BarberOsgerby's Shell Chairs, Photo by David Brook

What makes a chair so special? BarberOsgerby!

PingMag met BarberOsgerby – two extremely talented and well funny British designers – for a sunny breakfast-interview in Shibuya, Tokyo. Surprising was not only their very laid back attitude, but also their very humble way of talking about their work. Not once did they mention flattering facts, e.g. that their very first design piece – the Loop Table – made it to the permanent collections of the V&A Museum in London and the MoMA in New York right away (along with two other pieces in the V&A, one in the Craft Council Collection and one at the Design Museum in London…). Or that BarberOsgerby won the prestigious Jerwood Prize in September 2004, or that they were jointly named ‘designers of the future’ with Established and Sons at Design/Miami this June…

Written by Uleshka

Instead Edward Barber asked me, if I had already seen the De La Warr Pavilion Chair? And just in case I hadn’t, he opened up his portfolio and showed me a photo of it right away. But of course I did! Launched only one and a half months ago, this chair has already been selected for the permanent collection of the V&A! What is this creative team up to next? How do they manage to constantly design products that are both fresh and timeless – with such seemingly ease? And what is it in their opinion that gets a chair into a permanent collection? Here are some friendly answers.

Shell chair and table, Jay (smiling): ‘There is a lot of red in our work somehow…’ Photo by David Brook

Edward and Jay – what brought you to Japan at this time of the year? Just after all the “Design Week fuss”?

Edward: We realized that it is actually better to come after Design Week, because everyone has a lot of time! This time we came for a meeting with Issey Miyake for the 21_21 Design Sight, meeting up with both furniture and electronic companies and people selling our stuff such as Sempre and CIBONE.

When looking at all these different designs you have been working on, what was the most challenging project for you so far?

Jay: Probably the chair we’ve just done for the De La Warr Pavilion. It was a very involved project, complex through all the different components. Our furniture until then was quite simple really, so that was actually quite challenging.

De La Warr Pavilion chair in red, Photo by David Brook

De La Warr Pavilion chair in black, Photo by David Brook

What is so special about this chair? And why do you think it went into the permanent collection of the V&A right away?

Edward: Part of why the V&A was interested is because it was done specifically for the De La Warr building. It is not that we used new materials or anything, but they just really liked the shape. The chair doesn’t look so unusual on those images maybe, but the fact that you have two very different shapes going on – this very flat back piece going all the way around with this skid leg and on the contrary this round thin tube in the front – when you see them together, it’s quite odd actually.

Edward: ‘The original furniture for the De La Warr Pavillion was designed by Alvar Aalto. It was made of plywood and… broke. Our chair is aluminum pressed from sheet material.’ Photo by David Brook
De La Warr Chair pieces. Jay: ”This is very comfortable considering that it is metal. We made that by getting block after block after block of polystyrene and shaping it until it felt right on the back.’ Photo by David Brook

What sort of criteria does a piece of furniture need to have in order to be selected for one of these prestigious collections, you think?

Edward: Well, I guess it has to be an important landmark in the history of design for whatever reason: whether it is a new use of materials or technology or process of making or whether it is a really important project, like a specifically commissioned piece… It has to say something quite different from what else is going on around.

Like our Loop Table – when you look at that now and look at what has happened in Europe in the last 10 years, you would say there is nothing unusual about. That loopy style became sort of ubiquitous around the whole world, but when we designed it in ’96, it felt quite fresh. We were more inspired by graphics than by other furniture designers at that time.

The Loop Table landed in two permanent collections within the first six months of making it. The now so common loopy-theme was a different direction at the time inspired by graphic design. Jay: ‘We wanted to have some element of storage in it, because a coffee table is the centre of a living room, we wanted something that was quite sculptural, something a bit intriguing. That eventually was the idea of having the two legs off set.’, Photo by Lee Funnell

Now this might be a bit of a stupid question, but why is it always chairs and not sofas or storage or lamps or….?

Edward: Because it is the most difficult and most expressive piece of design you can make. You have to make sure someone can sit in there without falling over or without hurting their back, make sure it’s strong enough… It is so involved! It is very easy to design a chair that is super-uncomfortable and many people do – but we don’t.

Jay: And when you start off and draw a chair on a piece of paper in the right proportions – it looks ugly! It doesn’t have good proportions to start with.

first drawing of the Pavillion Chair chair on the left, later sketches and pattern ideas on the right

Edward: With a lamp you just put a bulb in there and that’s it! It still works.


Black Nova Lamp for Swarovski, Jay: This is a lamp we made for Swarovski – it is quite simple and doesn’t show off with the crystals… It is basically a glass form which contains all crystals and gives a nice, diffuse light. When they asked us how they were supposed to arrange those thousands of crystals inside the container we said: Open it and pour them all in! They looked a bit shocked when we said that…

Do you prefer to have all the freedom when creating objects, or do you actually like really challenging briefs?

