Q&A with Barber Osgerby

We speak to two of the most influential names in British visual culture and co-founders of Universal Design Studio about the secret of great design.

Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby met studying architecture at the Royal College of Art in the 1990s, founding their studio as the crest of ‘Cool Britannia’ broke in 1996.

In the intervening years, they’ve worked with leading brands such as Vitra and Flos, designed the Olympic torch for the London games in 2012 and have pieces in the collections of the V&A Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. Originally known as the bad boys of London design – the Noel and Liam of furniture, if you will – they’ve since become emblems of British visual culture, working mostly in product design but also architecture and interiors. In 2001, they established interior design and architecture practice Universal Design Studio, followed by Map industrial design firm in 2012.

Tom Morris: You’ve said your work is typical of user-orientated design. Could you expand on what this means in practice – how you design around human interactions and the effect on what you produce?

Edward Barber: Our philosophy is that, above all, our designs should be useful. We want to create objects that improve people’s lives through an emphasis on function and form. This focus on utility results in what we think are beautiful objects.

Jay Osgerby: We often design based on what we want to use or what we need. Soft Work for Vitra is a perfect example of this – the idea for the design was based on our experience working outside of a traditional office environment, always travelling, and also the culture of freelance work we observed when we designed Ace Hotel London.

TM: How has working as a pair of designers been an advantage to your work? Are there any disadvantages?

JO: We both really enjoy working collaboratively. When we challenge each other on something it often results in our best work, as it produces something quite unexpected.

EB: There are always going to be challenges to working with someone 24/7 but those challenges make us push each other to do better. We’ve worked together for such a long time, so our work is based on a good friendship and we respect each other’s judgments.

TM: How did opening up Universal and then Map helped structure how Barber Osgerby operates?

EB: We’re very involved in all three studios. However, splitting them up enabled us to work with different companies and individuals in a wide range of disciplines. Universal focuses on architecture and interior design, whilst Map is centred on strategic design. This means we get to explore the newest materials and technologies.

JO: There is always an element of collaboration between the three businesses in terms of talent, expertise and ideas that of course benefits the client.

TM: How have you seen sustainability become an increasing concern since you started out? How important is it to your work?

JO: As designers, we are constantly thinking about environmental issues and how we can design responsibly. Aside from using sustainable materials, we strive to make products that are long lasting so that they can be passed down the generations. We also try to work on smaller batch production to reduce consumption and waste.

EB: Our recent On & On chair in collaboration with Emeco, for example, embraces the idea of the circular economy. It’s made from recycled PET bottles and the chair can be endlessly recycled. This is the future of contract furniture.

When we challenge each other on something it often results in our best work, as it produces something quite unexpected.

TM: Do you think there’s a better understanding about how design can impact our physical and mental wellbeing than there was in the past?

JO: Of course, and we are constantly learning more too. We designed the Tip Ton chair for Vitra after researching school chairs for children. The Tip Ton has two seating positions to aid blood flow and oxygen to the brain, and therefore concentration.

TM: How do you know when a design has been successful – is there something you look for in people’s reaction to or interaction with it?

JO: When we’ve had a seemingly impossible brief and managed to work around it to create a product that enhances somebody’s life.

EB: Our idea of success is an object that lasts and is practical. We want our products to be used and enjoyed for years. Seeing people still using the Tip Ton chair in 50 years, that’s a success for us.

A longer version of this article originally appeared in print in the Mill Harbour magazine, if you’d like to receive a copy of the magazine, get in touch.