Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby

A book about their work, their first furniture piece for Vitra, a major art gallery show and that little piece of history, the Olympic torch, are making 2011 a momentous year for BarberOsgerby. Jamie Mitchell talks to the duo

For designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, 2011 has been an unforgettable year. During the past nine months, the pair, who head up industrial design practice BarberOsgerby, have seen their design for the 2012 Olympic torch make headlines beyond the design world. They’ve published a book, The Design Work of Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, and this month will unveil their first major gallery show, at the Haunch of Venison in London’s West End. This year has also seen the completion of the duo’s first product for Vitra – the Tip Ton chair – and they are in the midst of some of the most exciting projects of their already glittering careers, including designing the Science Museum’s biggest-ever gallery.

‘For me, designing the Olympic torch has been a highlight, certainly from the perspective of the excitement it generated,’ says Osgerby.

The broadly positive reaction to the torch, a three-sided golden cone punctured by 8,000 laser-cut holes, has been something of a relief for the duo, who were well aware that designing anything for the Olympics could be a poisoned chalice. ‘The thing about the torch is that it’s of interest to most of the nation,’ says Osgerby, ‘so you’re being scrutinised by people who don’t have a special interest in design.’

‘It could have gone incredibly badly,’ agrees Barber, ‘but thankfully it’s been very well received. It’s been called a cheese grater, but we can live with that.’

The London Organising Committee chose BarberOsgerby’s design from some 1,000 entries, and the final product has stayed remarkably true to their initial concept. It was, says Osgerby, ‘one of the few projects we’ve had where we were given a very complex brief but everything just feel into place’. The designers came up with the idea of perforating the torch as a way of reducing weight, then realised that 8,000 holes could represent the runners and also help to dissipate heat from the burner at the top. The three-sided design makes it easy to grip, but also symbolises the three times Britain will have hosted the Games.

But for Barber and Osgerby, the design process isn’t always as straightforward; in fact the pair revel in pushing the envelope, often coming up with ideas that require the very latest technology and manufacturing processes to make them work. Tip Ton, for example, a super-light polypropylene chair developed for Vitra ‘couldn’t have been made 18 months ago’, says Osgerby. ‘At the time when we presented the original design to Vitra, it was wasn’t possible to make something that complex and yet so visually and physically light, because the programs hadn’t been developed that could control to the flow of plastic inside the moulds. It came together only because of Vitra’s passion to get something through, our determination, and the technology moving in parallel.’

The pair’s approach to design and the manufacturing process is fascinatingly brought to life in the new book, which features products and projects alongside essays by leading figures in the design world, including the Design Museum’s director Deyan Sudjic.

Instead of simply reproducing glossy photographs of finished products the designers, who wrote the product descriptions themselves, have taken care to include drawings as well as images of models and raw materials. It’s the kind of book they would have liked when they were students. ‘When we were students and we looked at books about furniture designers and product designers it was all about the finished product,’ says Barber. ‘You might have a sketch in there but you couldn’t follow the whole process. It was always a bit mysterious: how did they get to this perfectly formed piece of plastic?’

Leafing through The Design Work of Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, what’s immediately striking is the breadth of the work, from an asymmetric bottle for Coca Cola to the Loop Table that first brought BarberOsgerby to the attention of Italian architect, designer and manufacturer Giulio Cappellini, and from the folded aluminium facade of the H&M store in Los Angeles to a nautical-themed sculpture in the grounds of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich.

This plurality benefits from the close relationship between BarberOsgerby and Universal Design Studio, the architecture and interior design practice also owned by Barber and Osgerby. The two practices share a studio and a creative partnership. ‘They’re mutually beneficial,’ says Barber. ‘Universal has some of the most talented architects and interior designers working in London, and we have all the BarberOsgerby research and development expertise that we’re able to share with them.’

Originally one company, the two practices were formally split in 2001, though Osgerby says they are moving closer together on projects, such as the new gallery for the Science Museum, which require architecture, interior design and product design in more or less equal measure. ‘I think that the creative disciplines have lost their boundaries and that there’s a lot more diversity,’ says Osgerby. ‘Now you get architects doing lighting schemes and furniture designers doing gallery shows. It’s an interesting time.’

BarberOsgerby’s own gallery show, entitled Ascent, opens at the Haunch of Venison art gallery in Burlington Gardens, London this month. It will feature specially designed pieces – mostly lighting – and reflects the more conceptual side of the practice’s work. As well as sharing gallery space with one of their heroes, American artist Frank Stella, what excites Barber and Osgerby most about the show is the creative freedom it gives them.

The work was inspired by what they see as the ‘intrinsic formal beauty’ of boats and aeroplanes. ‘It’s not so much the finished form of a boat or a plane, but the design language that has inspired us,’ says Barber. ‘It’s about things being streamlined in the sense that they function in the best way possible, the language that comes from function rather than styling – an approach we call hidden design.’

In much the same way as haute couture influences high street fashion, the high-concept pieces in the show will feed into BarberOsgerby’s commercial furniture and interior design. But it works both ways.

‘We often come up with ideas that we can’t exploit during a particular project because it would be too time-consuming or expensive,’ says Osgerby. ‘Those ideas feed into the conceptual work and, in turn, the conceptual work helps to define the direction of our studio work. It gives us the chance to experiment in the way that an artist is free to do, unshackled by function or marketing or sales. That’s the beauty of working with a gallery.’

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

Working on something exciting? Submit your project to Design Curial.

Submit project to DesignCurial