Portrait of Ed Barber and Jay Osgerby by Jessica Klingelfuss.

Dons of Design

Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby

We take a look at some of the furniture and products by British designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby.

In a recent interview on the Clever Podcast, (which is well-worth a listen), Edward Barber explained his view on the role of designer in the modern world. “Our job as designers is to make things which answer problems for people in a really beautiful way that you’re never going to get bored of. Things that function flawlessly and often over time reveal more about themselves to you. They’re things that you discover later, or they’re things that you grow to love and that you never tire of. And I always think that if we can make something that after you’ve finished with it, can be given away or resold or handed down, I think that’s for me, the ultimate sustainable approach to creation of things.”

"Our job as designers is to make things which answer problems for people in a really beautiful way that you’re never going to get bored of."

Edward Barber
Loop table for Isokon Plus (1996).

Neatly summed up like that, the job of a designer is made to sound so simple. Yet the reality of delivering products that achieve these multiple aims is exceptionally complicated, and often dependent on a special alignment between designer, manufacturer and contemporary culture. Over the last two decades Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby have engineered that special alignment on multiple occasions, and perhaps more than many of their contemporaries, grasped the opportunity to reinvigorate what a design practice looks like in the early 21st century.

Portsmouth Bench for Isokon Plus (2002). Image courtesy of Barber & Osgerby.
Zero In table for Established & Sons (2006). Image courtesy of Established & Sons.

The pair first met and became friends while studying architecture at the Royal College of Art. They began working on their first interiors project together while still at the College, and founded their East London studio in 1996, soon after graduating. Although the initial years of working together saw a focus on architectural and interior projects, one piece of furniture they designed in their founding year would prove important in their ascent up the ladder of well regarded furniture designers for industry. The Loop table for Isokon Plus was a beautifully curved wooden coffee table, and it reportedly caught the eye of Giulio Cappellini at a trade fair. In the furniture industry at that time, in his role as Art Director for Italian manufacturer Cappellini, he was quite literally the designer kingmaker, and soon, Barber Osgerby (as they were known then), had created the Loop desk for Cappellini, which put them on the radar of all of the leading European manufacturers.

Tab Lamp for Flos (2009), and Bell Hop lamp for Flos (2019), image by Pablo Diprima (Courtesy of Flos).
Tab Lamp for Flos (2009), image by Frank Huelsboemer. (Courtesy of Flos)/

This was a truly auspicious start to their career in design, a great beginning in making their name in the furniture industry. Yet their primary focus at this time remained the fields of architecture, interiors and exhibition design, and in 2001, they founded a separate design studio called Universal Design Studio, to reflect this.

London Olympic Torch by Barber & Osgerby at the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Games.

This shrewd move suggests that Barber and Osgerby understood the way in which the wind was blowing at the time. In the early 2000s, “design” was becoming seen as a much more important, involved and integrated element for many different businesses and sectors. Their founding of Universal Design Studio and later The Map Project Office (which focuses on strategy-based industrial design consultancy), really allowed them to spread their wings and enjoy success in a number of different parallel fields, rather than being constrained in one particular sector.

Bodleian Library chair by Barber Osgerby (Isokon Plus, 2014)
Bodleian Library chair by Barber Osgerby (Isokon Plus, 2014), image by David Brook.

This freedom has allowed them to work on many different types of projects, and has fostered the positive cross-pollination that occurs with this kind of working environment. In an interview for the Established & Sons journal a few years ago, Edward Barber put this in context. “I think the diversity of what we do in Barber Osgerby keeps us interested. Our work is perhaps more on a more strategic level now, very industrial, very complex. We’re so full of projects in the studio of all different types. It’s a privilege to be in that position, It’s taken twenty years, but it does feel like a privilege now. We can work with all these amazing people.”

“I think the diversity of what we do in Barber Osgerby keeps us interested. Our work is perhaps more on a more strategic level now, very industrial, very complex."

Jay Osgerby

This openness at the heart of their studio approach has stood them in very good stead. They were made Royal Designers for Industry in 2007, and have won an enviable list of awards and accolades over the years, and this short essay has no space to give serious consideration to much of their work. However, particular furniture and product highlights have been the Portsmouth Bench for Isokon Plus in 2002, the Zero-In table for Established & Sons in 2006, their Tab lamp for Flos in 2009, the Tip-Ton chair for Vitra in 2011, the London Olympic Torch in 2012, the Bodleian Libraries chair in 2014 for Isokon Plus, the Mariposa sofa for Vitra in 2015, the Bellhop lamp for Flos in 2019, and the On & On Seating family for Emeco in 2019.

Bellhop light for Flos (2019), image by Tommaso Sartori, courtesy of Flos.
Bellhop light for Flos (2019), image by Tommaso Sartori, courtesy of Flos.

Barber & Osgerby have made a habit of designing products that sit comfortably at the juncture of beauty and function, and like their totemic Olympic Torch, one can imagine them all being handed on.

Barber & Osgerby Collection

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