LUXURYCULTURE.COM - Barber Osgerby: Creating Classics

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Exploring new technologies with a respect for age-old artisan skills, British design duo Barber Osgerby bring the art of fine craftsmanship into the 21st century.

Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby’s definition of luxury?
Freedom to do as we like.

If luxury were…

An object
A conker, great woodwork, great packaging.

A moment
Time for contemplation.

A place
In the air.

A person
Marie Antoinette or Coco Chanel.


During Britain’s boom days in the late Nineties, a creative duo emerged from London’s Royal College of Art. While studying architecture, students Ed Barber and Jay Osgerby began a collaboration that celebrated Britain’s craft roots, which brought them attention throughout the design world as figureheads of the country’s flourishing creativity. In 1996, Barber Osgerby presented their debut design, the Loop Table, which was the first piece to be manufactured in more than 30 years by the revived 1920s plywood furniture manufacturer, Isokon. Loop not only caught the attention of design mogul and CEO of one of Italy’s leading design manufacturers, Giulio Cappellini, but also set them on a worldwide trajectory. Collaborations with Isokon and UK contemporary design manufacturer Established & Sons have marked them as leading luminaries on the British design scene, on a par with the likes of Jasper Morrison and Michael Young.

However, as they are quick to point out, with a worldwide client list from Germany’s Classicon to upcoming projects in Asia (to be revealed in 2010), today’s designers are spreading their net far and wide. “British design, in some ways was characterized by our industrial output in the 60s and 70s with things such as Mini and Landrover. Now we don’t really produce in the UK, we are only represented by designers,” explains Jay Osgerby. “Britain has produced some of the most important design engineers since the war. I think Britain has a knack of producing fantastic design, which they tend to export, so when we talk about the state of British design, I think we need to talk more about the state of British designers, which actually then becomes an international output.” As he points out, it is no longer relevant to define design, or indeed this international duo, by geography alone.

Their most recent project took them to the island of Murano for their recent commission, the Lanterne Marine collection for the 1920s Venetian glass manufacturer, Venini. The collaboration began more than seven years ago, with an architectural project for fashion designer Stella McCartney’s New York flagship store. They have since called upon the artisan glassmakers for a number of projects, but the project marks their debut collection for Venini. “They commissioned us many years ago to do these, but we didn’t just want to do something banal, we wanted to have an interesting idea behind it, to combine more than just glass, to combine different materials, so in the Marine lantern we’ve actually combined Venini’s ancient glass blowing techniques with quite high-tech laser cutting and anodized aluminum frames. It just gave it another dimension. So many things have been done in glass, over the last few hundred years. It’s very difficult to find a new direction,” recalls Barber.

One of the most interesting discoveries of the project was the color sensitivity that occurs in glass. “We’d been to Murano about 16 to 20 times before we realized that the colors that they mix very precisely will still change, due to atmospheric pressure. On a hot, sunny day the colors will be much brighter and richer, while on a dull and cloudy winter’s day they will be much more calm and dull. We went to look at the prototypes and said ‘hang on, this is the wrong color’. It was the same color, just that it was a cloudy day. We didn’t even realize that even after working with it for a couple of years,” Barber explains. “There’s only one guy there that knows the recipe of all the colors. Before him it was his father and his grandfather. In passing one day, someone said ‘That’s the guy with the colors’, we didn’t know what they meant, so they explained it to us. There are so many amazing things like that,” he further adds.

For Barber Osgerby, the artisan aspect is a key draw. As advocates of the recent craft revival and, indeed, creators of elegant functional forms that have taken their place within the annals of design classics – not to mention major museum collections around the world – Barber admits that craftsmanship is a major impetus within their work. “We are really inspired by crafts people. A couple of years ago we went down to a yacht builders in Falmouth – going to something like that I find totally inspiring, because it’s engineering but done in a totally beautiful way. There’s so much skill in terms of metalwork, the way that they can shape a massive hull out of sheet metal is just incredible. Also, when we go to the company of panel beaters which made the edition versions of our Zero In table and the desks that we designed for the RIBA offices, they use hundreds and hundreds of sheets of metal that are all beaten and welded together and ground down and polished, and to think that people can actually do that with their hands is amazing. For us, that’s real inspiration.”

Since the outset, Barber Osgerby have been garnering the highest of accolades, from the UK’s Jerwood prize, to Italy’s revered Compasso d’Oro, so the obvious question remains – what, in their opinion, makes a design classic? “I don’t think you can really pin down what it is, you can never really know when you are designing something. We certainly don’t design things to be design classics, you don’t even know when it’s finished, you don’t even know if you like it, or if it’s going to sell,” says Barber. As his partner adds, “For something to become a classic, it has to be enduring and, to be able to design something that is enduring, I think in the first instance it has to probably be quite straightforward. I don’t mean minimal, but it has to have clarity about it. It also needs to be a two-way thing I think. The object needs to communicate something back to you, perhaps some character, or some sort of soul. When you can create something which resonates with you as a user, then I think you are halfway there.” Resonating beauty and purpose, Barber Osgerby have truly mastered the art of the classics.

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