Creative partnerships are curious things. So much of the process is about subjective taste and individual vision, that the story of how and why two people come together is always interesting. For Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby – the industrial design duo who have worked together as Barber Osgerby since 1996 – what brought them together was mutual mystification as they set out on the Royal College of Art architecture programme.
“We were both quite lost,” Jay laughs. “Honestly we were, right from the beginning. We both arrived feeling pretty confident and I don’t think either of us had anticipated what we were really in for.
“Our first project was hand-drawing the five classical orders of columns which was interesting, but I’d been in Paris on an Erasmus exchange and I’d had my mind blown by industrial design there. So suddenly to come back to this course, we were completely discombobulated by it. We were both so perplexed that we formed this fraternal relationship from the early days.”
Even before the end of their first term the two started working together and Jay moved up to west London from his south London base, “mainly to be able to work with Ed all night long.” Jay remembers these caffeine-and cigarette-fuelled evenings with obvious affection. “Neither of us really saw anybody outside that so it was an incredibly formative period because not only did we become friends we learned how to work together,” he says.
Nearly 30 years later Barber Osgerby is regarded as one of the UK’s leading industrial design studios, thanks to projects like the Tip Ton chair for Vitra, a special commemorative coin for the London Underground and, in particular, the 2012 Olympic Torch. They run two other businesses from their Shoreditch base, Universal Design Studio (which fitted out the east London iteration of the Ace Hotel) and MAP, a “strategy-led creative consultancy.”
Underpinning it all is the combination of their formidable design talents and effective working relationship. “Neither he nor I are egotistical, otherwise we wouldn’t be still doing this together,” Jay says. “We don’t very often disagree but we both also know when to let something go. We’re quite aligned.”
Despite their hectic schedules, their core way of looking at design remains remarkably in tune. Frequently the pair will sketch up potential solutions for a project while travelling, only to come back and find they’ve essentially suggested the same solution. Sketching is still where everything starts; Jay shows me some work for a new chair the pair are working on and points out where they have Tipp-Exed out something they changed their mind on. This sense of immediacy between designers and the design process is evident as you walk through the studios; as well as the Macs there are models and machines all over the place.
“We don’t do anything unless it’s made first. We do computer work once we know what we are doing already.” Across the three businesses Ed and Jay now employ 60 people but, paradoxically, this has actually simplified the demands on their own time.
“We’ve been through the painful bit, when we had to do everything, but now we don’t. We’re on the board of the businesses but we design all the time now. We’re back.”
“People say, ‘What’s your style?’ I don’t fucking know. You tell me mate. Commercially it’s a negative thing because people love to be able to walk into a house and say. ‘Oh it’s a so-and-so.’"
Reading old articles about Barber Osgerby, it’s striking that they’re quite hard to pigeonhole. There’s a restlessness about their creative energy which makes them revel in new challenges.
“We haven’t ever got to the stage where we feel we’ve got into our stride doing something,” Jay explains. “Some designers are on their 20th or 30th chair; we’ve done two or three. Every time we do one it feels like the first one, and that’s common with almost everything we do, which is nice because you don’t come to things with preconceptions. Both of us have quite short memories, which creatively is quite a big advantage because it makes you rethink. We’re like two old guys sitting here going ‘that’s a good idea…’
“A lot of designers and architects and artists have ‘a look’ but everything we do has a different context and we bring so many new references and inputs to a project that we don’t have a look, we have an approach.
“People say, ‘What’s your style?’ I don’t fucking know. You tell me mate. Commercially it’s a negative thing because people love to be able to walk into a house and say. ‘Oh it’s a so-and-so.’ It would be so much easier if we had a set of criteria like so many people do, but we don’t.”
When pushed, Jay hits on dynamism as maybe the connecting thread of the studio’s work. “We’re naturally drawn to things that move; all of our work for Vitra so far has included an element of moving – the Tip Ton chair, the Mariposa sofa, the Planophore Shelving. It’s strange. Previously our work was concerned with apertures and creating views or frames through objects even though they are static. It feels like we’ve gone into a new period, of being concerned with forms that actually move as well as hinting at movement.”
Of course movement played an integral role in the pair’s most famous project, the 2012 Olympic Torch. Its triangular gold body included 8,000 perforated holes to represent the 8,000 runners who carried the torch on its relay around Britain, and the number of miles it covered. Jay describes the high-pressure development process as “fun but arduous” – it had to be tested to withstand everything from gale-force winds to monsoon-like rain and there are some great videos the pair show when giving talks that document the very early prototypes.
Do they ever get bored being asked about it constantly? “No, I am quite disappointed people don’t ask more about it,” Jay laughs. “I feel like a washed-out rock band wanting to talk about our number one hit! It is one of the best things we’ve ever done. It is a funny thing to have done something that you know will be mentioned in your obituary but hopefully there’ll be lots more interesting stuff.”