Jay: It’s great designing things when you don’t have a brief, but…

Edward: Quite often a furniture company would approach us with something like: “We want a piece of BarberOsgerby. You can do whatever you want!” – and that’s the most difficult thing! What do they need? A table? A chair? You always need something to start with, otherwise it is pointless. In a way working with big clients like Levis or Coca Cola is most challenging because you have this whole group of people you are trying to satisfy.

bottle design for Ipsei – Rooibos tea with red grape, no preservatives or no artificial colors – from Coca Cola. Launched in Holland and Germany

pushing the possibilities for manufacturing with this a strangely shaped bottle design, Jay: ‘That was quite a challenging project, although the end product was quite simple.’

Edward: Levis for example was again a really fantastic project. They needed a coat hanger for their Levis Engineered twisted seam jeans. One of the key components was that they wanted something that they could ship to their 9000 stores around the word, something that was easy to ship but also easy to put together by the people in their stores. It had to be cheap, it had to be stackable and perform well.

hanger for Levis Engineered twisted jeans, BarberOsgerby convinced Levis to sew loops into the jeans to then create a three dimensional shape when hanging

different hanger for Levis

Edward: They were just developing their new range of engineered jeans at that time and wanted some way of showing the 3 dimensionality of the jeans. When they gave us their sample denim and said they needed a way to fill it with something so that it looks as if there is someone inside – we thought: If you want to get 200 hangers in a box and ship them, there is no way they could have a filling that big! So we were trying things out and realized, that if you simply hang the jeans from the front and the back, they actually come across quite three-dimensional! So then we went back to Levis to convince them, that they had to sew loops into their jeans! They really liked that idea because it adds another level to the history of the jeans.

some colorful variations of the Levis coat hanger

So what you actually designed were the jeans!

Jay: Yes! (laughs) We did actually design them a bit, because the Levis engineered jeans department was all based in Brussels and we talked a lot to them. It was a fun project.

I really like this other coat hanger you did which almost functions as a paravent!

Stencil – a clothes stand originally proposed to Levis, then manufactured by Cappellini, plexi, 1.9m high

Jay: The Stencil! That was an interesting project looking at what you can do with abstract shapes and giving them functionality.

Edward: This project actually came from when we were working with Levis. They told us they wanted something for hanging. At first we thought: “We don’t want to do a coat hanger – that would just be too obvious!” So we challenged them with something like this and they absolutely loved it – but couldn’t afford to make it for and ship it to 9000 shops!

So who produced it in the end, then?

Edward: We just made it ourselves and then Cappellini produced it.

Speaking of producers – I always wonder to what extent they actually make you change your designs or to what degree they simply accept what you do (as long as it’s not ridiculously expensive to produce).

Jay: That depends, of course. Cappellini is amazing – we have a really good relationship to Guilio Cappellini and they pretty much produce the things as we designed them to be. Flos or Magis on the other hand have specific requirements and we have lots of meetings to talk about the details… Which is good, too, I think.

Flight Stool installation ‘Living Rooms Exhibition’ Atlantis Gallery E1

What about collaborations? You were asked to design seating for hundred people for the central area of the New York Design Fair last year with Pantone as the main sponsor. How did you come up with your brilliant idea for the “Pantone Chair”?

Edward: Well, they didn’t have a huge amount of money for this, so it wasn’t like we could design a new chair in that amount of time. We had the Flight Stool already – which was cheap to produce and durable – but were looking for a way to show color for Pantone. First we just wanted to choose different colors for the chairs, but thought that was a bit boring. Then we thought of the idea of the Pantone chip – and then it just worked.

The original Flight Stool showed its true colors: Pantone chair for the New York Design Fair 2005

Pantone Stool model layout at ICFF Exhibition: forty-eight Pantone colors – two each – with graphics based on the Pantone chip

Jay: The colors came out great! When we came back to London we had a selling exhibition and sold all of them – really quickly! It was fantastic! This was a limited edition of 48 Pantone colors x 2 – you can’t buy them again.

Pantone chair selling exhibition in London

Oh! Too bad. I’d like one myself! How perfect would it be to choose your furniture based on a full range of Pantone colors!

Jay: I know – that’s what everybody says. (to Edward) You know, I think we should really do them again!

Edward: We can’t!

Jay: I know… but the amount of people who said they wanted one…. if we did some different colors maybe…?

Edward: … (shaking his head)

Edward (left) and Jay (right) finding things in Shinsen, Tokyo

How is it to work together, actually? You met each other at the RCA, started BarberOsgerby, set up Universaldesignstudio and still look like friends! (laugh) How do you design together?

