They say that a remote Welsh house beside tempestuous seas helped shape their working relationship, but Barber Osgerby’s output for the past 25 years is anything but erratic
“I guess there are two schools of thought about creatives,” says Jay Osgerby, one half of internationally renowned British design studio Barber Osgerby. “It can be an exercise in inward reflection, sobriety and concentration – the monastic approach – or the other side of it is the idea of a collector who needs to travel, who needs that visual input and to have their finger on the pulse, in order to make observations about how society is changing.” Osgerby says of himself and co-founder Edward Barber, “I think we both fit into the latter, to varying degrees. One of the things which is hard about having our wings clipped is that I do miss the variety of input that you get from travel.”
Having been used to going abroad every couple of weeks to oversee Barber Osgerby projects from numerous overseas clients, which include German bathroom brand Axor, Italian lighting company Flos and furniture stalwarts Vitra, Knoll and Magis, the last few months have been somewhat more domesticated for the pair. “It’s been a really interesting experience for me. I’ve found it really helpful and useful being at home, and then just going into the studio for the creative part of the job,” says Osgerby. “Our process had always been collaborative, though, because we started together at college; it’s how we learned to work.”
We do try to simplify complexity, but at the same time the last thing you want to do is rinse the soul from something
One recent side project for Axor threw light on their formative creative process. Asked by the brand to nominate a ‘personal landscape’ that shaped them, they chose an isolated house on Holy Island, Anglesey, where they would retreat as students and recent graduates (they met at the Royal College of Art), and work through their ideas as sketches: “We did acres and acres of drawings, and while the output wasn’t exactly life-changing, the fruitful part of it was just spending time together and working together without interruption, refining our process.”
Barber and Osgerby put their hours in to the sound of the temperamental Irish Sea, stormy one minute and illuminated by sunshine the next. Which is somewhat the opposite of their output, which is calm, constant and measured. They launched their first product with Axor (a shower system, Axor One) in 2015, and for the last couple of years have been working on a new collection to follow it up, which focuses on reducing resources as well as enhancing user experience.
“We do try to simplify complexity, but at the same time the last thing you want to do is rinse the soul from something,” says Osgerby. “It’s important that you keep the spirit of an object but at the same time, I always imagine many of the things that we work on to be the support act rather than the star of the show. The star of the show is normally the user, and the supporting actors have to be absolutely dependable and are there to make the whole play work.”
Beyond the modern, minimal style that characterises Barber Osgerby’s work, they are frequently interested in creating products that demonstrate some kind of progress from the status quo. That could be sustainability concerns, such as Emeco’s stackable and recycled (and endlessly recyclable) On & On chair, coming to the market in September after a launch at Milan in 2019; portability, such Flos’s battery-powered Bellhop light, conceived for the Design Museum’s restaurant; or bringing an established idea to a broader marketplace, such as Vitra’s instantly recognisable Tip Ton chair from 2011, which features the same lumbar-friendly forward tilt of an expensive office chair but in a simple, solid plastic product ideal for schools.
“We have selective amnesia, so when we start a new project, it’s like it’s the first one,” says Osgerby, “and part of being in a design partnership is that you keep each other’s feet on the ground. We’ve been accused of being too modest in the past, but I think it’s just part of our personalities.”
When we're working on gallery pieces we can be much more expressive and we also get to work with some fantastic independent craftsman. It’s a creative outlet for us
Like many esteemed designers at the moment, they spread their talents between high-end industrial design and more niche, artistic concerns. A two-pound coin designed for the Royal Mint sits in the portfolio with limited-edition works for Galerie Kreo, such as the sculptural Hakone oak table, or the experimental ceramics exhibited alongside related drawings and watercolours at New York’s Josée Bienvenu gallery in 2018.
“The gallery work is where you can try out what comes next for production, and test ideas. It’s very different but very exciting,” says Osgerby. “When we’re working on gallery pieces we can be much more expressive and we also get to work with some fantastic independent craftsman. It’s a creative outlet for us.”
Some of the new launches that were due to happen in 2020 have been postponed, with Osgerby predicting that next year’s Salone in Milan “is going to be a bumper year of new things”. He says that making it a biennial event might be better all round, anyway: “I think it puts huge strain on the furniture companies, it’s a huge expense and it’s unnecessary and incredibly wasteful. I think that companies should just launch off-calendar now. Milan itself will suffer by not having such a big influx, but they will find a different way of doing it. They will cope.”
As designers who have worked with both Knoll and Vitra on products that cross over between home and workplace, Barber Osgerby are talking to both companies about how the rapid change in (and loss of) the conventional workplace that has occurred in just a few short months will shape the future. “Beyond the social distancing thing, coronavirus has just accelerated the trends that were already happening,” says Osgerby. “So, rather than individuals wanting to be ‘owned’ by a company, they want something that’s more like a club, where you go and meet colleagues, report in, brainstorm or whatever. I don’t think people are going to be committed to a desk any more; it just seems like a waste of money.”
With international travel still (just about) off the cards, Osgerby’s own time away from the studio has allowed for a bit of reflection about what it means to be an outward-looking “collector” rather than a designer who finds inspiration from within, and how that affects which companies the pair choose to work with. “Part of that ‘collecting’ mindset is about collecting experiences too,” he says. “Sometimes we will take on a project where we know it’s not the most lucrative thing in the world or a great marketing or PR idea, but because there’s something really lovely about the skills the people have or the passion they have for what they do.” Just as others have found, isolation brings into sharp focus the value of a really good human relationship.