British Designer Jay Osgerby
Make Less, But Better
The British design team of Barber and Osgerby gained world fame with their design of a stylish and light all-weather Olympic torch for the London Olympics in 2012. What is the source of their creativity?
Make Less, But BetterBy Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 532 )
"I hope the studio is where people run to work in the morning and love it," remarks Jay Osgerby. "You know, creativity needs optimism."
Osgerby is the type of person you feel so comfortable with after chatting for half an hour that you wish you could work with him. He is outspoken and bright, but also always willing to listen to others and share ideas.
Osgerby and his university classmate Edward Barber founded their studio BarberOsgerby in 1996, upon earning their master's degrees in architecture at the Royal College of Art in London. Today they are not only the most watched designers in Britain, but were also featured as designers of the year at the 2013 Maison & Objet home decoration fair in Paris. Still, the pair's most famous creation is the Olympic torch that they designed for the 2012 Olympic Summer Games in London. It is the second lightest Olympic torch ever made and reliably performs even in extreme weather conditions.
The three-sided, gold-colored torch has been hailed as "a testament to the great tradition of British engineering design." Made from high-tech aluminum with 8,000 holes, the torch relays the story and spirit of the 8,000 runners that covered a distance of 8,000 miles during the Olympic torch relay. At a length of 80cm and a weight of about 1kg, the torch is six times lighter than the torch to be used in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
"I think it's because of simplicity," responds Osgerby when asked why his studio was able to prevail over some 1,000 rivals in the Olympic torch design competition.
The design employed just one material, and its smooth surface was free of extraneous decorations. Thanks to its unprecedented three-sided conical shape, the torch was not only easy to hold, but also symbolized the three times that London had hosted the Olympics, and the three-fold Olympic motto of "Faster, Higher, Stronger."
Actually, the British designer pair produced stunning designs early on. Not long after launching their studio, they demonstrated their ability to design iconic classics.
From their first studio, which consisted of little more than two desks and a telephone inside Barber's apartment, the pair designed their first piece, the Loop Table, which was produced by Isokon Plus in 1997. Employing structural concepts from architecture, they created the low coffee table from one sheet of bent, laminated plywood, reflecting the austere simplicity of the early Bauhaus period. Loop tables are now held in the permanent collections of both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
"I believe in 'Make less, but better,'" Osgerby declares. "For example, people talk about Apple all the time – their product range is just half a dozen things, but they make them beautiful. And, think about Ford. They produced one car, and it was black. But it became an icon of cars."
Companies often commit the mistake of believing they need to produce a wider product range to attract customers; instead, they should focus on a handful of good products, Osgerby contends.
The two-man show has currently grown into a medium-sized design studio with 55 employees from more than 10 different countries.
On top of BarberOsgerby, which focuses on product and furniture design, the pair founded the creative design consultancy Universal Design Studio in 2001, which works in architectural, interior and exhibition design. Last year, they launched MAP, a strategy-based industrial design studio.
"The ideas are based on informed creativity, which comes from huge, massive research, and across different scales of work, they help us to think what will happen next, and have much more fun. You can jump to the roof and sit back in front of the screen at the same time," explains Osgerby. MAP was founded to explore the future five or ten years down the road together with companies from different fields. Therefore, MAP cooperates with companies as diverse as Japanese electronics giant Matsushita, British Airways and Scotch whisky maker Macallan to develop new materials or new directions in design.
The reason the two designers keep expanding the scope of their work is not only to realize their entrepreneurial ambitions. An even more crucial aspect is the goal of creating a friendlier and more interesting work environment. "I love the people here in the studio, and I hope they love it here, too." Osgerby says. "So we have to get the best projects, and work with the best companies in the world."
The 44-year-old follows a simple principle for finding creative people that fit into the design studio's team. "I think you need to have people – at the end of the night in the pub, you will be happy to have a drink with them." Coworkers of this sort fill the office with an optimistic, sociable atmosphere, which is essential for a design studio earning its keep from creativity.
While the studio had smooth sailing from its beginning, it encountered rocky waters during the financial crisis of 2008. Within just one day nine clients called to cancel the projects they had commissioned.
"Job canceled, job canceled. We lost almost half of our projects. But we decided to keep going and get new work, working with museums," recalls Osgerby, adding half-jokingly that at the time only the museums still had funds left for design.
For Osgerby the most memorable design project is not the Olympic torch, but the Tip Ton, a chair that the studio originally designed for schools.
Design Means Solving Problems on Behalf of Others
Tip Ton is a durable, recyclable, solid plastic chair. Its special feature is that it can be tilted forward a few degrees from the normal sitting position, and then stays firmly in place. The idea behind the tilting chair is that people like to work or think in a forward-leaning sitting position. The Tip Ton's forward tilt straightens the pelvis and spine, thus boosting circulation to the back muscles, which improves concentration.
In fact, the studio is not resting on its laurels from the Tip Ton success – the chair is now produced by German furniture design label Vitra – but is currently participating in a competition for the design of new chairs for the Oxford University Library.
"After winning the Olympic torch project, it does make me feel we want to do things which have more meaning for more people," the designer remarks. Passing through the entire country and the hands of 8,000 relay runners, the Olympic torch conveyed the Olympic spirit. "We have the responsibility to do things which have more meaning to the society, have more impact, and give people moments of joy," Osgerby believes.
He is not worried at all that one day he might run out of ideas or lose his creativity. All you need to do is open your eyes to notice a host of problems waiting to be solved, Osgerby insists, and when you search for solutions, creativity begins.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Co-founder of BarberOsgerby design studio
Born in 1969
Education: Master's degree in architecture, London's Royal College of Arts
Olympic torch for 2012 London Olympics, Loop Table, Tip Ton chair
Publications: The Design Work of Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby