London based design duo Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby were awarded an OBE last month in recognition of their services to the design industry, particularly for their ingenious design for the Olympic torch. They recently joined our CEO Christopher Sharp at our King’s Road showroom to discuss the ‘element of surprise’ in rug design, the symbolism behind the Olympic torch and why making mistakes is not such a bad thing.
CS: What did you find challenging about designing rugs for the first time?
EB: Well it’s two dimensions for a start, which was new for us. We tend to deal in three dimensions, whether it’s interiors, architecture or a chair, but in effect rug design is a graphics project and that was a very different starting point for us.
JO: Or so we thought… because actually when we got into it we realised there is a three-dimensionality to it; you design it, and you work on the pattern, you match the wool and the colour and so on, there’s a lot of variation in the rugs you make so there’s a lot of three-dimensionality. For us it was a big lesson in learning the subtleties of that.
CS: Did you find it difficult?
EB: I think the thing that made it more difficult for us is that we’re quite pragmatic designers, we’re quite logical, and we set up a list of problems to be solved. With rugs, other than the size, there isn’t really a problem to be solved. Well, there is actually: ‘is it a best seller’?
JO: The colour is the challenge really. That’s the thing we really struggled with, getting the colours right… that’s the hard part.
EB: We learnt a hell of a lot working on this collection of rugs. The great thing about rugs is that they take 16 weeks to make, so there’s an element of surprise as you’ve sort of forgotten what you said 16 weeks before.
CS: With rugs you are giving it over to someone and it’s handcrafted, it’s not precise, is that difficult for you?
EB: I think you can get over obsessive with detail when you are an industrial designer because a tenth of a millimetre is actually something you talk about, whereas when you talk about rugs obviously they are individual knots, they can’t be a perfect curve.
JO: It’s learning to let go of the details.
CS: Tell us about some of your designs?
JO: For the children’s rugs, we were trying to show the animals the way they are socially: the owl is on his own, the fish are swimming along all together and the butterflies are a pair doing their thing. The tricky thing was trying to capture their character without them becoming cartoon-like.
CS: Which design was the most challenging?
EB: They all had their challenges. I think the kid’s rugs because the key thing about the range of children’s rugs was that they had to somehow embody some character, it wasn’t just about a graphic image, it had to appeal to a small person.
CS: They’ve been so popular, and we’ve had adults buying them.
EB: Well that was the key too, you’re not a kid forever and we didn’t want to design something that was overtly childish. We wanted people to have it for many more years; even into your adulthood you still want to think the owl is quite fun.
CS: Which are your favourite rugs?
JO: I’ve got the Starflower Blue and the Owl. I love the Homegrown. The great thing about the Homegrown is that it’s directional, so you can have it coming out of the sofa or it works with the architecture of the room. The others are in a way more traditional.
CS: You’re both very creative, is it a challenge working together?
JO: Our professional experience has been working together and that’s what we do, that’s what we know. I think it also comes from the fact that we are each one of three boys and we’ve learnt how to exist in those sorts of fraternal relationships. In a way that’s what it’s like, it’s a highly productive, creative brotherhood.
CS: Are there any major mistakes you look back on?
EB: Actually, mistakes on a small scale are so beneficial, misunderstandings are quite interesting as well. We start every project with drawings, a small sketch, we have tonnes of sketchbooks and tracing paper and we just draw. I’ll draw something really quickly and really badly and Jay will say ‘oh that’s great’ and he’s completely misread the whole thing – it wasn’t a chair it was a table – but what he sees is actually better than what I drew.
CS: Can you please tell us a bit about designing the Olympic torch?
EB: It wasn’t given to us, it was an international competition that was posted on the Olympic committee’s website, and in the initial stages I think there were about 1,000 companies that submitted credentials and they narrowed it down to a handful of people. We were invited to have a day with the Olympic committee – they showed us some of the previous torches and opened our eyes to the fact that it was actually a pretty difficult project: they gave us an 80 page brief, and we realised it had to perform in high wind speeds, torrential rain or snow.
We felt it had to have a very strong narrative to it as well. You’ll notice on the end that it’s triangular in shape and there are two reasons for that: it was the third time that the Olympics had been in London – 1908, 1948 and last year; secondly, the Olympic motto is Faster, Higher, Stronger, so we embodied that into the torch. You can see that there are lots of holes in the side, there’s a dual reason for that: they make the torch much lighter and it dissipates the heat, as the air cools as it rushes through. There are 8,000 holes in the body of the torch, there were 8,000 runners in the relay and it was an 8,000 mile relay, so we had some symbolism.
CS: Is there anything you would really love to design?
JO: There’s loads I think actually, I would still like to do a building, a completely new build, a bridge, a train. It’s less about what you’d like to design but more about what problems you’d like to solve.
EB: Every project in all honesty is a challenge, it doesn’t matter how big or small it is. That’s what we thrive on, we like the challenge, so we try to always amuse ourselves with each project by using a new technology that we’ve never used before.
Click here to see the full rug collection by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby.