Ed Barber (pictured left) and Jay Osgerby (pictured right) are the British design duo behind an impressive product portfolio that includes the London 2012 Olympic torch. Rebecca Nottingham talks to them about their recent collaboration with Axor Hansgrohe, their impressions of design in the KBB world and why we need to educate consumers on what British design really is
Tell us about your recent collaboration with Axor…
Ed: The starting point for us was to look at the products already out there on the market and basically find a new way of controlling the water.
Jay: Axor One was about designing a product that’s as easy as possible to use, but also makes the luxury experience consumers desire as enjoyable as possible. The last thing you want, when you’re going for a relaxing shower or bath, is to be apprehensive because the products are too complicated to use. We feel we’ve come up with something easy to use, but incredibly beautiful, too.
What was your impression of design standards in the KBB industry before you worked with Axor?
Jay: What we noticed about the bathroom market specifically was that there are lots of subsets of design. There’s the very traditional style of tap or shower control, where you understand automatically how the water is going to come out. Then there’s this vast sea of incredibly complex, indefinable and overdesigned objects that tend to be responsible for a lack of understanding among users. This is why, with the Axor One collection, we decided to make something that’s incredibly user-friendly, but looks fantastic.
Ed: When you work in a completely new industry, what’s good is that you don’t see all the problems and politics that have happened in the past, so you can take a completely fresh approach. On the flip side of that, of course, you can make naïve assumptions. But usually, when we partner with companies in a new sector, we always come up with an interesting and relevant concept.
How important is having a strong British heritage for the Barber & Osgerby brand?
Jay: We don’t necessarily believe that there’s a design style that’s overtly British, but we tend to think that being a British designer means that you try to solve problems, or find innovative ways of doing things that might otherwise be missed. In other words, the opposite of styling. We try to innovate and be inventive when we design, rather than just making something a nice shape. That, to us, is what being a British designer means. It’s that problem-solving approach that more commonly defines being a British designer.
Ed: Historically, Britain has always been more known for its engineering than its design. Engineering design is where we, as a nation, have made a name for ourselves. Innovation and engineering are definitely at the forefront of what we do, too.
How well do we sell that ‘Made in Britain’ message?
Jay: I think we do pretty well at talking about ourselves as a creative island and we are great at exporting our creativity around the world. Manufacturing is a little harder, because, although it still exists, it’s on a much smaller scale than a lot of our competitors. So I think we’re probably in a better position to talk about our design abilities than manufacturing.
Ed: Throughout our careers, it’s been really tough to find British manufacturers who buy into our contemporary design on a scale that suits us. That’s why the majority of our clients are overseas manufacturers. We recently did a fantastic collaboration with Royal Doulton [the Olio tableware range]. They were a real pleasure to work with, but there are very few other British manufacturers of that scale and ambition – that we’ve come across, anyway. The scale of production in the UK has changed, obviously. We are still producing some fantastic ceramics, textiles and furniture, but it’s on less of an industrial scale.
As you mentioned, British design appeals to international markets, but are British consumers really sold on that home-grown angle?
Jay: I’m not sure if the British consumer really understands what ‘Britishness’ is. From what I’ve seen, at the bespoke, high-end of the kitchen market I’d imagine manufacturing is still pretty robust.
Ed: I don’t know how it is now, but up until very recently there was this real glamour attached to buying Italian designs or German engineering. Certainly, the German engineering example is very true when it comes to the automotive world and when it comes to decorative products like lamps or vases, for example, and furniture to a degree. It sounds more stylish and glamorous to a British consumer to be able to say ‘it was designed and made in Italy’ rather than ‘it’s from Sheffield’. Traditionally, consumers always regarded British product as high-quality, but somewhere along the way, and I don’t know when, that perception changed. People don’t automatically regard British manufacturing as high-quality anymore. Perhaps that’s what needs to change?
A lot of retailers say they have to have Italian or German products in the showroom to be successful…
Ed: British kitchen products still appear very traditional. In my opinion, what’s lacking is a strong, contemporary British-made kitchen product. There doesn’t seem to be a British equivalent to Bulthaup or Boffi, for example, which is probably why retailers that want a more modern style have to team up with Italian or German brands.
What inspires your designs?
Jay: Really bad design inspires good design. You realise just what job you have to do. When we were looking at the Axor One collection, it was actually really easy to be inspired by just how many existing products weren’t up to scratch in terms of ease of use and quality. As a direct reaction to that, we found it pretty easy to come up with the new concept.
Do you think you should you be able to get good design at all levels of the market?
Ed: If the designer’s smart, and works within the right boundaries, then good-quality design is achievable at all budgets.
Jay: Good-quality design has to be backed up by good engineering, though, otherwise you’d find yourself at a point where you’re using design to cover up the cracks. The two work hand in hand.