on architecture. In 2001 they also founded a separate architectural company, Universal Design Studio, which has fitted out high-profile retail stores such as Stella McCartney’s flagship stores in London and New York. Now the studio is keen to venture into workplace design, with an office fit out for advertising agency Fallon coming up soon.
“We didn’t start out to be furniture designers, it was always more of a side line,” says Osgerby. “The 90s were a very different place. Up until then design had always been a niche. It was people like Jasper Morrison and Ross Lovegrove who brought design to the forefront and started to define a path.” Barber and Osgerby found themselves on that path within a year of working together.
Today, they’re jetting from photo shoots for Men’s Vogue in New York to exhibiting at MoMA. “I guess we were lucky to follow that generation of big British designers,” says Barber. “They were the first to create a general awareness. For us, it’s rewarding to work with companies like Established & Sons that have finally brought back British manufacturing. I don’t mean manufacturing in Britain, but creating a home for British design.” They both believe in the success of British design education – the RCA has been exporting talent for years now. Everywhere they go in the world there’s a British designer on the design board. At the same time, it’s impossible to pinpoint Britishness, and Barber and Osgerby are bored of people forcing the label of Britishness onto their designs. Their most recent launches in Milan, for instance, seem more of a historical mix. Their lamp table, Cupola, developed with Venini for the Meta collection – undoubtedly the most talked about debut during I Saloni – sparks memories of Memphis designs, while the new Birds on a Wire hooks have a more Scandinavian flavour. But the Britishness is not in the designs, it’s in the attitude and collection.
Barber feels British design is more conceptual: “Design with a twist, like a Paul Smith gallery collection.” So whose work do you look at? “Well, when in New York we’ll go to Moss, but I prefer going to art galleries than trade shows. In Milan we only spend two hours at the fair. We also support the projects our friends are doing – not to say there’s a clique, but you do bump into the same people in different city bars throughout the design calendar and become friends, like for instance Michael Young or Konstantin Grcic.” “And Sam Hecht,” Osgerby adds (see cover story in onoffice issue 20). They tail off into a discussion about artist collectives, marked by their trademark irony. “It’s like Eames and Saarinen, or Picasso and Georges Braque…”
The fact is, BarberOsgerby is part of a contemporary movement. It’s no coincidence that the studio was invited to participate in the first Meta project by Mallett of Bond Street – an ultra-traditional antiques house aiming to marry contemporary design with traditional craft – to update its stock of 18th-century pieces. “We had to attend a workshop were we learnt all about 17th- and 18th-century materials and how they were crafted. It was a steep learning curve, a highly educational project.”
Osgerby admits that it was a bizarre project and that initially they were suspicious. “The premise was to reinvent archetypes and work with an enticing palette of old-fashioned materials, some of which aren’t even in use anymore. It turns out that glass is the single most difficult material to work with – it makes diecast aluminium look easy. Glass is not controllable because it’s always fluid, it’s constantly moving until it’s hard so you have to build in tolerance.” BarberOserby worked with Venini on the Cupola lamp table and enjoyed it so much that other projects are due to follow. Other designers included in Meta’s debut were Matali Crasset, Tord Boontje, Asymptote and Wales and Wales, but I felt the idea was stronger than the exhibition itself.
The most striking design in the current BarberOsgerby portfolio has to be the Iris table for Established & Sons. This limited edition was first presented in May at the Established & Sons gallery on Duke Street St James, and when we came to shoot at the venue, CEO Alasdhair Willis informed us that two of the tables were being flown to Basel for the art fair. The scale of these collectors’ items doesn’t come across in the images – they need to be seen to be understood. By using strips of individually dyed and anodised aluminum, they echo the iris of the eye, especially when you step close and look into the middle of the table.
“Normally when designing a product, you start with the form and function,” says Barber. “Colour gets decided last minute in conjunction with the manufacturer and you need to decide on three final colours, which is always so difficult to do. The big colour charts come out and you look through the palette. For this edition, we turned things around and took that late production stage as the starting point.” Each sequence of the colour spectra was chosen by what felt appropriate for the shape. The geometric forms of the five tables – each shaped like different baskets – play with colour in a unique way due the metal itself being anodised. The colour comes through the material rather than being painted or laquered on top. There are 12 editions of each table in total.
It was a complicated process that could only be done in a limited edition, and Barber thinks that making editions that could easily be put into production is a waste. So are we talking design art, a phenomenon coined by similar collection pieces from Established & Sons? “The current trend in design art is conceptualisation,” Osgerby says. “We’d rather steer away from the term art, but our Zero-in table in marble could arguably be defined as such.”
Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby have come far: the reception desk at RIBA, limited editions selling for £40,000, products with Cappellini, Magis and new ventures with Panasonic – for their tender ages of 38 (Barber) and 39 (Osgerby), that’s a pretty impressive portfolio. Our photographer, who also shot them at the start of their career, can’t believe how down to earth they’ve stayed. Undoubtedly they’ve remained grounded because of each other. On talking about their lifestyle and all the travelling, they tell a story of when they flew back from Switzerland to City airport in London, and the wind whisked the plane around and the doors flung open. “Everyone thought we were going to die!” They both laugh and it seems they’re still the same guys that met at university – who also happen to be leading Britain’s contemporary design scene from the front.