Jay: It is always a bit different for us than if you were talking to one person, I suppose. We have much more of a conversation going on, a dialog which is always there. When we walk around one will always spot something and share it with the other. It’s like having two pairs of eyes instead of one.

Edward: All the designers we know, who are officially working on their own are always working with someone else anyway or ask other people in the studio what they think… or a lot of them don’t even design themselves – hahaha!

You set up Universaldesignstudio as your interior and architectural department for collaborative projects. How much time do you spend for those projects at the moment and what are you currently working on?

Jay: We don’t have a huge involvement at it at this point. It used to be about 50% BarberOsgerby and 50% Universaldesignstudio, but now our focus is purely on BarberOsgerby. What is happening on the Universaldesignstudio side at the moment are lots of overseas projects – big department stores in Korea, a shop in Hong Kong and a lot of work in NY.

Stella McCartney store by Universaldesignstudio

Jay: Architectural work is so time-consuming and the people we collaborate with – like Stella McCartney, Damien Hirst, Paul Smith… – are really demanding. You get a lot of them and a lot of us in the final product, which is very different to BarberOsgerby which is purely us. That’s why we like to keep things separately.

Stella Tile – created by Universaldesignstudio specifically for the Stella McCartney boutique, awarded title Product of the Year 2003 by FX magazine

To what extend are you actually interested in different materials or new technologies? Does that come after shape?

Edward: If there is a new technology that is appropriate for what we do – that is great – but most of the time that doesn’t really happen. There are plenty of materials out there that are great already.

There are two projects we are working on at the moment that evolve unusual technology. One is the Zero-in Table, which was originally designed with polished aluminum for Established and Sons. Now it is also made out of a very hard plastic in different colors together with the company that makes all the Landrover bumpers. It’s the first time that this technology has been used for furniture and it’s a really good material for that, because it is almost indestructible.

Sounds good – apart from environmental issues maybe…

Zero-in Table in the process of making – the red tabs demonstrate the glass surface, this one will turn into the polished aluminium version below – a limited edition piece for Established and Sons

Jay: This is the first time that we produce the same object out of two different materials. Usually our form represents the process of making in our work.

Zero-in Table – limited edition version of high gloss polished, hand-formed aluminium which has won the Red Dot award, the FX design award 2005 and the House & Garden magazine in association with the V&A Museum award 2006, the actual surface of the table seems invisible

Edward: Then we are also doing a chair at the moment with a Swedish company, using compressed felt. I think that’s the second time it’s ever used in furniture. You start off with a felt blanket which is then pressed into shape and becomes really really solid and very thin. That will become the shell of the chair. We are currently working on the inside… that’s good fun working on the patterns! The chair will have no screws, no metal – purely fabric.

Jay and Edward at their studio discussing a hook element for their ‘hooks on rails’ system they are currently designing for Magis. Based on an idea from four years ago they modified a continuous rail that runs around schools, offices or homes adding elements such as coat hangers, mirrors or trays for mail, mobile phone and keys.

Your work is featured in so many magazines and books – a recent feature would be the forty under 40 most influential young creative people in Wallpaper… What does that mean to you?

Jay: It means we’re only got 3 more years until we’ll never be in those books again! (big laugh)

Edward: It is quite flattering in a way but it is pretty irrelevant really. You just do what you do.

What new BarberOsgerby designs can we all look forward to in the near future then?

Edward: This year we were commissioned to design the furniture for the entrance foyer of the Royal Institute of British Architects in Portland Place. And I can show you this image of a coat stand we did for ClassiCon – that will come out next year, but you can’t publish these yet…


Last question – I always find that European product design – but British design in particular – is so strong! So I wonder why Asian designers aren’t in the spotlight as much… What do you think?

Jay: I think that there is such a big in-house design industry over here – just like in America. People just don’t set up doing things on their own really. Fukusawa Naoto is a good example: He was at IDEO and nobody know who he was. Suddenly he leaves and he is “Fukusawa”!

There are a lot of great designers trapped in these big corporations. I think that in Britain, especially when you study at the RCA, you are really encouraged to set up your own thing and that’s what makes all the difference.

Edward and Jay – thank you so much for the delightful breakfast talk! Best luck for your new projects.

  • paweena

    awesome! are they hiring?

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  • drf

    You’re in luck Uleshka… The stools are available from the Pantone site. (but for the US and Canada only. (maybe you have friends overseas?))

  • Pingback: the virgule » Blog Archive » Notes on Chairs

  • Mik

    coat hanger…wht i missed!

  • Otocyon

    Suddenly he leaves and he is “Fukusawa”. Do you suggest he is not Fukasawa anymore? ;) Mispelling or lack of knowledge?

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