He glances over at two versions of the torch stood on a windowsill, a rare example of an end product to be found in the studio. Now they can reflect with pride on the project, but Jay admits it was a stressful time as the torch wound its way round the country.
“It was on the front of the Evening Standard for 70 days straight! 50% of the delight at its success was the sheer relief that it didn’t go wrong. Particularly when Steve Redgrave ran into the stadium I was thinking ‘If that goes out now, so will my career…’.”
The torch made it smoothly to its final destination, the Olympic Cauldron designed by their RCA contemporary Thomas Heatherwick. “We hadn’t seen the cauldron. We had no idea what it looked like. It is so far the only bit of his work we’ve set fire to…”
As you’d expect the torch commission and the huge amount of press it received propelled Barber Osgerby onto a new level – they both received OBEs, curated a show at the Design Museum and the jobs got bigger in every sense – a football-pitch sized installation in the V&A’s Raphael Cartoons gallery for last year’s London Design Festival and the carriages for London’s new Crossrail trains.
“What we hate happening is objects that are made on a whim to delight people’s fancy. It’s wasteful, it’s of no interest and it’s intellectually profane. I hate it."
“These big commissions are just fantastic. We’re both really interested in learning and whenever we take on a project like the torch or the coin or these quite big civic projects you have to learn a lot very quickly. We’re both interested in the history of things so it opens up a whole new education.”
The pair are currently working on a tableware set for Royal Doulton and Jay enthuses about their research into how the company made its money (building sewer pipes to help the Government realise the 1866 Sanitation Act – “ people were keeling over in Parliament because of the smell of the Thames!”)
“Once you understand the history of something– whether it’s Royal Doulton, or Vitra or Knoll – and you understand where designers fit into that history, you have a context within which to place an object, selfishly because you want it to be there for a very long time and to sell and to be meaningful for people for all of their lives.
“What we hate happening is objects that are made on a whim to delight people’s fancy. It’s wasteful, it’s of no interest and it’s intellectually profane. I hate it. I am quite anti-fashion really, as much as you can be, considering we’re in design.”
Jay’s passion for this intellectual part of the design process is obvious but he admits that there is an element of uncertainty involved too.
“That’s the addictive part. It’s a little bit like the kick you get from being an entrepreneur as well; you can set out in a particular direction but you don’t know where you are going to end up. It’s pressure and fear and deadlines that help the spark. But there’s a bit of a thrill about the unknown and it’s the same with any creative endeavour. It’s like seeing land coming over the horizon when you’re really desperate for a drink of water; you have these Eureka moments which are the big reward.”
That being so though, does he find it difficult talking about being creative, especially now that there’s a whole inspiration industry, built around creative conferences and Tweetable soundbites? Why does this frenzied interest exist? “Because it’s magical and people don’t understand it,” he says. “It’s like people being fascinated by ghosts, it’s as unbelievable.”
Talking of disbelief, Jay still struggles with the idea that people actually want to hear about Barber Osgerby’s work. “Nothing changes in your own head so it’s nice to hear that people are interested but I don’t know if I believe it really,” he says. But as their profile increases, the duo attract criticism as well as admiration. The Observer critic Rowan Moore described them as “a little Blairite, examples of the tendency to take the inheritance of modernism, rinse out its social aims and turn it to shaping blandly desirable consumables.” Jay bridles slightly, but mounts a thoughtful defence.
“Modernism was a failure. It was a nice -ism but it wasn’t for everybody – Eileen Gray didn’t really sell anything except to her really rich mates.
When I think back to the late 1980s, the design scene in London felt quite bleak. There was high-tech architecture and industrial design but it was remote and not concerned with everyday life – whether it was white sliced bread or crappy plates. You accepted it because it’s what everybody had.
“Modernism was a failure. It was a nice -ism but it wasn’t for everybody – Eileen Gray didn’t really sell anything except to her really rich mates."
“Now everything feels integrated and design goes into everything. I am not sure why. A lot of it has come through advertising I think – what got me thinking about design in the first place was the BBH world of the 80s, realising that things could not only be fantastically interesting and engaging but also commercially sensible.”
The story of design is not one of inevitable improvement though. He thinks the critical climate can be “horrendous” for young designers, although he admits he enjoys seeing some of the most vitriolic blog comments directed at his own work – “I have been forwarded stuff from Dezeen where people go ‘It’s shit.’ I love it.”
The flip side is that Jay thinks it can be too easy to promote yourself in the contemporary climate, developing a personal brand before the work quite stands up to scrutiny.
“When we did the first few projects we basically had to bribe the photographer to take the pictures, take those negatives to the printers to get some prints or some trannies made, send them off in an envelope with a letter to a magazine, only to get them sent back again. There’s something about the effort that goes into all of those steps that’s like a filter – the really good things get through that exhausting process. Now you could spend an hour and a half sketching something, render it then ping it off to a magazine. You haven’t had to really really interrogate it.” He laughs again. “You end up sounding like an old git all the time…”