words Oliver Wainwright
top image Vincent Dolman
Over the past 15 years, Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby have designed an asymmetric Coke bottle, an aluminium table milled to the accuracy of a medical instrument, and now they’ve put 8,000 holes in the Olympic torch. “We never set out to make things complicated,” they say.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the two men are having an identity crisis. They are the UK’s most renowned design duo, but they have just opened an exhibition that, at first glance, has little to do with design. And, for a studio that is celebrated for combining innovation and function, their most famous recent project seems to have little to do with either.
The exhibition, in particular, seems to be making the pair slightly uneasy. Ascent, at London’s Haunch of Venison gallery, is a dreamy assemblage of abstract forms, loosely based on the concept of flight. Sleek fins of polished brass hang next to chandeliers of flimsy, paper-skinned wings, recalling components of an early flying machine, and glowing metal cones hover against the wall. It is an array of aerodynamic fragments that conjures up the drama of rockets, airships, and space travel.
“As a designer, producing work for a gallery environment is incredibly indulgent,” Barber says. Osgerby agrees: “It is not really defensible at all.” The pair are sitting in their east London studio surrounded by a clutter of models and prototypes, sketches and samples. Their unease contrasts with their attitude to the project that has brought them mainstream attention: the 2012 Olympic torch. It surprised many in the design world when BarberOsgerby, a name that has always been associated with innovative, functional design, was selected to design what is essentially a superficial piece of mobile branding. So why did they take it on?
“It’s actually the most functional thing we’ve ever done,” they say, in unison. “It came with an 80-page brief, with everything from adverse weather conditions over the last 50 years, to the age range of people running with it.” The flame must burn against gusts of 65mph, operate at –5°C and at an altitude of 4,500ft, as well as withstand being dropped from three metres. It sounds like a piece of all-weather camping equipment – wrapped in a perforated sheath of polished gold.
The resulting design is an elegant, tapering case punctured with 8,000 holes. The number represents how many people will run in the relay, and the number of torches that will be produced. “There wouldn’t have been time to cut [a total of] 64 million holes a couple of years ago,” Barber says. “But luckily this new machine has just been invented.”
This defence of the torch’s functionality and the pair’s obvious delight in the technological advances of the manufacturing process make their exhibition of bespoke, abstract objects all the more intriguing. “Ninety percent of our work is design for manufacture,” Barber explains, referring to a client list that includes Sony, Stella McCartney, Cappellini and Coca-Cola. “Designing editions or pieces for a gallery allows us to develop things that could never be realised for mass production, because the processes are too complex or labour intensive.”
For the Ascent exhibition, the designers tracked down craftsmen from Como to Coventry. “It’s just incredible to watch the skill of these guys,” Barber says, flicking through photos of vast conical discs being hand-beaten out of brass, and steel plates being lovingly mirror-polished.
The exhibition brings together several recurring interests, from a passion for the streamlined forms of boats, cars and planes, to a desire to combine traditional craftsmanship with the latest in computer-aided production techniques. It is a marriage that they term “engineered craft”, which has brought them comparisons with a generation of post-war British designers who mixed modernism with arts and crafts ideals.
Osgerby grew up close to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, and spent many happy hours watching gleaming fuselages glide past; Barber, from Shropshire, developed a love of boat design from childhood sailing. He tells me that a timber-framed shell in the exhibition was produced by a sculling-boat maker in Henley-on-Thames.
“If you look at a yacht, the bit that fascinates us is the hull – which is effectively hidden,” he explains. This “hidden design”, the formal mechanics of evolutionary streamlining, from the wing of a bird to a plane, is what intrigues them.
Osgerby and Barber have enjoyed an enviable run of success since they met as students in the late 1990s, studying architecture at the Royal College of Art in London. Spurred on by what they describe as the “stylistic vacuum” at the college, they began to work together out of Barber’s Trellick Tower flat in west London, designing restaurant and apartment interiors in South Kensington and Notting Hill before they had even graduated. “All we needed was white card and a scalpel,” Osgerby says.
