Their youthful product designs – an automatic sushi roller; a pair of boots for jumping around the city – were “jokes” that got taken too seriously. But Blasius Osko and Oliver Deichmann, as it turns out, are also seriously good at furniture
It’s 4.30am and Blasius Osko and Oliver Deichmann are explaining how their careers began with sushi. Sadly, we are not in a bar, and the ungodly hour is because interviewer and interviewees are wrestling an 11-hour time difference via Skype. Not for the first time, onoffice is operating in the dark.
The designers are reminiscing about a sushi roller they designed as students that became an unexpected commercial hit. The device, which you can still find on the web, is more than a little tongue in cheek, looking uncannily like a joint-rolling machine rather than a progenitor of Japanese meals. “It was a fun thing that became bigger and bigger. We are not so fond of sushi and suddenly we were the experts,” says Osko. “We had to decide to either do this on a big scale or become a design studio and skip the sushi.” Skip it they did, but the practice, which has motored along since 2005, maintains the quirky streak that sets it apart from most industrial design studios. More often than not, Osko+Deichmann’s products are an unusual or fresh take on an established form, whether it be an extrapolative nod to Bauhaus tubular steel chairs or the reinvention of traditional Bulgarian fruit baskets into laid-back loungers.
The Berlin-based studio is currently gearing up for contract furniture fair Orgatec in Cologne, where it will launch new products for regular collaborator Brunner that tackle ideas of mobility, health and the integration of technology in the modern workplace. Typically, Osko+Deichmann has brought its sense of adventure to European office staples such as height-adjustable desks and perch stools with its new Dress range. Balancing Weeble-like on a rounded base, the hourglass-shaped Dress stool gently extends like a man craning his neck to peer over a garden fence thanks to a ringed lever just below the seat pad. Acknowledging the workplace’s slow transition from a binary desk and task chair arrangement to something more approachable, the studio softened a potentially overly engineered appearance by disguising the mechanism with high-tech elastic fabric. Accompanying the stool is a height-adjustable desk whose ovoid legs are similar in construction.
As far as expectations go for the show in general, the studio believes there will be a further shift away from open plan towards more genuinely private spaces. “People are finally recognising that it is very difficult to physically be there in terms of privacy or making phone calls,” says Deichmann. “There will be even more differentiation of environments rather than the high-backed sofas we see so much of. Spaces within spaces.”
In addition, Brunner will show some incremental extensions to Plot, a Red Dot Award-winning seating landscape developed by Osko+Deichmann last year. “We are adding some small upholstered stools that you can take with you, for informal meetings, for instance. There are also some tables – a small side table and another with two layers so you can put a coffee on top and a magazine underneath. There is also a groove in the lower layer where you can stand an iPad, for example.”
Plot was supposedly inspired by waterfalls, with oblong upholstered blocks mimicking rocky outcrops and diagonal steel supports trickling water; though picturing this metaphor demands some muscular imagination. However, as with all successful industrial design studios, there is a rational, problem-solving side to its work. An example is Brunner’s folding bistro table Pivot, which rolls like a wheeled suitcase when tilted on its side but when stood upright becomes stable. When not in use, the table top folds vertically while the four-star base closes up for easy storage. “It is a cliche to say we look at things differently, but this is a good example of how we think. We don’t want to accept that the roller has to be vertical – we want to see it in a different way,” says Osko.
Osko+Deichmann supplies breadth and character to Brunner’s range, which might otherwise be lost in the company’s cavalcade of stacking chairs and conference tables. Unconventional Swedes Blå Station, for whom the studio designed the Straw (2010) and Superkink (2014) ranges seem a more natural fit. Indeed, it was company CEO and design director Johan Lindau who rescued one of the studio’s best-known products, Pebble, from obscurity. The studio had initially shown Pebble – a friendly looking armchair comprising two foam blocks held together by a wire frame – as a prototype at Milan’s SaloneSatellite in 2005, garnering interest from a number of companies promising to put it into production. Four years and numerous scrapped contracts later and Pebble seemed permanently beached with no one able to deliver it from studio to production line. On the day yet another producer announced it was cancelling the upholstery range, Lindau called and said that he had seen it four years ago and wanted to make it. The relationship developed further with the innovative Straw range, which had its genesis in a one-off piece designed for design and arts platform Contributed to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Bauhaus.
