As if in the perfect opening scene from a film of their lives, designers Jay Osgerby and Edward Barber met at the Royal College of Art (RCA) when they were allocated desks next to each other. “The RCA has such an incredible reputation, and we had both come off different degrees with a huge amount of anticipation for this incredible moment, [believing] somehow the place itself would transform us,” says Osgerby.
As Barber Osgerby, the pair (Edward, 52, and Jay, 51) have gone on to produce some instantly recognisable work, from 2012’s Olympic torch to Flos’ Bellhop lamp and the Vitra Tip Ton chair. Along the way they’ve opened studios and exhibited around the world, been awarded OBEs, the Royal Society of Art's Royal Designers for Industry title, and created architectural and interiors company Universal Design Studio, and an industrial design company, Map.
In reality, the RCA was, says Osgerby, “just a college, with some really nice, interesting people and lots going on”. But, he says: “We both had a sense of ‘Is this it?' We were looking for some adrenaline.” The ambitious duo started working on projects outside of college, building a bar and restaurant in South Kensington: “We were doing our college work in the day, but we wanted to be involved in the real world, too,” says Osgerby.
The restaurant experience gave them the chance to make mistakes together: “We learned about how to deal with clients, how to deal with construction, how to collaborate. It was a great education in parallel to what we were being taught at the RCA.” This was the first defining point of the pair’s journey. “Our education was born from collaboration,” says Osgerby, and they worked out how to manage projects, employ people and file accounts. However, Osgerby adds: “We’ve always been really aware of what we can’t do. While we’ve been ambitious to be incredibly multidisciplinary, when it comes to the fundamentals of business we’ve always brought in great people to help.”
While we’ve been ambitious to be incredibly multidisciplinary, when it comes to the fundamentals of business we’ve always brought in great people to help.Jay Osgerby
The pair are fascinating to watch, conversationally, and it’s not hard to see why their partnership works well. There is mild, good-natured disagreement at every turn, followed by good-natured resolution. The design process is similar, the less talkative Barber concurs: “We mostly don’t agree on design stuff throughout the project,” he says, “but ultimately one person is talking more sense than the other, in each little twist and turn of the project and by the end we have a project we’re both happy with.”
Osgerby does say: “The first decade was a mix of joy and absolute terror, proper not-sleeping-at-night worry, before we could get to the point of even building a team. But when we brought in people who could really help us, it gave us the mental space to think creatively.” Being asked to design the Olympic torch for 2012 was a defining moment, he says. “I watched the 1992 Winter Games, where Philippe Starck designed the torch, and I realised it was the only way you could represent your country in design. And that became an option for us in our professional lifetime.” In design terms, it encapsulated everything the pair stand for.
Says Osgerby: “It carried a lot of narrative in its design, and it pushed British manufacturing to be a beacon. We used the very best aerospace tech to get it made.” The pair worked on the design for two years, “night and day”, before only just being invited to the opening ceremony at the last minute (thanks to a news interview revealing they hadn’t been).
Osgerby also cites the Vitra Pacific chair as a crucial point in the Barber Osgerby story, true to the principle of "full performance, quiet design". “It was a project that rethought the way that work-live happens, and a response to the way we’ve thought about chairs as machines we sit on.” Barber Osgerby’s first project for Vitra, the iconic all-plastic tiltable Tip Ton chair, is ten years old this year. Last year Vitra released Tip Ton RE, made from recycled polypropylene, and later this year it will launch a Tip Ton miniature, poster and limited edition artworks designed by Barber Osgerby.
The pair recently launched a range of purist taps and showers for Axor, the bathroom brand that ticks all the Barber Osgerby user-experience boxes. “The project means you can conserve water and have greater precision of water flow control and experience,” says Osgerby. “We spend a lot of time with engineers and technologists, and water is a particularly big topic.”
The workplace of the future is a real area of interest for the pair. Says Barber: “The real challenge for most people now is how to create a workable office space in their home that can also be tidied away, or doesn’t dominate their living room or their dining area or their kitchen – something that’s usable and functional that can be somehow hidden.” He adds: “Everyone’s connected everywhere, so the future of the office is really a piece of upholstery. It’s basically a sofa. That you can sit on, that has a table, power and can be configured in many ways, and has a sort of architectural element to it."
Barber Osgerby’s work is, in some ways, hard to define. It ranges from £2 coins (in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the London Underground) to chairs for the De La Warr Pavilion, and Japanese-style paper lights to V&A installations. It’s often quintessentially British, yet spans international clients, from Knoll and Cappellini to B&B Italia and Swarovski. At the same time, it’s easy. “Really, what we’re doing is making one version of something that will be made a lot more times for loads of people to live with,” says Osgerby. The difference between what they do as designers and what they do as artists, is, he concludes: “You’re appreciated by millions, but your objects are in the singular numbers. It’s a different way of seeing the world.”