Barber & Osgerby was founded by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby in 1996. Their work spans furniture, architecture, product and interiors. In 2012 Barber & Osgerby were chosen as the official designers of the London Olympic torch, and in 2013 received an OBE for their services to the industry. We spoke with Edward Barber about work, beauty, and why a glass of wine over lunch is the best creative fuel.
What is your definition of design?
Barber & Osgerby’s Bodleian Libraries Chair under construction, 2014
That probably changes as your career changes. Speaking at the moment, I would say making an object more innovative and better produced than it has been in the past. For me, making something ‘new’ is not enough. You can always make a table out of toothbrushes. I think you have to actually improve on what has been done before.
What is the relationship between beauty and usefulness in your work?
Tableware from the Olio collection, which mixes ceramic, wood, clays and stainless steel in a 40-piece range
They are absolutely equal. Design is about creating objects that are useful. And if an object has been made so that it is useful, it will also be beautiful by consequence. I always go back to looking at objects that have a specific form due to strict conditions. For example, an airplane wing, or a boat hull – these things are designed purely around their function, to move through air or liquid. And they are always beautiful. It is almost impossible to have an ugly boat hull.
So you believe that good design must have constraints?
Barber & Osgerby’s design for the London 2012 Olympic Games torch
To design something with no constraints is an impossible task. There is nowhere to start or end. Jay and I like problem solving, and the best possible brief, whether you set it yourself, or it comes from a client or a manufacturer, is a list of things that seem impossible to achieve. Those are the projects that end up with the most interesting results.
Is working in a partnership essential to your creative process?
Barber & Osgerby at work in their studio in London
It is now! Jay and I didn’t immediately start out working together, but our relationship was cemented by our first project when we realised things were working really well. Then our Loop Table, the first piece of furniture we made in 1997, was picked up by Cappellini; it was very lucky, serendipitous. Some people say, how can you work with someone for 20 years? The bottom line is our friendship is still strong. Some people think we must have the same design brain, but actually we’re completely different. It’s rare that one of us will draw something and the other will say ‘that’s great’! Usually it’s more, ‘you’ve got to be joking’! By the end we’ve exhausted so many options that we end up with something great.
You’ve worked with many notable Italian brands such as Cappellini, B&B Italia, Venini, Glas Italia. Are you inspired by Italy and the Italian design tradition?
Barber & Osgerby Boldeian chair
Working with Italians is a very passionate business. It’s pretty much unparalleled by any other nation, I think. They go out of their way to make things beautiful. Cappellini was the most brilliant example of this.
And then, for course, you’ve got the food. We often do day trips to Italy where we might only have four or five hours to work through a project, but people will still make time for a two hour lunch. It’s not a very British way of working, but actually if you have a glass of wine and start chatting, then it’s very productive. My life is sort of turning more Italian by the day.
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What would you say to a design enthusiast headed to Salone del Mobile?
‘Double Space for BMW - Precision and Poetry in Motion’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum, an exhibition for the 2014 London Design Festival, photo courtesy of Lee Mawdsley
Allocate a day or half a day to the fair itself, bearing in mind you won’t be able to see everything. Then find out where the good restaurants are and cruise around the city of Milan. There are so many interesting installations happening in the city itself – generally speaking, more interesting than what you’ll find up the fair. www.barberosgerby.com