Frozen in their embryonic stages of manufacturing: objects like the cork in Barber Osgerby’s “In the Making” at the Design Museum London. Photo © Mirren Rosie/ Design Museum London
The charm of the unfinished
by Antje Southern
Feb 14, 2014

The awareness of the physical process of making is central to the practice of the award-winning British design duo Barber Osgerby. To share their technical curiosity the designers have brought together a stimulating display of objects that were frozen in their embryonic stages of manufacturing. One of the humblest items on display is a simple cork stopper. Paused mid-way during its production, the cork still sits within in its cylindrical punch cut of the bark of a cork oak tree. Selected for the natural ruggedness of the raw material compared with the precision machining, the cork, frozen mid-production, reveals an intrinsic but unexpected beauty.

It is an ambitious idea to focus an exhibition purely on the aesthetic of objects in their emergent state, but this has been beautifully accomplished by the Design Museum London. Fitted into a bijou space on the top floor and clad in deepest velvety midnight black, the exhibition encourages a very private and personal engagement with the thinking that underpins Barber Osgerby’s creative practice.

A factory like a giant bakery

The “form follows function” principle has been momentarily overturned and draws attention to the object’s abstract beauty before the final production process can confirm its defining form and eventual function. This explains why the exhibition labels don’t bother with technical detail, but instead they record the designer’s personal commentary that shares their visual gratification when observing the production process. For instance, the injection-molded polyurethane core of the B&B Italia “Charles Sofa”, which was deliberately paused at 40 percent to show its “beguiling turquoise color” and the curing of the foam core in huge molds, is described by Barber Osgerby as making “the factory feel something like a giant bakery”.

Barber Osgerby’s objective to “demystify how these products are made” is deftly visualized in their halting of the production of pencils just after the first industrial cut and just before the row of cedar slats are sliced into recognizable individual pencils. The minimalist aesthetic of the cedar slats aptly reveals the economy and resourcefulness of their manufacturing.

Their respect for the nature of wood and handcrafting is evident in their decision to show the formative stage of the production of a cricket bat when the willow already has the pitched-roof profile revealed in the back. The combination of tailoring skill and technology becomes apparent when looking at the die-cut upper fabric pattern of a soccer boot. The abstract shape makes its purpose ambiguous and invites comparisons to artworks. A sheet of £50 banknotes printed with complex offset litho techniques before it is cut to size has the quality of an Andy Warhol multiple. Hans Grohe faucets cast as a pair with the risers and sprues that allow the molten brass to flow through the mold reflect the aesthetic of a metal sculpture. Similarly, the French horn paused in a Dada-esque manner prior to its first bend was chosen for its “pleasingly exaggerated proportions”. The guesswork that ensues to identify objects before they assume their recognizable form is both satisfying and entertaining and mercifully not spoiled by the obvious temptation to include the finished object. Parenthetically the vibrant yellow is the only clue that the fluorescent woven textile hanging perforated with stencil-cut lozenges provided the die-cut felt subsequently used to upholster tennis balls.

The sheer beauty of the material

Barber Osgerby’s choice to pause the CNC machining of the MacBook Pro while still showing the raw state of the aluminum billet as well as Apple’s signature rounded corners offers insights into the salient properties of materials without an overload of mechanical data. The versatility and malleability of aluminum can be appreciated on purely visually terms when looking at a punch-pressed beverage can stretched into a paper-thin, seamless tubular wall after startling life as an anonymous flat disk. The materials’ strong and light properties are fully divulged in the London 2012 Olympic Torch, designed by Barber Osgerby. Here it is shown in its earliest pre-pubescent phase as a flat, laser-cut, perforated aluminum sheet already with a curvilinear outline and just before being bent into its eventual conical form.

A single wooden unit of the steam-bent back and leg of the revolutionary Thonet café chair is of course included. As the first piece of furniture whose form was manifestly shaped by industrial processes, it is positioned diagonally opposite Barber Osgerby’s own iconic Tip Ton chair. The designers paused the production before the mold was entirely filled with molten plastic and thus deliberately made “a sculptural albeit unusable chair”. An efficient way of letting the object explain itself and perhaps one of the most persuasive tactics to excite the next generation about production processes. This is a uniquely inspiring exhibition that has been appropriately curated with great passion by the designers “who never start a project without visiting the factory first”.

In the Making – Barber Osgerby
January 22, 2014 – May 4, 2014
Design Museum London

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Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby. Photo © Alisa Connan
It becomes a tennisball. Photo © Antje Southern
“A sculptural albeit unusable chair”: “Tip Ton“ von Barber Osgerby für Vitra.
Photo © Antje Southern
The first piece of furniture whose form was manifestly shaped by industrial processes: the Thonet café chair. Photo © Antje Southern
Barber Osgerby’s stopped the CNC machining of the MacBook Pro.
Photo © Antje Southern
Do you recognize it? It is a flat, laser-cut, perforated aluminum sheet which formed the Olympic Torch for London 2012, design: Barber Osgerby. Photo © Antje Southern
The versatility and malleability: punch-pressed beverage can.
Photo © Design Museum London
Tailoring a football boot: cut upper pattern paused at 10 percent.
Photo © Design Museum London
The object explains itself: “In the Making” by Barber Osgerny at the Design Museum London. Photo © Mirren Rosie/ Design Museum London