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The New Review: Critics: Design: Can you tell what it is yet?: Curated by design duo Barber Osgerby, In the Making freeze-frames the production process of everyday objects: In the Making Design Museum, London SE1; Wed to 4 May

January 19, 2014

Rowan Moore

Consider a chamfer or a taper on a plastic chair, slight variations that you might attribute to the whim of the designer, to an effort to make it look good. In fact they might be there so that the just-formed chair comes out of its mould easily, to help it stack better, to reduce the amount of material used, or to change the angle at which the seat meets your body, such that the supply of blood to the legs is not restricted by a sharp edge. Some might, indeed, be to make it look better, reducing the profile at the perimeter, for example, to make it look lighter, or varying angles so that they catch light in different ways. The chamfers and tapers of the Tip Ton chair by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby are doing all these things, but it is not obvious which is doing what. Instead these variations are unified into an elegant, robust object of a single substance and colour. They serve the chair's most important idea, which is that it can half-rock, which enables a sitting position, a sort of forward-leaning perch, which is both good for the back and (again) the circulation of blood. If children like to tilt their chairs, it is not just to annoy, but also because it is good for them - it makes them more alert - and the Tip Ton chair makes a virtue of this fact. Although it sells healthily to individual buyers in shops such as John Lewis , the chair is mainly intended for schools. It is this close understanding of the way things work and are made that animates Barber and Osgerby, who have been working together since the mid-90s. Then, as students at the Royal College of Art , they got a lucky break to design a restaurant. Their plywood Loop table, created for the restaurant, was spotted by the then-young Wallpaper magazine , then by the great Milanese furniture manufacturer Cappellini. They worked on Damien Hirst's restaurant, the Pharmacy. One thing led to another, to another. They started in Barber's flat in the Trellick Tower , the concrete monolith designed by Erno Goldfinger , which is famous for its changes from being progressive council housing, to tabloid-derided "vertical slum", to gentrified and sought-after design classic. Now they run an office of 60 people behind an anonymous door in Shoreditch, their premises expanding like a subterranean watercourse into the basements and spare spaces of adjoining buildings. Their best-known work is the 2012 London Olympic torch, a slender wand in perforated gold-coloured aluminium. Their most widespread is a pounds 2 coin commemorating the London underground, of which 18m were made. Although they are best known for products and furniture, it is not the largest part of their business: they have an architectural practice called Universal Design Studio , designing shops and such things as the interiors of the Ace hotel in Shoreditch, a place to which the adjectival noun "hipster" is irresistibly attached. They also have MAP, a design strategy business working for clients including Virgin, Panasonic and the Science Museum . They're not driven by a vision of changing the world or any particular ideology, and seem content to see how their good fortune plays out. They have similar, not-too-cool styles: jeans, nice leather shoes, dark but not menacing tones, differing mostly by some inches in height and their degree of beardedness. They wouldn't mind doing a whole building, or some far-reaching product, but they don't seem to be rushing. It's when they talk about making things that they really come alive. They like to work with companies such as Vitra, which makes the Tip Ton chair, and has the facilities to produce things beautifully. This week they have an exhibition opening at the Design Museum called In the Making, in which they will show familiar objects arrested at some stage in their production before they are finished. There will, for example, be a fork, completely flat, with its tines joined at the end by a metal strip that, if it were not removed at the end of the process, would render the object useless. There will be a French horn, not yet ravelled, the block of solid aluminium from which a MacBook Pro is hewn, and the disc of metal with which, with a single punch, a Coke can is formed. There will be the embryonic stages of bricks, corks, lightbulbs, lenses and silicon wafers. The purpose, say the designers, is to alert a generation who have lost touch with manufacture to its strange beauties. "Our parents would have known someone who made something," they say, but now it is rare. I must confess to a few prejudices about Barber Osgerby. I have found their works to be a little Blairite, examples of the tendency to take the inheritance of modernism, rinse out its social aims and turn it to shaping blandly desirable consumables. The same tendency could be called Conranian, after the shop, or Trellickist, after the tower. But, confronted with their seriousness and passion for making, these qualms seem mean-spirited. And if Tip Ton truly succeeds, and improves the backs, bloodflow and alertness of thousands of schoolchildren, it would be hard to imagine design doing much better than that. As for the Ace hotel, it's an eclectic place, with notes of a 1960s polytechnic, that is presumably aimed at the people immortalised by the YouTube masterpiece Being a Dickhead's Cool. Yet, thanks to unusual attention given to things such as acoustics and lighting, it is also calming, quietly delightful, unoppressive, one of the best examples of its kind. Captions: Unfinished items from the In the Making exhibition at the Design Museum (clockwise from top left): a French horn; an optical lens, using Swarovski glass; a Coke can; and part of a football boot. Below: Barber Osgerby's Tip Ton chair, designed with schoolchildren in mind. Photographs by Gyorgy Korossy


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Source: Observer (UK)


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