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Posted in Design Stories

Barber & Osgerby

Barber Osgerby-Context Gallery
Barber & Osgerby 

A part­ner­ship of curiosity


On the tenth of May 2012, signalling the approach­ing Summer Olympics in London, the Olympic torch was lit at the Temple of Hera, Olympic. From there the torch was carried by over 8,000 people as it traversed first Greece and then the United Kingdom and her crown depen­den­cies, in a relay culmi­nat­ing in its arrival at Olympic Park on July 27th. That torch, with its slender trian­gu­lated cross section and perfo­rated golden aluminium alloy skin, brought London design­ers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby into the public imag­i­na­tion in full light.

You can begin to read their oeuvre as a kind of proof that design doesn’t need to be directed, or to follow a specific process, or to result in rigor­ous outcomes. For Barber and Osgerby, the rigour comes from curios­ity, from re-exam­in­ing each step, drawing or object, and from new combi­na­tions, orien­ta­tions or mate­r­ial explo­rations. Design, then, becomes a process of discov­er­ing rather than knowing: of finding out rather than telling. Through embrac­ing this state of unknow­ing, the uncer­tainty of their process, Barber and Osgerby seem to have formu­lated a produc­tive way of first getting lost, and then coming out of that state together.

Tab 90 Table Lamp Barber Osgerby flos 3
Tab Table Lamp

There is an inten­sity that breeds from this type of design process. Or, perhaps, a design process that relies on discov­ery and uncer­tainty depends on a certain inten­sity to drive it along. Momen­tum becomes key, and the best projects almost begin to feel like they drive them­selves. This approach also relies on a certain level of confi­dence — a confi­dence that is built from friend­ship, trust, and a shared vision, and from a shared atti­tude to adven­ture and risk-taking. Fittingly then, their process remains largely analogue, with design devel­op­ments happen­ing in real-time through draw­ings and model­ing, misin­ter­preted sketches and half-ideas. In their natu­rally collab­o­ra­tive process mistakes are welcomed and rein­ter­preted, sketches are turned upside down, models cut in half and recom­bined. Ideas might happen abruptly, or slowly, as if they have been lying latent within the project content until they are uncovered.

Low tobi-ishi table
Tobi-ishi coffee table by Barber & Osgerby 

Even such an open process needs a start­ing point, a base for further explo­ration. Barber and Osgerby are tire­less docu­men­tors, begin­ning each new design project from describ­ing what is already known. They crit­i­cally observe and draw the exist­ing condi­tions, forms, uses and mate­r­ial rela­tion­ships. The very first piece B&O designed together, as students, evolved from a simple hand­made model of folded and slotted card­board. The result­ing furni­ture piece was config­ured from plywood bent into a seam­less loop, becom­ing known as the Loop Table. Cantilever­ing out over the simple legs, the table has a sense of weight­less­ness and move­ment that captures the essence of that orig­i­nal rough card model.


The result of apply­ing these methods over time is a broad collec­tion of objects of a wide range of scales, func­tions and appear­ances: under­stated objects, where the super­flu­ous is notice­ably absent, but each with a unique person­al­ity. The Bellhop lamp, for example, arose from the idea of a candle lamp, using contem­po­rary means to recall the tradi­tional qual­i­ties of light and atmos­phere. An exer­cise in formal simplic­ity, the mush­room-shaped lamp reduces light to a halo around itself, creat­ing a soft, glare-free glow in which the true light source is not visible. The bold contem­po­rary object recalls age-old rituals as it becomes a candle, a staff to hold, a light to guide in a dark passage­way in the tran­si­tion from inside to outside.

Bellhop Table Lamp Barber Osgerby flos 3

The Tobi-ishi table began from a study of large orna­men­tal step­ping stones often found in japan­ese gardens, which repre­sent balance and harmony. Sculp­tural in char­ac­ter, the table is formed by turning two of the pebbles on their edge, and setting them at right angles to one another to form a base support. Offset to balance the weight of the table­top pebble balanced on top, the form of this table shifts accord­ing to the view­er’s angle of approach. Despite there being no symme­try, the table achieves a sense of balance, poise and posture. From some angles, the table appears a slender stack of rocks, and from others it is more curva­ceous, rounded and sensual. Orig­i­nally fabri­cated in an exper­i­men­tal hand-spread cement grout, the table has been conceived in a range of mate­ri­als, contin­u­ing to test the limi­ta­tions and possi­ble trans­for­ma­tions of the idea.

Tobi ishi sketch barberosgerby contextgallery
Project sketch of Tobi-Ishi table by Barber & Osgerby for B&B Italia.
Tobi Ishi table outdoor BB Italia 5
Tobi-Ishi Outdoor table by Barber & Osgbery
Tobi-Ishi small table outdoor Barber Osgerby BB Italia 3
Tobi-Ishi Outdoor Small table by Barber & Osgerby

A design part­ner­ship is neces­sar­ily about two visions, how they come together, overlap, consider and rein­force one another. Devel­oped over time, a shared confi­dence supports exper­i­men­ta­tion and produc­tion. For Barber and Osgerby, their part­ner­ship is the core of their work, allow­ing them to produce designs that move beyond their singu­lar visions, that stretch the bound­aries of what design can be, or do, or seem.