Barber & Osgerby

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We’re extremely proud of the ever-lengthening list of leading product and industrial designers we’ve managed to ‘force’ ourselves in front of. We’re all too aware that these are extremely busy people and, being true global superstars, are not always easy to pin down.

We’ve had Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby on our radar for years now, although the duo has, until now, eluded us. When we saw the latest Barber & Osgerby designs for Hansgrohe and Knoll, however, we saw the opportunity to chat with the multi-award winning, critically acclaimed pair, whose portfolio also includes groundbreaking product developments for the likes of Cappellini, Vitra and that amazing London 2012 Olympic torch.

Axor_One_Couple-Shower-2_med_brushed-black-chromeSo how did a lad from Shrewsbury and another from Oxford first meet? ‘It was quite a long time ago now!’ Edward concedes. ‘We were studying architecture at the Royal College of Art in the mid-90s. We were friends at college. We had worked together a bit at college on various projects and then, whilst we were still at college, we did a little restaurant together.

‘We were always keen to just get involved and roll our sleeves up – real design. We enjoyed college but we also wanted to start doing practical stuff. Both of us are quite hands-on, we’ve always been making stuff. Even as kids we were always making stuff out of wood and metal.

‘Having designed the restaurant we started designing some furniture and that got us into working with Isokon and then that led us into Cappellini in Italy – and on and on to all the other people we now work for.

‘We started working together ‘professionally’ about a year after leaving college when we started working on another restaurant – in South Kensington. We worked out of my flat in Trellick Tower in west London. We didn’t plan to set up a company, we just thought ‘Let’s do another project’. It just grew from there really.’

‘Then you come to a company such as Vitra, where the brief can be very specific – where the criteria is very specific. It’s very technical and dimensions are very precise because these are products which have to sit very precisely within certain frameworks, whether that be the workplace or the home.’

Not many young designers are plucked from college to work with the likes of Cappellini, we muse. ‘It was a stroke of luck really,’ Edward modestly responds. ‘We’d designed this table – the Loop table – which we did in one night, literally. We didn’t think anything of it. We didn’t actually get it made for about a year and didn’t realise it was going to create such interest. We thought we’d designed a bad table and it turned out to be a really good one! If we hadn’t designed that table our career paths might have been different. We may not have got into furniture – we may have stuck doing architectural projects.’

We move on to ask about the Barber & Osgerby design process. ‘The process is pretty much different for every project we do,’ Edward reveals. ‘It often depends upon whether it’s a project that we take to a manufacturer or whether it’s a project that they give to us – and that’s also changed over time. With someone like Cappellini there’s never a brief really. He might say ‘I need a bit of upholstery in my collection’, but he would never say ‘I need an armchair’ or ‘I need a sofa’. It was always extremely vague – we were free to create whatever we wanted to.

‘Then you come to a company such as Vitra, where the brief can be very specific – where the criteria is very specific. It’s very technical and dimensions are very precise because these are products which have to sit very precisely within certain frameworks, whether that be the workplace or the home.

‘The first project we did with Vitra was the Tip Ton chair and we took that project to them. Now they give us briefs for work – so it’s never the same. If we have a great idea we’ll take it to them, but if they’ve got a certain category to fill then they’ll come to us.

‘It’s actually easier to work with a precise, technical brief because you’ve got parameters to start with. If you’ve already got an idea, then it’s also easy. The worst brief is when someone says something like ‘We just need something great!’ – because you need somewhere to start, whether it’s the material, it’s something for contract use or something for the home…you need a starting point, otherwise this could go on for years!’

Avid readers of this magazine will probably be aware that we were particularly taken by Edward and Jay’s Pilot chair for Knoll, which was launched at NeoCon. We ask how collaboration with Knoll came about. ‘Knoll first came to us about four years ago,’ Jay explains. ‘We’ve done four projects with them now. Their Creative Director came to our studio. He showed up one day and said ‘Do you want to work with Knoll?’ It’s bit unbelievable really! I think that, typically, a company of that size is less proactive in terms of looking for people to work for them because they obviously have a lot of people approaching them.’

‘A lot of the companies we work for get hundreds of requests a week from people wanting to work with them, so it’s really flattering for them to come to us,’ Edward adds. ‘We’ve got a great relationship with them. We’ve done some really nice stuff with them.’

‘Funnily enough we had a conversation in the office, about a week before Knoll approached us, about great companies who had a major presence in North America and how Knoll would be a really interesting company to work with,’ Jay recalls. ‘It’s almost like they heard our conversation.’

‘I think that some US companies swing too heavily towards the commercial side and the creative side is compromised,’ Edward continues. ‘Knoll has never done that, in my opinion. They have an amazing heritage.’

‘Many North American companies are focused on existing needs and are very market sensitive to what is happening today,’ Jay agrees. ‘The companies who we work, such as Knoll and Vitra, have such immense cultures and are in position to form the habits and workplace ideas of the future, rather than simply responding to what’s happening right now.’

‘We actually met Philippe Grohe when we teaching in Switzerland. We did a workshop with him and we started talking then – this was six or seven years ago. We’ve been working on this project for three years now – and there’s more to come. It’s a very technical project.’

Another recent collaboration we mentioned earlier is a move away from the world of furniture, into the high-end bathroom market. ‘When we first started working together – many, many years ago – we listed a number of companies that we felt, at some stage in the future, we should be working with. We chose the best of furniture, lighting, bathroom etc. Axor Hansgrohe was the company that we thought would be the best match for us for the bathroom.

Axor_One_Sketch_Photographed_by_Alexander-Schneider‘We actually met Philippe Grohe when we teaching in Switzerland. We did a workshop with him and we started talking then – this was six or seven years ago. We’ve been working on this project for three years now – and there’s more to come. It’s a very technical project.’

‘In a similar way to how we started working with Vitra – with Tip Ton chair – where we looked to create a new way of using something that’s already very familiar, with Axor we tried to find something very simple, very compelling and very new,’ Jay explains. ‘We wanted to simplify what you find when you get into the shower. Currently, if you walk into a shower in one of the higher-end hotels you might find that you have an overhead shower, a hand shower, body jets – and you have an array of controls and you’ve no idea what to do. This is not only confusing, it’s also incredibly expensive and time-consuming to install.  So we put all the controls into one and instead of using the traditional, rotary, mechanical tap controls, we created an on/off switch – like a ballpoint pen. It’s an incredibly high-end product, but because of its simplicity it reduces the costs significantly.

‘This really appealed to Axor because we were thinking about things from an innovation point of view as well as a styling point of view.

‘That’s what we do – fundamentally we feel that an object has to justify its existence by bringing something new.’

And, in our opinion, bringing something new is what Edward and Jay are just about the best in the business at.