These tools of the architecture trade led them to experiment with plywood, and they used an origami-like process of bending, folding and slotting sheets together in their early furniture work. They design like architects: in plan and elevation – drawing each piece in abstract silhouette from the top and side. It’s an approach that lends their work a graphic simplicity, with the unfolded cut-out pattern often legible in the final product.
“I mean, look at that,” Barber says, grabbing a stealthy black Tab Lamp (Flos, 2006) from a shelf, and holding up the simple folded shell of aluminium to eye level. “It is so drawn from the side.”
Two-dimensional studies soon gave way to an interest in more sculpted forms and a chance to experiment with the bespoke craft of automotive design. In 2005 – having already shot to prominence with pieces for Isokon and Cappellini – they were invited to develop a table for Established & Sons. A seamless tapering loop of aluminium, the limited edition Zero-In table was welded in 16 sections and mirror-polished by the craftsmen who usually hand-make replacement body panels for vintage Aston Martin cars. “Appropriately, the production version is made in pressed plastic by the same people who produce the bumpers for Land Rover,” Osgerby says. It is one of the company’s more popular lines – a snip at £800.
Two years later the same client commissioned Iris, a further series of limited edition tables. These polychromatic colour wheels are milled in sections from solid aluminium, anodised and joined with hidden bolts and tightened using magnets. They’re deceptively simple; the manufacturer in fact had to increase the accuracy of their milling machines to a level greater than that used for making medical instruments.
“We never go out of our way to make things complicated,” Barber says, when I suggest this might be a little over the top for a coffee table. “We design simple things that are inevitably bloody difficult to make,” Osgerby says. “Or maybe we’re just masochists.”
If they are, it is a masochism born out of obsessive attention to detail and a relentless desire to push materials and manufacturers beyond what they have done before. Their work for Coca-Cola is a case in point. Barber Osgerby’s design for a new plastic bottle was effectively laughed out of the boardroom at the first meeting. “They all sat there in disbelief: we had designed an asymmetric bottle,” recalls Barber. They were told it was impossible, because the bottles had to pack together on the production line, but the designers didn’t give up. Instead, they interrogated the process, realising that as long as the bottles lined up at the top and bottom, the middle section could be any shape. Once again, their double act of charm and obstinate perfectionism convinced Coca-Cola to break the mould.
Such work for behemothic brands suggests they have come a long way since the days of scalpels and card. But do they miss architecture? “Luckily we employ lots of architects,” Osgerby says, nodding to a team of 30 people sitting behind us – their architecture and interiors branch, Universal Design Studio, set up in 2001.
“In this country, when we started out, people found it very confusing that industrial designers were doing architecture – in the way it has always happened in Italy,” he says. “They couldn’t understand why we would be designing decorative porcelain tiles for the interior of a Stella McCartney shop.”
They decided to split the office when they found themselves working with clients who already had a dominant aesthetic agenda – from collaborating on Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy restaurant, to designing shops for Paul Smith. “These people have a very strong visual identity, so we don’t have complete ownership over the design,” Barber says. “With Universal, it is much more of a workshop environment – whereas BarberOsgerby is completely us.”
The separation is an expedient way of retaining their design integrity – and a commercially savvy means of providing clients with the total package, as they demonstrated at a recent exhibition for Sony at the Milan Furniture Fair. BarberOsgerby produced designs for a range of experimental speakers, while Universal crafted a series of otherworldly, soundproofed spaces in which to show them off.
Universal’s portfolio includes stores for H&M and Mulberry and it is embarking on a 35,000sq ft permanent gallery for the Science Museum and a permanent gallery for the Natural History Museum next year.
So what next for this energetic duo? “There’s no limit to the type of work we would do,” Barber says. “Perhaps a bridge might be interesting.”
images Courtesy of Haunch Of Venison Gallery