A day in the life of London-based design group BarberOsgerby might include working with a scull boatbuilder on the River Thames or developing an office chair that rocks with the Swiss furniture group Vitra. Here, founders Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby chat with Peter Salhani about their interest in everyday things. PS: You’ve just launched the Ascent exhibition in London at the Haunch of Venison gallery. Tell us about the exhibition and what you mean by the ‘hidden design’ of things?
JO: We’ve had a longstanding interest in what we call the hidden design of things: the shapes and forms engineered to move through air and water; things that aren’t designed to be beautiful, but by their function are naturally beautiful anyway. So that was our starting point for Ascent.
EB: In the process of designing everyday, functional objects, we end up with these strange shapes in our sketchbooks; shapes that aren’t really anything. Working with the gallery gives us the opportunity to turn those into three dimensions, which is exciting because we would never usually produce them. In the show they’re just beautiful objects. Some of them are functional but some are just sculptural forms.
JO: All the objects in the exhibition have been handmade by craftsmen. Working with a gallery you can get around the constraints of mass manufacturing, so you’re much freer to realise objects that would otherwise just remain sketches. It’s rather self-indulgent, but good; almost like research.
EB: Exactly. We can see things in the gallery pieces that will end up in a slightly different way in our products later on. It’s a great way to experiment with materials and techniques that we don’t normally use in objects for mass production.
PS: There’s a growing movement towards local manufacturing, food production and crafts; is that part of your work?
JO: Yes, we work with a lot of manufacturers here now. I think there’s a mini renaissance in the UK in terms of niche high-end manufacturing.
EB: And wherever possible, we love working with craftspeople. All the pieces for the Haunch of Venison show have been made by local woodworkers, metalworkers, textile and papermakers: one piece was made by a scull boatbuilder on the River Thames. The creation of special objects, particularly for galleries, helps keep some of these handcrafts and industries alive. It’s renewing interest in design for people to buy very special pieces that become heirlooms, rather than consumable high street designs. Your first book, The Design Work of Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, was published in May by Rizzoli. How long did the project take and how was it looking back over 10 or more years of your work?
EB: It was quite frustrating really. In our first five or so years we didn’t really collect material or keep things because we never imagined we’d publish a book like this; so it was a struggle to find interesting information and drawings from that period. It’s amazing what we did uncover though, in various boxes in Jay’s house and in mine: old polaroids, sketches and so on.
PS: Having reinvestigated your work like that, what projects do you think really represent the design of BarberOsgerby?
JO: You tend to look at the first thing and the latest thing. So the Loop Table  and the Tip Ton chair  are probably the two that characterise us the most.
EB: I think the Tab lamp  as well because it looks almost like a piece of engineering: quite simple with a very functional quality to it. And, hopefully, a sort of austere beauty as well.
PS: Is that what you seek in your work; the austere beauty in things?
JO: Well, it’s a bit clichéd to say we reduce things to their essence. We don’t. But we do try and create things that are simple but still have meaning in some way.
EB: Minimalism is easy to produce. What’s difficult is to reduce something down but retain enough so it has personality, or a spirit. When I was at school, I was told not to rock on my chair, but your new Tip Ton chair [for Vitra] makes rocking part of the fun. Tell us about the chair and why tilting is good for us.
JO: The reason we all liked to move on our chairs as kids is because we were bored! We now know you need to move to keep your brain working. What the Tip Ton chair does, in a simple, non-mechanical way, is give you the same type of adjustable seating position that you’d get in a forward cantilever chair or an expensive swivel office chair. So you can sit back and listen, but once you move up to the table to work, the chair naturally tips forward and you have a great posture. You also get the sensation of movement, which hopefully keeps you awake and active and your mind working.
EB: We’d like to make it from recycled plastic but some recycled plastics are weaker than others, and strict testing regulations mean you can’t guarantee the quality of every chair to be identical.
PS: Vitra produces work by some of the great Modernists: Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Verner Panton. How did you develop the relationship, and what does it mean to be part of that family?
JO: It means a lot to us. There was always a desire between us and them to work together, but we needed the right project to come along. When Ed and I were commissioned by the Royal Society of Art (RSA) to select furniture for one of their new academy schools, we quickly realised there wasn’t anything available in the market that lived up to our expectations. We wrote a brief for a new school chair and took it to Vitra. They loved it, and we started developing the [Tip Ton] chair together at the end of 2008.
PS: Your furniture and industrial designs are well known, so tell us about your architectural work.
JO: At the moment we’re doing some projects in the museum sector: permanent galleries and architectural work for the Science Museum in London and the Natural History Museum, and we really enjoy that contrast of scale, from buildings to products.
PS: There are several strands to the business: Universal Design Studio (your architecture), BarberOsgerby (your own industrial designs) and Map. How does Map fit into the picture?
JO: Map sits somewhere between the other two – our research and development side, where we test design capabilities for other companies.
EB: It started with Sony. They came to us with a new sound technology and asked us to test its potential. It was a new solenoid technology that can be embedded into different materials such as wood, Corian, or acrylic, creating different sounds. So we made speakers from lots of different materials in different shapes: for instance, a speaker that looks like a lamp hanging over your kitchen table. But Map projects usually don’t result in a finished product. It’s really just thinking and research.
PS: Your industrial designs have an elemental quality to them, many using a single material in a sculptural way. Are materials your starting point, or is it form and function?
EB: Material is almost a secondary thing, unless we are asked to specifically address a new material. Materials have to be appropriate to the function of the object. Take, for example, the Tip Ton chair; we didn’t start by saying ‘We’ll design a plastic chair’. The brief was elaborate in what the chair was to achieve in terms of durability, noise level, ability to be produced quickly and at low cost, colour, and a coating or paint finish that wouldn’t chip. It was very obvious that the chair would be made from plastic, being the only material to achieve all the things it needed to.
PS: Tell us about the Olympic Torch you have designed for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
EB: In August 2010, the London 2012 Organising Committee announced a competition to design the Olympic torch, and from about 1,000 submissions our design won. There were two things we wanted to achieve with the design: the first was to give it a strong narrative, relevant to the relay. There are 8,000 runners in the relay so the body of the torch has 8,000 perforations in its metal skin, each representing a runner. The perforations also made the torch lighter to carry, because effectively it’s a baton. The second feature is its triangular form (as opposed to round). There are many trilogies related to this particular torch relay: it’s the third time the Olympics have been held in London; the Olympic motto is ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’; and the London Games motto is ‘Sport, Education and Culture’.
PS: Any other projects on the drawing board?
EB: Lots on the drawing board, none we can talk about yet.
JO: You’ll have to wait for Milan next year!