While film directors, fashion designers and musicians often have their portraits scrutinised and analysed (just consider the many posts on Beyoncé’s Instagram pregnancy portrait by Awol Erizku earlier this year), readings of how designers portray themselves or are portrayed are virtually non-existent. If we consider the purpose of such portrayals – as a promotional document of a person or studio often for use in magazines – this might not be so surprising. They are a fairly throw-away material, there to support a particular text and a specific moment. Similarly, they are often executed again and again, given that most magazines wish to have their own unique photography of the same subject or context. This practice has led to a never-ending treadmill of image-generation, of which Disegno is as guilty as anyone else. But what does it all add up to? What are these specially commissioned images outside of the context of a magazine or a press release or a special launch? Even if they are shot by recognised photographers, they more likely than not end up as disposable and get used once. They sometimes find a second life on the portfolio pages on photographers’ websites, eventually generating more of the same for the next client, the next magazine.
This particular photograph, however, is not as clear-cut in terms of its purpose. It’s an image that Barber and Osgerby return to again and again, both in presentations and in publications; clearly it’s an important element of the way in which the designers wish to present themselves, and it is therefore fair to analyse it as part of a critical evaluation of their studio. In fact, it’s one of the few images of the duo that is published in Barber Osgerby Projects and it’s by far the most evocative. It seems to hold a certain nostalgia, a story of which the designers themselves are fond, within its composition. And although the picture is now long out-of-date – the studio has moved several times since it was taken, the designers have aged 20 years, and their work and team have expanded significantly – it captures an important moment that hints at both the past, the present and the future.
Just as John Berger did with the oil painting The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein from the 16th century, one can of course read photographs and the objects within them. Berger writes about The Ambassadors: “The painted objects on the shelves between them were intended to supply – to the few who could read the allusions – a certain amount of information about their position in the world.” And although the objects selected to appear in the Barber Osgerby portrait haven’t been subject to the same scrutiny of symbolism, their inclusion is nevertheless significant, as are the many things not included.
At first glance, the photograph seems fly-on-the-wall and documentary-like. Davies has simply captured two designers at work in their studio, so busy that they are not even looking to camera. But upon closer inspection, it’s clear that Davies has considered the composition closely. Instructions for what the designers and photographer could or couldn’t do had most probably been discussed before the session started.
The focal point is neither of the designers, but instead a closed loop of plywood hanging from a screw on the wall. This is no coincidence, of course, as this piece of material is an early prototype of the bending and bonding process of Barber and Osgerby’s first product: the Loop table, produced by Isokon Plus. As the book’s essay on the Loop Table explains, this product became central to the designers’ development. Although both studied architecture at the Royal College of Art in London, it was this particular table that moved them into the realm of furniture and product design. As Scholze’s text reveals, the table was released in 1996 and then served as the centrepiece of an exhibition stand that Barber and Osgerby created for Wallpaper* in 1997. It was there that the Italian producer Giulio Cappellini first saw their work and asked if he could start producing the table with his eponymous company Cappellini. In 1998, when the picture was taken, the Loop Table’s significance to the designers was well-known. It’s fitting that Davies makes it the first thing you look at.
The proportions and size of the plywood prototype, and the way it’s suspended from the wall, send the mind to another plywood product released more than 50 years earlier – the Leg Splint that Ray and Charles Eames developed for the United States Navy during the Second World War, utilising their experiments with moulding plywood in three directions. This parallel seems less of a coincidence if one casts an eye just to the right of the plywood loop, where there is in fact a photograph of the furniture that Ray and Charles Eames created immediately following the success of the leg splint. The Storage Unit, the LCW chair and the Moulded Plywood Screen form a neat ensemble in the small picture and were all developed with Herman Miller, cementing the Eameses as some of the most influential post-war designers in the world. The explicit connection with such a well-known design studio and such a significant part of design history is most probably not a coincidence. It’s a sure and certain reference (not to say a confident assumption) of the pictured pair’s position within the hierarchies of design and the space they wish to inhabit.
