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Veilance Ambassador Jay Osgerby

'All of our work is underpinned by the importance of making, of tactility and authenticity of material'

Arc’teryx Veilance: Who or what first inspired you to become a designer?
I’ve always been interested in making things. When I was younger I thought I’d like to be a sculptor or an artist. But it wasn’t until studying on my foundation course at Oxford Polytechnic that I became really passionate about industrial design.

Some years later Edward and I met while studying for our masters at the Royal College of Art and we’ve been working together ever since. Over the years we’ve done a huge variety of work, from microelectronics to architecture and everything in between. And we’ve always taken a multidisciplinary approach to it. I think that comes from the setup of our education: we both did design at undergraduate and then architecture at graduate level.
And is it those varied experiences that have enabled you to create the three different studios [Barber & Osgerby, Universal and MAP]?
Absolutely. The different studios enable us to work in different ways because they're responding to different design challenges.

Universal is concerned with experience and space, so we’re driven by how you feel when you walk into a place or how you help people navigate a space they’ve not been in before. Architecturally it’s more focused on experience.

Whereas MAP is about interpreting new technologies. In a way, the ambition is to translate the very technical and innovative into something that we human beings can use and adopt really easily.

And with the work we do at Barber & Osgerby our ambition is to create new archetypes. While the studios have different requirements placed on them, all of our work is underpinned by the importance of making, of tactility and authenticity of material.

We’re involved creatively in all three but really we wanted to establish teams that would carry forward the multidisciplinary approach without being encumbered by Edward and myself as the creative leads.

By contrast to Universal and MAP, Barber & Osgerby is far more about our authored work and personal vision of how things should be.

'It’s not just about style it’s about innovation'

And do you feel that vision leads to a consolidated design?
We’ve never really considered that we have a signature style or a stylistic approach. What we’re always looking to do — and it can feel like an almost impossible task at times — is to redefine archetypes. So rather than doing another chair for the sake of doing another chair, we’ll always try and find an extra something that gives the product a justification to come into existence. If you can’t find something special, new, intelligent, beneficial in a project then it becomes really hard to see it through.
Which of your projects really stand out for achieving something intelligent and beneficial? That really solve a problem?
One project I’m really proud of is the Tip Ton chair that we designed for Vitra. Probably because it made such a difference to people in a really easy way.

It started life as a school chair. We were designing furniture for schools and we had to make something that was indestructible, that was plastic one shot, that had movement in it.

We discovered through research that if you can’t move, you can’t concentrate so it becomes harder to learn. Adults have office chairs with all sorts of functions and movements but when it came to children, schools were spending money on chairs that just meant children would push back on them all the time.

The reason the kids — and all of us — push back on our chairs is to increase blood flow, to get oxygen to our brains. So in that project we managed to incorporate a tilt movement that means it’s super comfortable. It means the kids can concentrate and it costs no more than an ordinary chair. So we found a new archetype, a new way of using it and that’s what we are always aiming to do. It’s not just about style it’s about innovation.
As well as that desire to establish new archetypes, where do you look for inspiration?
Travel is a big part of where ideas come from; it’s one of the main differences between now and the early days of the studio. What we do takes us all around the world in a way I had never experienced before.

On one hand it’s exhausting but on the other, you get a mountain of influences from other places, other cultures, other cities; whether it’s food or wine or the design of a spoon in Japan compared to the design of a spoon in Italy. I find the idea that different cultures have evolved different ways of doing the same job, really inspiring.

And apart from those outside influences, there is that core passion for making: being able to hold an object you have one minute had in your mind and the next have in your hand, that’s quite a thrill.
That kind of technical and material innovation is clearly an important part of your work. What developments are you most excited about at the moment?
I’m pretty interested in Graphene. It’s an incredible new material that was discovered in Manchester University. We’re actually working with them on an exhibition that helps to describe what it is because it can be quite complicated but it has huge potential for the future and for manufacturing.

It’s a single atom thick material made from graphite. It is the strongest, lightest thing we have ever invented so in the future, aircraft and all sorts of objects will be made from it. It could transform the way we live. And invented right here in England.
And what innovations have had the biggest impact on your work?
That project was perhaps the most challenging we’ve done; we had to design something that would work from -10oC to 40oC, in 70mph winds, at 4,500ft altitude, that wouldn't go out and that was affordable. Not only that, but we’d conceived an object that had 8,000 perforations in it. Each perforation represented each runner and there were 8,000 miles that were run in the torch relay.

Now, that was a really nice idea until it came to the feasibility of making 8,000 holes in 8,000 torches. That’s 64 million perforations and when we got the first manufacturing statements back, they said it was going to take six and a half years to produce. But we only had 18 months.

Then we found a machine in Germany, which is the fastest laser cutting machine in the world; cutting something like 16 holes every second. We brought it back to England and were able to make the deadline. But without that kind of technical development, it couldn’t have happened.
What processes or innovations have been the hardest to master?
The hardest has probably been plastic injection moulding, which doesn’t sound massively interesting but when you’ve come from a background of constructing things — sticking two things together — it’s a very different thing to learn. It’s not the sort of thing you’re taught at college.

With natural materials that have to come together you need to create that junction; you need a way to stick one piece of wood to another piece of wood. There are millions of different ways to do that but each one comes with a constraint that gives you a design idea.

When you’re working with plastics you can more or less do anything because it’s just a fluid that you’re putting into a space.
You don’t have to think about how it joins together inside the mould. So it becomes a lesson in sculptural forms, which is more like sculpture; it’s instant making rather than construction.
Do these different processes require you to collaborate with different partners?
We’re lucky enough to travel all over but we’ve always been based in London. One of the benefits of working here is that we have a massive network of creatives and technicians that we collaborate with.

If we’re working on a complex architectural project we work with engineers, M and E consultants, innovation consultants and planning consultants.

London is a great example of creativity breading creativity. One of the reasons there are so many creatives here is because there’s a huge ability to network and bring in other creative and technical individuals. And it’s true for lots of studios and lots of disciplines.

When we were working on the interiors of the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch we studied how London, and in particular the East End, has always been this place for immigrants; always a place of creativity where people come to and are able to influence.

Principally we studied the guys that came out of the Bauhaus during the ‘30s like Walter Gropius or Marcel Breuer, who for a while settled in London.

We created this kind of narrative with the Ace Hotel project of creative influences arriving and how that beds into London.

So there is a Bauhaus story running through the design of that place; it’s like Bauhaus meets New York 25 years ago meets Shoreditch now. And there’s a bit of Barbican Centre in there and a bit of British Modernism.

As I mentioned earlier, the influences you get from travelling to different places, to different cultures is something that I find really enriches our process and all of our work.

'What we’re always looking to do — and it can feel like an almost impossible task at times — is to redefine archetypes’