words Alex Wiltshire
“Bloody gorgeous that hull,” says Jay Osgerby, one half of furniture and product designer BarberOsgerby. We’re flicking through a series of photos of things that inspire them; we’ve already admired aeroplane wings and, rather less obviously, motorway crash barriers.
But boats hold a particular fascination. “It’s lovely, all the little details on them, the cleats, rollocks … such a nice combination of materials,” says Jay.
“Everything’s got to work, and work well – it’s not a style thing, it’s function. It’s amazing,” says Edward.
BarberOsgerby’s studio is upstairs from a sari shop in Whitechapel, east London. The pale tiled floor, white walls and desks and Eames Aluminium Group chairs are a disarming contrast to the grimy energy outside. Which is not to say it’s particularly tidy – piled here and there are boxes of their products that they’ve gathered for the exhibition of the Jerwood Applied Arts Prize for furniture, which they won in September.
Jay (short, friendly, quick-speaking and droll) and Edward (tall, stern, straight-talking and serious) met on the architecture and interiors course at the Royal College of Art 12 years ago. They achieved critical and commercial success soon after leaving with the Loop table, and have since quietly built a reputation for designing graceful and simple furniture and products – from tables and chairs to bottles and clothes hangers. They also established Universal Design Studio in 2001, an architecture and interiors company that has completed commissions for Stella McCartney and Damien Hirst.
The judges awarded BarberOsgerby the Jerwood prize because its work “combines clarity, coherence and beauty”. These characteristics are defined by a rigorous pragmatism that demands that every detail is pared down to its essentials. The designers admire boat hulls because they’re strong believers in beauty arising from function. And as a result, they’re wary of the word “style” being attached to their work. “What would you say our style was?” Edward asks. “Almost everyone says that we have one and we’re asked to define what that is. It would be interesting to see what you think.”
Elegant, sober, careful … “I’m not fishing for compliments!” says Edward. But these aren’t necessarily compliments, and some people actually regard them as …
“Boring,” interjects Jay.
BarberOsgerby’s work stands apart from the current trend of provocative, “one-liner” conceptual design, where the idea behind a design comes before its functionality or beauty. “I find it irritating, actually,” says Jay. “If you know your stuff you’ve seen it all before. It’s dull.”
“It’s not something we do, turn on a look or style. There’s a reason for everything we’ve designed,” adds Edward.
A particularly beautiful design of theirs is an oak bench created for St Thomas’ Cathedral in Portsmouth and now in production with Isokon Plus. But its functional considerations were apparently foremost in the designers’ minds. They wanted it to be strong enough to last 100 years and wide enough to seat three people, yet be light enough for one person to pick up. “It has that elegance but in the same way when you strip something down like that it always has an elegance,” says Edward.
The Portsmouth bench has just led to them being commissioned to design all the furniture for the continuing renovation of Erich Mendelsohn’s De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea. “We’re not going to try to mimic anything Alvar Aalto [the designer of the original furniture] did, we’re going to design some proper contemporary furniture that we would want to do,” says Edward.
The designers have been engaged with architecture since they were at the RCA. Edward intended to be an architect, and Jay, having done a degree in furniture and products at Ravensbourne College, moved on to architecture for his MA. They created the Loop table for a bar they designed in Kensington, west London, just after graduating. The table didn’t fit in the budget, but Jay and Edward knew they were on to something and decided to prototype it. Furniture was a direction that felt right to Edward: “I realised I was much more interested in small- scale, tangible, details-based design than the bigger construction stuff.”
Jay sees now that Loop was inspired by their architectural background. “I’d never really thought about it before but there’s this whole cantilever thing and the nature of making a volume through an open form. It’s quite lucky to start your career with a coffee table because – this is a bizarre thing to say – it doesn’t have much of a function but it’s a centrepiece. You can put some design language in and it doesn’t actually have to do very much.”
“Also the thing is about the Loop table, we like to design things that people will have for as long as they survive,” says Edward. “There’s no reason why Loop can’t be used in 10 years’ time. It’s not something you’ve bought because it’s funky and a bit of a laugh. It does what it’s supposed to do. We don’t design stuff in a style. Looking back on it, people see the Loop table and say that it’s in a style, but actually – and I’m not claiming we’re the first – we did that in 1996 and at the time that radius corner stuff just wasn’t around. But from then you saw it everywhere.”
