To face the surge of interest that will inevitably follow news of their high-profile commission, Barber Osgerby rather refreshingly presents no pompous design manifesto. Instead, the hallmark of its designs seems to be an old-fashioned and studious appreciation of the problem at hand. The Tip Ton Chair for Vitra, for example, emerged from an invited critique of British school furniture by the Royal Society for Arts.
"Britain's school furniture is really bad," says Barber. "It's unpleasant, low-cost and cheap. And not just in the value sense: it looks cheap." Like the design equivalent of Jamie Oliver and school dinners (but thankfully without the evangelism), Barber Osgerby set about improving an area of mass-market design that has been much blighted by decades of cost-saving measures.
Working from Swiss research that shows that allowing slight movement in a chair can increase blood flow and concentration, Tip Ton chair allows a nine-degree forward tilt that gives the sitter two positions for comfort and better posture. To people who grew up thinking that swinging on your chair was a detention-worthy offence, Osgerby counters: "It's actually a piece of research that's been around since the Seventies." The pair claim that no designer has turned an eye to the problem seriously since Robin Day's Polyprop chairs for Hille in 1962.
Similarly made of polypropylene, Tip Ton improves on Day's chair by achieving a singular design that incorporates movement with low cost and strength. The chairs are stackable, fully recyclable and manufactured from a single cast to dispense with the need for many component parts. "So much thinking has gone into things you can't see," says Osgerby. "The job this chair has to do is unbelievable."
Aesthetics were paramount: a slender yet robust solution was key in attracting Vitra's interest. Barber says (quoting chief executive Rolf Fehlbaum): "It's all very well that it functions well and meets standards, but it has to be elegant and poised. You have to create a character for a product."
To go with Tip Ton, there's also a clever table design. Again, it's a challenge to the existing condition of laminate-topped chipboard on pressed steel legs, miserably afflicted by years of graffiti and hardened chewing gum. Barber Osgerby developed a strong die-cast leg bracket that removes the need for a rail to go all the way around the underside, reducing costs and adding flexibility. "It's the most pragmatic design we've ever done," says Osgerby. The bracket can be moved to different positions that allow the table to link and stack. They match with four pre-drilled holes in the tabletop. In six different shapes, the table caters to the flexible teaching situations of contemporary education, although the habits of some schoolchildren will remain the same. Osgerby adds: "Maybe we should have put in holes for chewing gum, too."
Barber Osgerby is also working on a series of precious art-vases for Venini in collaboration with "maestro glassblowers" to realise their colourful, sculptural designs. "It's the antidote to the school furniture," says Barber. "It couldn't be more freehand and fluid. It's much more fun to do something where you don't know what you're going to get." Also new is a ceramic wall-light for FLOS, which is as yet unnamed. "Ceramic is another material we're interested in," says Osgerby, "The Tab lamp we did for FLOS had a ceramic reflector and this is a kind of continuation of that interest."
As designers who are interested in the whole spectrum of the industry, Barber and Osgerby succeed at bringing a graceful touch to all their work, whether it be bespoke art objects or standard-issue school furniture. Neither have worked for anyone else – they set up their studio in 1996 after meeting as architecture students at the Royal College of Art. Hard at work behind the quiet facade of their designs is the careful knowledge of materials, structures and processes they've gained along the way. "We graduated as part of that cross-disciplinary generation," says Osgerby. "The Italian method: learn architecture, design products. You don't seem to get that as much any more."
ICON Tell us about Bulb, one of your new projects for Milan.
TD I've been irritated by the current crop of energy-saving bulbs. They have an unpleasant light quality, a lack of innovation in shape and tend to be uninspired copies of conventional ones. Bulb is inspired by modernist thinking: the idea that a naked bulb is a beautiful thing, a symbol of technology and progress. The glass gives it a luxurious feel; metallising concentrates the output to make a sharper light effect.
ICON You'll also be extending your digitally manufactured light shade range, Etch. Will we be seeing more of this process?
TD It's used for precision parts, most often in electronics. I started thinking about digital manufacturing a while ago, and have been constantly seeking ways to cut down our speed to market and increase flexibility.