Straw saw the studio take the tubular steel tradition invented by Marcel Breuer and Mart Stam and quite literally break it to subvert a universally accepted form; its joints are folded, like a plastic straw. “It has to be handmade and it was really the first time we worked with steel pipes with our hands and with a big vice. You can see how soft metal can be, almost fluid,” says Osko. Straw looked so precarious it prompted some to accuse the designers of cheating by filling the bent tubes with cement. Lindau, however, was convinced there was commercial mileage in its sharp, angular form and Blå Station soon widened the range with the Superkink armchair and sofa. The factory boys proved a harder sell: “We basically asked them to do what they had been trying to avoid for 50 years,” says Deichmann. Perhaps most gratifying for the designers was the Bauhaus Archive’s decision to stock the chairs in its cafe.
“It was the eve of the millennium and we felt we could do anything”
The pair developed their knack for challenging convention while studying at Berlin’s University of the Arts in the late 1990s under the tutelage of Hans Roericht. Roericht studied at Ulm School of Design, a scion of the Bauhaus. “He had a programme he called integrated studies, and we had guests from all over the creative world – scientists, for example. It was the eve of the millennium and we felt we could do anything,” says Osko. Energised and optimistic, the pair colonised a classroom and put a plaque on the door that read ‘Wunschforscher’ – literally ‘dream researchers’. Their first project was a provocation that soon took on a life of its own. Inspired by the poor condition of Berlin’s pavements, the new studio devised Airhopper (1998), a bionic jumping shoe that would propel pedestrians through the city. “It was kind of a joke – the idea that in the next millennium the new urban transportation will be jumping – but we still convinced [industrial automation company] Festo to make a prototype for 100,000 marks [roughly £40,000],” continues Osko. “We even had the boss of Adidas call us up wanting to work with us.”
The sushi roller, which followed two years later, taught the young designers how to bring a product to the market. “We went the whole way with it, from idea to patent, to self-production and marketing. We learned a lot even though the product itself is not really serious,” says Osko. Over the next three years, the designers sold over 5,000 rollers. Nevertheless, they both harboured ambitions to be more than a one-trick pony trotting around the industry fringes, and in 2005, Wunschforscher became Osko+Deichmann. Like many fledgling design studios, income was sporadic and supplemented with branding projects (for MTV) plus the occasional teaching gig. But the pair were also designing products, like the sculptural Clip Chair for offbeat Dutch company Moooi. “It is based on a fruit basket we found in a Bulgarian food market. We really loved the structure, so why not make a chair out of it?” says Osko. The lounge chair cups the user like a baseball mitt, but what sets it apart is its ability to fold flat like a concertina, owing to hinges on the legs and seat, adding practicality to a visually striking object. They demonstrate intently using a model of the product while the full-size version leans against the wall behind them. Ideas, they say, spring from the constant back and forth that comes from working together for 16 years.
“It helps you to understand your own idea when you have to explain why you think something is good [to someone else]. We don’t always agree; in fact it is quite the opposite,” says Deichmann. Without this tension one senses the creative fire would have long since died, but one would not be surprised if both had not undergone some kind of identity crisis. “People always want to get us both. When we teach it is together. It is like you don’t exist as a single person.”
Thus far, the studio’s work has revolved mainly around northern and central Europe. The one foray into the Italian design scene came when the pair collaborated with lighting company Kundalini to create Abyss – a strange, otherworldly table lamp made from moulded opal polycarbonate that looks like a cross between a twisted spinal column and a luminescent deep sea organism. “We would love to work with more Italian brands and we have been close a couple of times, but it hasn’t worked out,” says Deichmann. Though the duo remain reticent about future work, they are visibly excited about an upcoming ‘active sitting’ project designed to promote workers’ health (“sitting is the new smoking, after all”) albeit with a customary inventive slant. Of course, projects like these are a long way removed from sushi-rolling devices and turbo shoes, but nevertheless Osko+Deichmann has managed to hold on to its provocative spirit. “It is still in the DNA but it is not so in your face like it was when we were in our twenties,” says Deichmann. His comrade agrees: “Maybe in the future we will be a little quieter, but we don’t like products without character. We always like to go one step further.”