BarberOsgerby: The New Modernists

The names Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby may not be familiar, but chances are you’ve seen their work. As BarberOsgerby, the pair, which met in 1992 at London’s Royal College of Art, have created furniture for Cappellini and Isokon Plus, as well as products like the Lunar bath line for Authentics, an asymmetric bottle for Coca-Cola, and an innovative hanger for Levi-Strauss. As Universal Design Studio, the two have overseen such interior design and architecture projects as Stella McCartney’s retail outlets in London and New York; a partial renovation of London’s Selfridges department store; and Damien Hirst’s now-defunct Pharmacy bar.

Although currently working on their largest project to date—the interiors of London’s Battersea Power station, a former power plant being converted into residential flats and commercial units—most on their mind is the seating they are developing for the De La Warr Pavilion, a landmarked Modernist arts center designed by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff. The building, located on England’s south coast, has been undergoing a massive renovation for its 70th anniversary this year, and BarberOsgerby have been charged with designing furniture that will replace the original pieces done by the legendary Alvar Aalto. The chairs, which will be in place in December, will also be publicly available through Established & Sons.

Recently I spoke to Barber and Osgerby about their methods, why you always must consider a product’s engineering, and what it’s like to be stepping into Aalto’s shoes. Excerpts from the talk follow.

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Could you tell me a little bit more about the furniture for the De La Warr Pavilion?

Edward Barber: The De La Warr Pavilion was built in 1935, and the [British] Government is spending something like 8 million pounds to completely renovate it. Alvar Aalto designed the original furniture for it—it was all plywood—but it is almost all broken now. So [those at the Pavilion] want to start again with new furniture and commission a British designer to do it. The [Victoria & Albert Museum, in London] is involved in it as well, and will be keeping all of our sketches and prototypes to put into their permanent collection. It’s a really great project for us.

Was it intimidating to create furniture that would replace Aalto’s?

Jay Osgerby: It was and remains a challenge. We were very aware that we didn’t want to copy heavily from the previous incarnation, so we decided to change material completely. We’re referencing the building’s architecture rather than the previous furniture.

EB: But also we were asked to do chairs for indoors, for the terrace outside, and for the restaurant and café. So in effect there were three different uses for the chair. What we’ve done is design a chair with a tubular aluminum frame chair that has slight alterations for each use. Like for outside, the chair has a pressed aluminum seat, and then an upholstered seat with arms for the restaurant, and then an upholstered seat without arms for the café.

JO: And the other thing is that the gallery and restaurant spaces that have been refurbished are all brutally Modernist. What we’ve tried to do with the furniture is create brightly colored and quite sculptural forms, which will inhabit these rather plain spaces.

You have two companies: BarberOsgerby and Universal Design. Do you have a different design philosophy for each?

JO: Yes. There are two basic principals of BarberOsgerby: Ed and me. It’s more of a personal enterprise. It’s about us, our design language, and the precise production work that we do.

EB: Whereas with Universal, it’s a very real collaboration with Stella McCartney or Damien Hurst or whoever it is that we are work with. It’s more of a workshop environment where they can have a lot of input into the project, as can we.

During an interview at London’s Design Museum, you were quoted as saying you wanted to look at different ways in which products can be manufactured, not necessarily by new materials or radical rethinking, but by using existing techniques in a more original or intelligent way. Could you explain that?

EB: For example, we designed a bottle for this new Coca-Cola drink [Ipsei, which is available only in Europe.] We didn’t use any new technology, ‘cause Coca Cola had the factories in place. They have around 30 different drinks and all the bottles run through the same process. But what we did do was persuade them to do an asymmetric shape for Ipsei, ‘cause they wanted a bottle that looked very different from others on the shelf.

It was not as easy as it seemed, because we had to rethink the way that the machinery in the system works. The speed at which the bottles go through—60,000/hour—means that if this different shape caused the bottles to snag and come off the machinery, you’d have something like 10,000 bottles on the floor. So we had to work with our engineers to alter the machinery and shape of the bottle, so that it all worked at that high speed.

We didn’t suddenly create a bottle out of a new material. We weren’t using a breakthrough in technology. But we were pushing the technology, challenging what could be done with it.

Do you usually take into consideration different engineering processes?

EB: I think eventually you just have to. Hardly ever are you going to design something where the manufacturer will say, “Yeah, we can do that.” It always will be, “Okay, this bend, this edge detail here is going to create a problem.” You may not know something is a problem if you haven’t worked a lot in that field. I mean, when it comes to things like plywood, we know pretty much know what we can and can’t do. But work in any unfamiliar material, like we are doing with this chair for the De La Warr, and it can get tricky.

But you don’t obsess over the latest material and tech innovations.

JO: We use advances in materials and technology, but rarely in residential and commercial furniture. Because often, [if you do that], you’ll end up with a showcase piece that’s too expensive and over-engineered. Instead, we start with an idea about the technology of an object and some form-based—rather than material-based—innovation.

EB: Also, we never design something that would only last a couple of years, visually or physically. We like things that people are going to cherish and keep.

It’s been suggested that your work is an exercise in reduction. Would you agree with that?

EB: We do simplify things so that there are no unnecessary details. I guess it is an exercise in reduction, but that is not what we set out to do. If you look at the Authentics range, it’s pretty simple. But then it doesn’t need to be any more complicated, in our opinion.

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