A bookcase and sofa with moving parts for Vitra. A tile series with London themed names for Mutina – fog, lead and ink. A contemporary vase made of Venetian glass for Venini. The London Olympic torch. The new Ace Hotel in Shoreditch. A new £2 coin with an image of the London Underground. An exhibition called “In the Making” at the Design Museum in London.
The breadth of the work of London design duo Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby is impressive. Sitting down with Jay Osgerby at the Vitra stand at the Milan Furniture Fair in 2014, I ask if this breadth is a result of the thrill of the chase. “It is,” he confirms. “It really is. There’s something about the thrill of the chase which is really creative. If you have a design education you can apply it to anything, really.”
Moving regularly between different types of design projects has another advantage, bringing a freshness to their approach. “There’s a lot to be said for approaching something with a bit of naïvity,” says Jay. “If you become a specialist, then after a while, before you even start, you already have a conception of what you need to do, and that’s a real risk. It can stifle your creativity.”
I first met the pair in Sydney in 2007. Interviewing them back then for Indesign magazine, they told me about their latest furniture pieces designed under the name Barber Osgerby as well as their architecture and interiors work with Universal Design Studio. Their work was well known in furniture and lighting, and they had just finished designing a sculpture reminiscent of a propeller called The Fluke for the London Design Festival later that year.
Since then, the sheer amount of work they have done is extraordinary, not only continuing to concentrate on furniture and lighting through Barber Osgerby and architecture and interiors through Universal Design studio but also starting a third company called MAP in 2012 which does strategy, research and industrial design for big brands like Panasonic and Sony.
Barber Osgerby is their most hands-on brand, but both Jay and Ed also retain creative control of Universal Studio and MAP – they call them their collaborators. They entrust a lot to their teams, while directing on a regular basis – a balancing act it must be difficult to maintain.
However, there is an ease of manner and an obvious creative enthusiasm that emanates from them both – a design journalist friend of mine remarked on how, as a writer interviewing a designer, they instantly treat you like they’re your friend, wanting your opinion on the design. This universally friendly quality makes you almost feel like you are part of the creative process.
And it’s true – they are instantly collaborative and consultative, and their enthusiasm is infectious, with Jay starting to sketch on a napkin as he explains his latest work within minutes of sitting down. This spirit, curious and generous, allows them to work on so many projects with so many teams, with aplomb.
For Vitra, their work this year includes a beautiful sofa called Mariposa that you could lose yourself in, with flexible sides and back “depending how laid back you are feeling”. It is designed for rainy days spent inside relaxing – as a sofa should be. The design is deliberately understated: “In your house, do you really want a big modern statement?” asks Jay. “I think you want something that recedes a bit – something comfortable.”
Also for Vitra, the Planophore bookcase has moveable vertical shelves, allowing them to become a feature when positioned parallel to the wall, or to make room for books and other items when perpendicular. This way, the shelf can act as a screen – a decorative device – or a shelf for storage, depending on your needs. Movement has been a theme in their work for Vitra following the Tip Ton chair, which allows users to tip forward and balance leaning forward, or rest leaning back.
As with other designers, I’m fascinated by how they make their design decisions – especially when you see what in the context of the Milan Furniture Fair seems like another sofa – or another chair. How do you continue to be innovative?
“It’s really hard,” Osgerby admits. “But we have a duty to the manufacturers to help them keep going as well. That means that we have a responsibility to them – Vitra have needed a sofa for the home for years. Reusing commercial furniture in the home environment is too cold. A real home product is one you want to have in the house.”
This ability to understand their client and to work collaboratively with them to deliver what they – and their clients – need, is one of Barber Osgerby’s true skills, delivering innovation through the creativity of constraints. “It’s completely about relationships with people. You need people who are passionate and responsible. People who want to do something really good. Without that nothing really happens.”
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