200 Steps

Barber & Osgerby Interview

Barber & Osgerby Interview

Barber Osgerby was founded in 1996 by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, after both graduated from the architecture masters course at London’s Royal College of Art. In the past two decades they’ve established their own studio in East London, won a string of international design accolades (including the 2013 Maison & Objet “Designer of the Year” award) and worked on a range of high-profile projects including a new £2 coin for the British Royal Mint and the Golden Torch for the 2012 London Olympics.

Their work is in the permanent collections in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, Design Museum and Chicago’s Art Institute. In 2013 Queen Elizabeth II made them OBEs for services to design.

“We’ve been working together for 20 years,” says Osgerby. Then, laughing: “It’s only taken us 19 to figure it out.”

Jokes aside, Barber and Osgerby seem to have an enviable professional and personal relationship. Typically working across a table from each other, they develop their initial ideas by sketching together, a process that they find provides rapid and often unexpected moments of inspiration. “The best thing about sketching is that it’s so quick,” Edward Barber. “Using a computer or making physical models at the early stage is too slow. But you can sketch out ten ideas in no time at all.” 

“I think what’s really important about sketching is that it isn’t complete,” adds Osgerby. “It leaves room for interpretation – when you’re trying to explain your idea, you have a skeleton of it in the sketch but there’s room for people to interpret it in their own way.” 

After the sketching stage, the designers create an extensive range of models and prototypes in different materials. “It just goes on and on,” says Osgerby. 

“We look at things sideways,” he continues. “We try and find the things that haven’t really been thought about before. Then we apply them to common archetypes.”

“Archetype” may seem a rather grand word for “chair” or “table”, but the best of Barber Osgerby’s work tackles such everyday items with an intellectual rigor that merits the lofty language. In products like 2011’s Tip Ton chair (which rocks gently forward to improve the sitter’s posture) or 2010’s Four Leaves coat stand (which would look equally at home in an art gallery as a hallway), the designers don’t just propose new forms, but new functionalities, redefining design standards with quiet ingenuity. 

‘We think an object has to justify its existence. We try very hard to search for a new archetype for everyday items: a new way of looking at something familiar. Inspiration can come from everywhere. You just hope that you can get it. Our work is a constant churning of influences, ideas and problem solving’,  they affirm.

The duo’s interest in the exhaustive business of realizing design ideas is perhaps best evidenced by In the Making the exhibition they recently curated for the Design Museum in London, which is showing until May 2014. Comprised of a series of objects that have been halted partway through manufacture, (from cork bottle-stoppers still embedded in bark to a bone-like back strat from a bentwood thonet chair), the exhibition showcases design and manufacture as process with an undefined start and finish point, beautiful and fluid in itself. It’s a process that, for the designers, is never quite complete, even when it seems to be.

“A project is never actually finished,” says Osgerby. “Once it leaves the studio, you think it’s finished, but then it goes into the complicated scenario of the technical world, and things change. And then when the product is produced, even when it’s in the shop, mentally it’s still not finished. Every time you see it, you think ‘Maybe we could have changed these few ideas…’”

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