“Have we still got that new John Lewis catalogue?” asks Jay.
“Nah, I threw it out when I tidied your desk yesterday,” says Edward, explaining that Loop is featured in a room set on the front cover. “It took seven years for that to diffuse down the line.”
Looking back over BarberOsgerby’s work, you realise that it is not exactly prolific. But the duo counter that they’re also involved with Universal Design Studio. They established it to differentiate between their interiors and architectural projects and their products and furniture design, and it’s run separately from BarberOsgerby.
“We don’t really run the studio – having said that, we sort of do at the moment,” says Edward. “When things get a little fraught you end up getting involved.” What do they mean by fraught? “Jon’s [Jonathan Clark, Universal’s director] wife is about to have a baby.”
“It’s just natural – you can’t stop people from having babies really,” says Jay.
“You can,” says Edward.
“You can with a bit of minor surgery or a kick in the right place!” says Jay.
BarberOsgerby hasn’t really changed in its structure since we left the RCA – it’s just us working. Very simple and easy to manage that way, and also you can be a bit footloose and flexible.”
The division allows Jay and Edward to retain complete control over their product design. “With retail interiors you can’t have 100 per cent your design philosophy and language because of course it’s about collaboration. If it’s Stella McCartney’s shop she wants some input.”
Edward picks up one of the tiles the pair designed for the Stella McCartney shop on Bruton Street in central London. “The tile itself is quite a hard geometric shape but if you put them together on the wall it gives a decorative feel. It’s just something we’d never really done before. But because we were working in a sort of workshop, with her and us, you end up doing things slightly away from what we normally do.”
“It’s quite nice having the two disciplines,” says Jay. “You get a different outlook with each one; opportunities for one arise from the other.”
This care in the way the company is presented goes right down to the business cards, on which the address and fax are printed lighter than the more commonly used phone number and email address. “I think it’s important for us – we’ve always wanted BarberOsgerby to be focused and uncluttered,” says Jay.
This attention to detail makes them come across quite hard-nosed, but they’re actually very informal and easygoing. Jay in particular is very funny, interjecting deadpan one-liners into conversation. Are they still close friends?
“Not really, no.” Jay says it so seriously it’s momentarily hard to see that he’s joking.
“It’s getting very tense now,” says Edward, equally deadpan.
“No, it’s great really,” says Jay.
“That’s the key thing actually,” says Edward. “You’ve got to be friends, otherwise …”
“He was my best man,” interrupts Jay.
When was that? “When I got married,” he laughs. “Four years ago.”
“What was I going to say?” says Edward.
“About being friends – you were about to lie.”
“If there’s no friendship it just makes it much more difficult. Also it probably lacks a dimension,” says Edward.
“I think the thing is that we’re not egomaniacs – we don’t have personal agendas. For us it’s just a joint thing.”
“If we were setting out to be ‘design stars’ then we’d probably be a bit more like, ‘I want to get ahead’.”
“Like me not telling him icon was coming today,” Jay grins.
“Unfortunately I showed – I sensed something was up.”
The early success of the Loop table has so far enabled BarberOsgerby to choose the clients and manufacturers that suit it. It has built up strong relationships with companies like Cappellini, Flos and Isokon Plus so that Jay and Edward are in the position of writing their own briefs for speculative projects. Jay explains that working to a brief is crucial to them: “It’s all about the development of a brief that allows us to be conceptually challenging and that at the same time restricts it enough for us to focus in a particular area. It’s important that it’s not just a blank canvas – that’s the way we work best, within parameters, because it promotes innovation and ideas.”
When a client approaches them with a specific project, Jay and Edward want them to have a strong idea that defines it clearly. Edward cites the hanger they developed for Levi’s Twisted jeans. “It was a new type of denim and it was full of challenges because we had to make both the hanger and clothes look three-dimensional, as well as getting them to stack inside each other.” The eventual design entailed BarberOsgerby having to convince Levi’s to sew two loops inside the waist of each pair of jeans that hook onto it.
So have they achieved any of their ambitions in design? “It feels like early days – it shouldn’t do but it does,” says Jay. “Things go very slowly. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was chuffed with what we’ve done so far. There’s a lot to do though.”