Barber and Osgerby, both 39, sit opposite me in their office, a converted Shoreditch warehouse between Old Street and Hoxton Square in london. We are surrounded by prototypes and bits and pieces of some of the 20-odd projects they are currently working on as well as completed items, including a red De La Warr Pavilion Chair, part of Established & Sons launch collection from 2005, nestling tantalising close to a Saturn Stool.
"We have really good fun," says Jay Osgerby, one half of the design duo, "we love what we do so much." BarberOsgerby other half Edward Barber shows me pictures of their stunning Iris tables being created, a collection of five limited-edition tables designed for British brand Established & Sons. On his laptop, we see sleek ribs of metal emerge from a smoky cauldron. "We took the metal down to its finest, light, strongest form from a solid mass," says Osgerby.
Barber and Osgerby are a charming, humorous pair. BarberOsgerby’s portfolio ranges from furniture to lighting, while sister architecture and design practice Universal Design Studio recently completed the exterior of an H&M store on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.
Furniture aesthetics: Iris tables
The Iris tables have been created from a colourful spectrum of sliced aluminium that flickers through a glass top like a seductive eye. Their aesthetic simplicity required a long process of engineering and design refinement. Using a process derived from the metal milling techniques used to create aircraft interiors, the material was machined from solid aluminium and individually anodised, giving each strip a unique embedded colour. Anodising is more of an art than a process, where time, the strength of dyes, and the temperature all affect the final result; one degree out can make all the difference in shade.
The experience sums up the work of BarberOsgerby perfectly – simple ideas crafted into subtle and refreshingly original designs through extraordinary refinement.
"We are not architects," says Barber. "We are bogus," says Osgerby. The two are trying to explain how their backgrounds, both in design and architecture, have given them the freedom to explore the potential of design. For the current Super Contemporary exhibition, BarberOsgerby is one of 15 London ‘creatives’ commissioned by the Design Museum to create something that would contribute to the life of the capital. Their Listening Station is based on the concrete dish structure at Dungeness and amplifies distant sounds such as birdsong in places dominated by the din of traffic.
They tell me that the advantages of both a design and architecture background have manifested themselves in the way that they interpret space and its relationship with any object. "If you think about space, rather than just the object, you can see how the object fits in space," explains Osgerby. "A lot of our furniture pieces have a volume of air or space around them."
Like any great duo Barber and Osgerby spark off each other. Bearing more than a fleeting resemblance to one another, the tall, straight-talking Barber and shorter, cheerier Osgerby could be brothers. They have been friends since meeting in the mid-1990s during postgraduate architecture studies at the RCA. After graduating, one of their first projects was the design of a restaurant. A rejected piece of furniture that didn’t make it into the restaurant, the Loop Table, went on to become a 20th-century classic, with a place in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The Loop Table was exhibited at London’s 100% Design furniture fair in 1997 and snapped up by Italy’s most progressive furniture maker, Cappellini. The success of Loop Table meant that soon other Italian manufacturers started calling and BarberOsgerby embarked on projects with some of the best in the business including Magis and Flos.
Universal Design Studio
In 2001, they launched a separate interior design company, Universal Design Studio, which has designed shops for Stella McCartney and Paul Smith, as well as Virgin Atlantic airport lounges and Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy restaurant. With success came awards including the revered Jerwood Applied Arts Prize, which they won in 2004.
They put their successful working relationship down to the fact that the two friends have never worked for anyone else. "We literally just got in there straight from college," explains Barber. "When you get a studio together, meet new clients, get some recognition and win awards together, the whole the thing grows quite organically."
There is no identifiable BarberOsgerby style. "As a practitioner you can’t see it," says Osgerby. Barber goes on to explain: "If you take the Filo sofa and the RIBA desk, they are very different in their language. Someone might be able to connect the two, but I can’t see it myself.’
Iris was inspired by colour charts used during the design process. A similar process was employed with the Pantone versions of their successful flight stool, but for Iris they wanted to do something different.
"The whole concept of the Iris table was to turn the idea that the colour is added post design on its head," says Barber. Each table in the Iris series is constructed from a single geometric component, which has been repeated to form a tessellated ring – the Iris 150 is made up from 60 individually coloured components. The tables are shaped to show off the selected colour combinations to their best advantage.
Iris is produced in five different variations, each with its own specific colour spectrum from blue to yellow / orange, and as a limited edition. Each table is unique – every component is individually anodised creating a colour specific to it, while hand-finishing processes create subtle differences.
Collaborative design: the BarberOsgerby method
Every project BarberOsgerby approaches is a collaboration. They are as comfortable working together on mass production projects for big manufacturers like Flos as they are creating edition pieces such as Iris and one-off commissions like the Filo sofa for a private client. "We do a lot of commissions for wealthy individuals," reveals Barber. "For us it is a really good time to experiment."
The Filo project gave them the opportunity to look at a sofa in a different way. ‘We deconstructed it,’ says Barber of the sofa with no springs or foam. "There is no styling, just lots of blankets to build up the comfort." "One-off editions are a catalyst," adds Osgerby. "Special commissions are much freer because normally the budgets are grander, which means that you can look outside your material frames of reference to do something really quite extraordinary."
Barber and Osgerby have a studious appreciation of detail and a technique that sets them apart from many of their brasher contemporaries. Their style is a way of thinking about design. "We do not shy away from craftsmanship and hand-beating a design out of metal," explains Barber. "For us that adds incredible value to a product. It doesn’t have to be mass-produced plastics or injection moulded." Osgerby agrees: "Virtual design is big at the moment," he says. "You set up a programme that says ‘make a chair’, press a button and the chair is created. There is a place for it but it’s not our thing."