Collaborations: Barber and Osgerby

In an extract from their new monograph, released this week for London Design Festival, Barber and Osgerby reflect on four of their most iconic designs

It has been almost twenty-five years since we first met while studying at the Royal College of Art in London, and only a little less time since we began our studio together. Throughout this time, we have collaborated with many individuals, companies, organizations, specialists and manufacturers, but our most important collaboration has been with each other. People are sometimes bemused by our long-standing partnership, and the fact that we work together in a world that is so often defined by singular visions. However, we are collaborators by nature, and it is this working method that we have used successfully for all these years.

Loop Table, 1996
The story of the Loop Table is significant – it was the first piece of furniture that we designed together and initiated their collaboration with Isokon Plus. Resulting from an architectural project we were working on at the time, the initial concept was to create a table that incorporated some storage space. The Loop Table was the first new design to enter the Isokon range for over forty years, even prompting the launch of a new company, Isokon Plus.

De La Warr Pavilion Chair, 2007
The De La Warr Pavilion was a public building commissioned by the Ninth Earl De La Warr and designed by Erich Mendlesohn and Serge Chermaye. With original furniture designed by Alvar Aalto, the Pavilion was completed in 1935, subsequently becoming an icon of Modernist architecture. After years of neglect, the building underwent major restoration in 2005 with the intention of creating a contemporary arts gallery.

The De La Warr Pavilion Chair was commissioned to coincide with the building’s reopening. Somewhat inevitably, the structural columns of the building – particularly the tubular metal rails and ceiling panels – had an impact on the design, and in tribute to Aalto’s original furniture, the outdoor chairs were painted tomato-red.

Tip Ton, 2011
Unlike an office chair, the Tip Ton has no moving parts, but, when the sitter’s balance is shifted to the front, it tips forwards, straightening the pelvis and spine and improving circulation in the abdominal and back muscles. This feature resulted from in-depth research into ergonomics and physiognomy, and drew on established links between movement and learning.

Thirty prototypes were made during the chair’s two-year development with Vitra. While the mould used to produce the chairs weighed close to 20 tonnes, the chairs themselves were defined by a distinct lightness, due to them being manufactured in gas-injected plastic.


Tobi-Ishi, 2012
Designed as a functional and sculptural piece of furniture, the table’s concept was built around the idea of the large stepping stones, often found in Japanese gardens – the name refers specially to those ornamental stones, which represent balance and harmony. The table has a monumental appearance, which changes according to viewpoint. Departing from the tradition of tables with four legs or a pedestal, its form is simultaneously ancient and modern.

Barber Osgerby, Projects, published by Phaidon, is out now.

Nordic Design Wisdom

How the considered design principles of Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland reflect thoughtful ways of living 

Ox chairs and footstool, Hans Wegner, AP Stolen, 1960 / Currently manufactured by Erik Jørgensen / Insula table, Ernst & Jensen, Erik Jørgensen, 2009; AJ Table lamp, Arne Jacobsen, Louis Poulsen, 1960. Picture credit: Erik Jørgensen

The Swedish have an expression, den röda tråden (the red thread), which they use to describe the essence of something. The ‘red thread’ might run through a particular style, cultural identity or shared experience. In other words, it is a through line; a narrative device and one that speaks to our impulse for storytelling. In a new book that borrows its title from the saying– The Red Thread: Nordic Design – the authors write: “In no other practice is this red thread brighter, tauter and more apparent than in Nordic design.”

Looking at the stellar design legacy of Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, such a claim is hard to deny. Lifestyle is Scandinavia’s greatest export. This is in part because the region’s design is all-encompassing. From furniture to lighting to tableware, design in this part of the world reflects thoughtful ways of living, and is marked by functionality, simplicity and an emphasis on natural materials. Most of us are familiar with some of its prototypes: three-legged stools from Finland, sheepskin rugs from Norway and Denmark’s innumerable armchairs. Each is a studied reminder of the power of design in everyday life.

Taken from the pages of The Red Thread, here are some words of wisdom which highlight the significance of the Nordic approach.

Stool 60, Alvar Aalto, Artek, 1933. Picture credit: © ARTEK

Design to Improve Life

“When Nordic designers sit down to work on a thermos flask, a set of cutlery or a frying pan, they will likely approach the task with the same degree of seriousness as they would bring to designing a motorway overpass. Every single detail is considered and many different solutions are tested; the Nordic designer’s common mission is to investigate how to make an object as streamlined, safe and user-friendly as possible.”

Swan chair, Arne Jacobsen, Fritz Hansen, 1958. Picture credit: Fritz Hansen A/S

Design to Improve Spaces

“The Nordic interest in holding onto good things and passing on heirlooms is explained, in part, by practicality, not necessarily sentimentality. Things are kept because they are useful and, although there are exceptions, the rest is largely jettisoned. A Nordic home must have a sense of clarity; there should be space between furniture as well as underneath it it; walls are often left bare and, even when more furniture could be squeezed in, restraint is practised. Rather a few good pieces than many mediocre ones.”

Children’s Furniture, Alvar Aalto, 1940s. Image courtsey Jackson Design

Design to Improve Relationships

“Nordic designers are known for their social commitment. This concern became particularly prominent in the twentieth century, when many were intrinsically involved with forging the region’s welfare states, designing objects to make everyday life easier, more balance and more beautiful. Seeing design as a process of ‘problem solving’ has become commonplace in the industry today; but it was architects, designers and indeed even craftsmen from Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland who set the precedent for this, long before think tanks and design labs came along.”

The Red Thread: Nordic Design by Oak Publishing is out on 22 May, published by Phaidon