A wide-ranging discussion with Helen Osgerby, design lover and the brains behind online store Simple Shape, takes in the changing precinct of Deptford in London, serendipitous encounters with like-minded individuals, the role of narrative and storytelling in design, and the (almost literally) polar-opposite weather: balaclava-cold in London, oven-hot in Sydney.
Our rapport is instant, despite the distance, perhaps thanks to Osgerby’s approach to design, which is very much focused on storytelling. “When something has a story attached it, it has a resonance,” explains Osgerby. “That was one of the things that was important in thinking about the business. It’s about quality too – feeling a glass jug is handblown for example, it’s very skilled and unique and incredible.”
I first heard about Simple Shape from Helen’s husband Jay Osgerby, half of London design studio Barber Osgerby, so it’s no surprise to learn that Helen is fully immersed in the design community, with plenty of knowledge and contacts (she tells me a story about working with “jelly architects” Bompas and Parr for an event where they decided it would be great fun to explode some jelly).
But a love of objects has always been part of Helen Osgerby’s life, even before Jay. She recalls some six-foot-tall bespoke candles she bought at 18 years of age, and a wicker chair which took up almost her whole bedroom: “When I look back, it was quite a funny thing to buy when I was 17, a large, not-very-nice wicker chair!” From these early beginnings, Osgerby’s preoccupation with objects has continued to grow.
Now, living in Brockley, in London’s South East, Osgerby’s interest in design objects has been sparked afresh by the local designer-maker community in Deptford that is transforming a once-industrial neighbourhood into an arts, craft and design precinct. Perhaps because of the nearby art and design campus Goldsmith’s, or perhaps just drawn to an up-and-coming area with plenty of old industrial buildings suitable to be repurposed as workshops, the creative designer-makers, including potters, woodworkers and milliners, are transforming old tea warehouses, carpet warehouses, even railway arches, into creative spaces.
For Osgerby, this proximity has allowed serendipitous connections that have been invaluable for the business. One example is Elliott Denny from Elliott Ceramics who is based in Deptford; Osgerby met him by accident, and it was only when they started to chat that he mentioned his ceramics work. “He’s quite quiet and I was talking and talking about my concept and he just said, quietly: ‘I can make you some pots.’ I said, ‘where do you sell them?’ and he said, ‘I don’t’. The upshot was, he took a month off printing and made a collection.”
Osgerby’s reach extends beyond Deptford and London, including makers from all around the UK and Ireland, reviving a market in hand made goods that was lost to mass manufacture. Now, the pendulum has swung so far back, it’s almost impossible to imagine that only 50 years ago, the most prestigious and sought-after objects were those mass manufactured items made of plastic (just think: tupperware parties were once the height of sophistication).
In a way, Simple Shape is connecting two very ready groups: the consumer seeking a unique object and the maker who wants to make a living out of selling their work. “There are lots of people who sell their work, but very few places where you can just buy things that are made here,” Osgerby explains. “Also, when you’re designing and making something and crafting it with your hands, it’s often very difficult to sell it. I wanted to provide that too.”
This is the simple premise of Simple Shape, a place to buy hand-made, beautiful objects online, all by UK/Irish makers. But what the site achieves is so much more than that – and it’s Osgerby’s skilful curation of objects and clarity in her storytelling that sets this store apart from the others.
Here, Osgerby shares five objects and makers in her own words.
1 Eleanor Pritchard (Peppercorn blanket). It’s a beautiful lambswool, super-soft blanket. Eleanor’s studio is just down the road from where I live. Her use of pattern, colour and texture is incredible. She has a huge loom in her studio that she samples everything on and then the blankets are woven in Lancashire. She has a great way of making something seem absolutely new and yet like it’s been around forever and is completely timeless.
2 Superfolk (Large Ash Trivet). This is such a lovely tactile piece and really useful too. I met the designers behind Superfolk at a trade fair in London. They’re a husband and wife team,they design together and work from their workshop on the West coast of Ireland. They hand make each piece.
3 Elliott Ceramics (the pastel ceramics collection) I met Elliott by accident! He is a graphic designer and printer and I went to talk to him about his print work and then he showed me the porcelain cups he’d been making…I fell in love with the delicate pastels and he took a month off from his print work to design, develop and make the collection for Simple Shape when we launched in May last year! It was a very fortuitous meeting!!
4 Scott Benefield of BTU Studio (Handblown glass jug or pouring bowl). I haven’t met Scott but I’m going to Ireland later this month and will meet him then! I am completely fascinated (and perhaps slightly scared!) by glass blowing. These pieces are so beautiful and delicate and yet they come out of an incredible furnace.
5 Rosie Brewer (Jigsaw Food Boards). These are simple, functional and look great. And Rosie is so lovely! Her story is lovely, she grew up on a Saw Mill in the countryside in Devon, went to art college in London but kept finding herself in the woodwork rooms. In the end she realised that she just had to work with wood so she went home, borrowed her grandfathers tools and set herself up in the garden shed!
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