Barber Osgerby's Bodleian Chair


4 November 2013

"This chair could have been made 500 years ago."

This is not necessarily how you would expect a contemporary designer to describe their work, yet it is how Edward Barber talks of the Bodleian Chair. Designed by Barber in conjunction with his colleague Jay Osgerby and the furniture manufacturer Isokon Plus, the Bodleian chair was revealed in late September to be the new chair for Oxford University's historic Bodleian Library.

The three-legged chair will sit in the library's recently refurbished Weston Library and is only the third chair to be commissioned for the Bodleian since its foundation in 1602. Barber Osgerby's chair was selected following a nationwide competition, winning out over rival designs created by Amanda Levete and Matthew Hilton. The chair will now be developed for production.

In the interview that follows, Disegno speaks to Barber and Osgerby about their three-legged design for the Bodleian. The pair talk about the chair's genesis, the challenges of designing for a 400-year-old library and how their working process involves avoiding looking at other designers' work.

Did you visit the Bodleian at the start of the project?

Edward Barber They invited about 10 designers for a day’s immersion project there. We had a tour of the old library and met academics and readers who are in there day in, day out, who showed us how to read. You think, “Yeah, yeah, we know how to read” but you don’t, because some of the books are hugely thick and 500 years old. They need a huge amount of working space because of the size of the books and the need to cross reference. So a chair needs about a 180º range of movement. The idea was to avoid having a very straightforward chair that you would need to move all the time.
Jay Osgerby The chair also needs to be comfortable because when they read, they really read. It’s not like us. It can be up to 12 hours a day. We can’t even understand how clever these people are. What we needed to do was give them a comfortable structure to rest their bodies on while their brains work.

So the idea is to create a chair to support very “extreme” reading?

EB Really extreme. Part of us thought that they need an office chair. Something very mechanical. But they don’t want office chairs, because they don’t want to fill this beautiful library with office chairs.
JO Also, office chairs would typically have a life cycle of 10 to 15 years. After that it’s going to be knackered. We wanted to design a chair that would last 100 years. They’ve only commissioned two chairs before in the whole history of the Bodleian Library, so it needed to last. We used our experience of designing the Tip Ton chair for Vitra where we got movement into a chair without using a mechanism. We needed a scope of movement, so we made this very wide seat that has leather upholstery so it’s easy to move on. Then you have the forward tilt on the front skid so, as you edge forward, you get an upright position. You get the movement you get from an office chair.

How did you react to the classical setting of the library?

EB We wanted to use traditional manufacturing techniques that have been used and tested for hundreds of years. So, conventional woodworking. No modern or plastic components or mechanisms, because they will in time fail. So it’s just wood against wood. This chair could have been made 500 years ago.
JO The construction methodology is ancient, but the way the forms have been shaped is modern. The geometry has been resolved in CAD and it’s been machined on a CNC machine. It’s contemporary in terms of manufacturing.

Did the romance surrounding the library and the project attract you?

EB It was an amazing opportunity to design something that would be a part of the history of Oxford University and, eventually, part of the history of England. There are very few competitions for furniture these days, whereas in Renaissance times everything was a competition – a competition to design the doors of a Cathedral, to design stained glass windows.
JO It fell into our work with other cultural institutions, like when we designed the chair for the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill or the reception counter for the RIBA. We also designed the cathedral choir stalls for Portsmouth Cathedral years ago and we really enjoy doing that type of work.

What do you find rewarding about it?

JO It’s much easier. Being focused on one environment lets you look closer at that. With Vitra, for instance, you need to think of every environment in the world you could ever imagine these being in terms of appropriateness and multiple uses. This is very straightforward.
EB Commissions are clear. The bench for Portsmouth was such that they wanted movable choir stalls, because they change their format of service twice a week and move around around the Cathedral. So they wanted benches rather than fixed choir stalls. They wanted it to be lightweight so the kids in the choir could lift them.
JO Lightness was one of the reasons we won the Bodleian chair. The chair is super light. Even though they’re solid oak, they’re only 5.5kg. The original Bodleian building is heavily structured with oak timbers and it’s nice to use that material, but in a light way. It ties in with the architecture, but it feels new.

Within the brief there seemed to be a competing urge for the contemporary and traditional. How do you balance that?

EB It’s very difficult. When we finished this chair we were questioning whether it was too traditional. But various people in the studio were convinced it had its roots in some sort of tradition, but was nonetheless a contemporary chair. There were enough little elements that made it feel contemporary.
JO It has a really strong graphic. When you look at it in oak and tan leather it looks older, but when you see just the form itself, it feels contemporary. It is hard though. When we were working on the RIBA reception desk they wanted something that would challenge it. They wanted something overwhelmingly modern, some brightly coloured object sitting in the reception. We thought that was inappropriate.
EB If you design something for an institution or a specific location you want it to last. If you chose a colour, any colour, it dates. Whatever felt right at the time will feel dated 10 years on. Maybe 30 years on it will come back, but we felt it’s best to avoid colour in a situation like that.

Did you take that ageing process into account with the design?

JO We’re talking about finish at the moment and are considering not finishing the wood at all.
EB So after a year or so the front of the arms will be becoming quite dark with the oil from people’s hands, whereas further back it’ll be quite light. The legs will have a tide mark from where it’s been swept and mopped.
JO Maybe we should do raw leather as well. Just let it patina.
EB That’s what I think. It’ll start to look really good in three or four years time. Before then it’ll be part way through a process. In 20 years it’ll look great.

The Guardian’s Oliver Wainright compared it to the Frank Lloyd Wright Barrel chair. Did you look at that chair in the design?

JO We didn’t really look at anything.
EB Having sketched it up we did then cross-reference to Josef Hoffmann who did something a little similar. We checked to make sure it wasn’t too close.
JO We have a head full of influences naturally. One of the influences was the original Windsor chair from the library. So we have the same layering from the original chair.
EB If you’ve got a visual mind once you’ve seen something it’s very difficult to forget it. Things pop out occasionally. We’ve designed things we’ve thought are great and it’s only two days later you realise it’s identical to something everyone knows.
JO The only thing that can happen is that you’re onto a winner, open a magazine and book and think “Oh, shit.” Then you kill the product before you’ve properly developed it. That can be too depressing. So it’s best not to look while you’re developing. You’ll always find something similar-ish.