ICON Why did you decide to create Multiplex?
TD I always find the convention of showing prototypes in a trade-fair setting unsatisfactory, so we are constantly fighting to show our production in more engaging ways. The fair is a great place to talk about food and commerce, entertainment and communication and, given the evolution of the Salone into more of a design carnival than a stuffy trade fair, we think people need to be looked after a bit better than before.
ICON What can we expect from the space?
TD It's organised as a series of working environments where visitors can check out our furniture being used and use it themselves. There's a pop-up restaurant and tea room, a shop, a viewing theatre and an editing suite where scouts will be taking videos and images from other events and putting them up on a giant wall of information screens.
ICON What will you be seeing in Milan this year?
TD It's too early to tell – but the new Ventura Lambrate zone (an industrial satellite town of Milan), will definitely be worth a visit for something more radical and fresh than the established venues.
credit Tom Mannion
Grossman brought sleek Swedish modernism to the USA, where she emigrated with her husband, the jazz bandleader Billy Grossman (the "Benny Goodman of Sweden") just before the Second World War broke out. The first woman to receive a Swedish Design Award, she opened a design shop – Magnusson-Grossman Studio – on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills to sell "Swedish modern furniture, rugs, lamps and other home furnishings". Her celebrity clients included fellow Swedes Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman. America soon claimed her as one of their own. In 1952 the US Department of State distributed an article about the designer in 75 different countries to present "a true picture ... of the American way of life".
Grossman believed in a totally designed environment. In the 1950s she built 14 hilltop homes in California, several of which are still standing. They were propped up on stilts on difficult sloping sites with curtain walls of glass overlooking canyon views. Between 1946 and 1960 John Entenza's influential Arts & Architecture magazine (the sponsor of the Case Study House Program) featured Grossman's work in nearly every issue, and her buildings were immortalised by the legendary architectural photographer Julius Shulman.
The Grasshopper floor lamp is perhaps Grossman's best known piece of industrial design. First produced in 1947 for the Ralph O Smith lighting company, it has a tripod stand and tilts back to an aluminium bullet-shaped shade mounted on a flexible arm. The Cobra floor and table lamps, created the following year, are named because their shades mounted on bendy tubular stands resemble snakes' hoods (some had double shades). The lights won a Good Design Award in 1950 and were exhibited at the Good Design Show at the Museum of Modern Art.
ICON What's your favourite design that you'll be showing in Milan?
BH The Maritime chair for Casamania. We used a shipbuilding technique to create a skeleton and then skinned the inside with plywood. It's a very robust structure and has a unique, distinctive language.
ICON And of your lighting projects?
BH The Roofer lamp for Fabbian was a challenge to create something very accessible and mass-produceable. It's a frame with soft polymer tiles that clip on – like a roof tile, basically. It's extremely low cost but allows for a big degree of customisation.
ICON Your Crane Lamp for Orsjo (Icon 093) had a starting point in something industrial too. Whether a roof, a ship, a crane ...
BH Yes, that's definitely a theme that runs through my work. I like the idea of referencing things that aren't really about design. Things that are quieter.
ICON Tell us about Treis for Kundalini.
BH Most lamps are spheres or cylinders – it's to do with the revolved production process. The challenge here was to create something a bit more dynamic. To do that we've been working with a metal-stamping factory: the kind that would stamp an aluminium car bonnet. That's the industrial reference. The faceted diffuser is a bit like a car headlight or a torch.
ICON What is the next direction for your studio?
BH The luggage projects I'm launching for Colors Tokyo are particularly interesting. Learning about textiles and garment construction has been a move into something completely new. We'll also be doing an installation and exhibition space for them.
ICON How does it feel to be a relatively small British design outfit at such a big fair?
BH I don't feel like a British designer, I feel like an international designer. Nationality is important but if you're going to be globally successful you need broad appeal. Scandinavian companies and their sensibilities are almost opposite to Italian ones, but we've been managing to cross cultures.
ICON By using references that are simple enough to transcend language?
BH I suppose. As long as it's not a cliche. That's dangerous ground.
credit Benjamin Hubert Studio