Below the Loop prototype, on the floor, stands a Flight stool. In 1998, it would have just been produced by Isokon Plus for an interior project that Barber and Osgerby did for the Soho Brewing Company that same year. However, this particular version has a new appendage – the backrest of a plywood desk chair attached to its back. Experimentation with existing forms is a method we can recognise when, later in the book, the development process for the Tip Ton chair for Vitra reveals the same technique of chopping up furniture and recomposing the parts into new forms. It’s a hands-on and active approach that reveals the designers’ deep interest in making. Apart from firmly establishing the duo as furniture and product designers, this central axis of the photograph also serves as an important compositional device, as it allows each of them to inhabit the centre of each half of the picture. They are portrayed as a working duo, but also as individuals, independent of one another but existing in a mutually beneficial symbiosis.
The white phone that Barber speaks into, anchored to a landline by a cable that trails in the foreground, firmly dates the photograph. Bar that, there is nothing that significantly reveals the period of its creation. Barber and Osgerby’s haircuts are fashionably styled in the sort of new-mod look championed by musicians Damon Albarn, Liam and Noel Gallagher, and Ian Brown, but they also look fairly timeless, as do their clothes, which are utilitarian and functional in muted colours.
There is a distinct lack of technology in the shot: there are no computers and only the suggestion of the white plastic body of a printer on the left-hand side of the frame. Instead, a document drawer of the type that many architecture firms used to have in their offices takes up the foreground and Osgerby sits at an architect’s drawing table with a pivoting tabletop, all of which carry a certain nostalgia for the role of the designer as a person working with pencil on paper. The iMac, Jonathan Ive’s first product for Apple, came out the same year as the picture was taken and mobile phones were becoming ubiquitous, so it seems unlikely that all modern technology would have been absent from the space.
Then again, the pair have maintained a similar set-up to this day. Despite expanding Barber and Osgerby’s team and moving to bigger premises – as well as setting up Universal Design Studio for interior and architecture projects, and Map for industrial-design and branding work – they have continued working side-by-side and often without any technology at first. Talking and sketching still seem to be the starting points for many projects, while the dynamic between the two propels ventures forward. The book’s introduction reveals that the designers describe their studio set-up as a “campus”, comparable to an art-school context, where many disciplines converge. This campus feeling is strongly present in this photo: scattered images on the wall, a series of shots of airplane windows, some alluring graphics and a Polaroid of an early Flight stool. It all speaks of creative and open-ended endeavours, and serves as a comfortable backdrop against which an audience can look at design and understand what the job of designing entails. This is what “doing design” looks like.
What isn’t clear from the picture, shown in isolation in a book, is how drastically different it was from other contemporaneous portrayals of the profession. Davies’s photograph does not glorify the designers, nor even portray them confidently looking to camera. Rather, they’re aloofly going about their business. The photograph was captured at a time when Photoshop had begun to spread and photographers such as Nick Knight had started to play around with its effects on fashion photography. Björk released albums in which she looked part-robot, part-human; French designer Philippe Starck released a book with Taschen, in which his naked torso was emblazoned with outlines of his most well-known designs; and the American designer Karim Rashid would only appear publicly in pink suits and white spectacles (or vice versa). Therefore, an image of a couple of blokes wearing nondescript clothes and sitting in their studio in a council flat – long before the Trellick Tower got the hipster connotations it has today – was as far away from the image of design as one could get at this particular time. Shot on film, the grain visible, it’s an image that is thoroughly anchored in the tradition of analogue photography. Nowadays, there is a glut of creative-studio shots, existing across printed and digital media. These serve as casual behind-the-scenes snaps in magazines such as Apartamento and websites like Sight Unseen, but the fly-on-the-wall character of Davies’s image – capturing creatives at work, steeped in nostalgia for the tools of their trade – was a good 10 years ahead of its time.