Design: Bent on success

Young, gifted and modernist, Ed Barber and Jay Osgerby have hit it big with their slinky, curvy furniture and clean, simple interiors - just don't mention Richard Rogers. By Nonie Niesewand. Photographs by Sandro Sodano

Admit it, BOA is a good name for a design company that grabs hold of something as boring as a coffee table or a magazine rack and curls it in on itself in a lazy loop before letting it flex its muscles in a long slinky span. BOA stands for Barber and Osgerby Associates, Ed and Jay respectively, who met in 1994 at the Royal College of Art. Both were in their mid-twenties and about to drop out of the architecture and interior post-graduate design course when a new course director, well-known modernist Dinah Casson, caught their attention and inspired them once again.

"I'm a real fan of modernism," Ed Barber explains. "In architecture it was Le Corbusier who opened our eyes. In furniture, Marcel Breuer. Charles Eames is the best, though." Their furniture is made in Britain by Windmill, which holds the licence to produce Isokon furniture, the laminated plywood range dating from before the Second World War. Windmill also still makes Breuer chairs in chrome and leather, as well as bending plywood into supple shapes for BOA. Although the technique it uses is the same as early Alvar Aalto furniture, the results carry a lot more tautness and a hint of menace.

"The real test of a good chair," Jay Osgerby believes, "is that you remain comfortable after an hour sitting in it." BOA's chairs support the body in the right position and in the right place. They are light and easy to move and take up little space. A good place to check them out for the hour-long test is the bar-restaurant Soho Brewing Company in Covent Garden, which opened this year. BOA did the interiors and designed tables and stools, some of which the owner asked them to convert into chairs. Now beer is brewed on the premises in huge copper vats which BOA allowed to dominate the glass-fronted street elevation. The beer is piped in stainless-steel ducts down to the basement, all along the vaulted brick ceiling and to the bar. This roughly hewn, smoothly executed industrial micro-brewery is a surprisingly successful blend of ancient and modern.

"Fashions change in a second these days. Like drum 'n' bass music, the tempo is getting faster. But we were asked to make an interior that would last for a decade," Ed explains. "We hate to change the integrity of the space. We just put in installations to last, leaving the fabric to make a statement about its past." So there is nothing posey about their high-tech styling, which becomes more "high touch" with their smoothly sophisticated furniture. BOA hate the constrictions of high tech. "It's so obvious. I can't stand Lloyds in London. Or the Pompidou Centre in Paris, both by Richard Rogers," Ed says.

You've got to hand it to the design duo. Designing two pubs and a shoe shop, and making some skinny stools and plane-wing tables in plywood have catapulted them to international stardom. Talent-spotter Giulio Cappellini in Milan is putting their furniture into production, with a show shared with Jasper Morrison this September, the equivalent of Leonardo DiCaprio starring with Johnny Depp. A feature in Interview magazine landed them calls from Herman Miller in the States, which wants to put their furniture into production over there, and now Virgin Records wants BOA to design its Chicago offices. (The watershed in their fortunes came when Wallpaper magazine asked BOA to design its stand at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. It won the prize for the best stand.)

Now BOA predict that high-style decoration will come back, with flocked paper of the kind that Lord Irvine might approve of. This is all the more surprising when you consider the house they have just done for a broker in fashionable W11. Stripped-down, pared back, all white with limestone floors, it looks as though it's been done by the arch-minimalist John Pawson.

Their client asked them for a minimalist interior. At first they tried to persuade him that he'd have to lose at least a third of his space to cupboards, because minimalism in reality usually entails wall-to-wall storage behind closed doors. But he managed to convince them that he was a genuine minimalist and led a clutter-free life with few possessions. He was even prepared to tuck his bathroom into a cubbyhole under the stairs so that he could live in an open shell.

"We always do what is appropriate," Jay says. That's why they replaced wooden sash windows with aluminium Crittal ones that match the earlier Fifties styling of the house. It had been ditzed up in a rather precious manner by a builder and they enjoyed taking it back to a more authentic style. "Honesty is what we look for in our interiors, in the materials we use and the form we give them," Ed explains. They removed a support wall to open out two small rooms and replaced it with an reinforced steel joist held up with a column. The argument about whether it should be round or square raged with true minimalist rigour.

Ed is the perfectionist of the design duo. "Builders hate me, the man from hell on site. I make them do everything again to get the details right." Jay is the nice easy-going optimist. Now they are designing the Farmacia in Covent Garden, an aromatherapy centre which they have resisted turning into a type of Body Shop. Bolt-on, white-bracketed shelving lines the white walls, and there are herbal remedies in glass jars on the counter. You step on to a black Astroturf mat just inside the glass door, and then on to a floor made from zillions of small white pebbles. This blend of efficiency with good looks, that is the very image of squeaky clean purity, couldn't be further away in concept from its flash almost-namesake the Pharmacy. And yes, please, BOA would like to design a hotel chain next

BOA: see it and buy it

PROJECTS DESIGNED BY BOA

The Crescent 99 Fulham Rd, London SW3, 0171-225 2244. A restaurant and wine bar currently getting a BOA makeover.

Farmacia 169 Drury Lane, London WC2, 0171-831 0830.

Natural remedy practitioners, open to the public.

Soho Brewing Company 41 Earlham St, London WC2,

0171-240 0606. Bar and restaurant with its own micro-brewery.

Trevor Sorbie The hairdressing chain's headquarters are

also being designed by BOA with project management MAA.

Up to 50 stylists will be housed in a 5,000sq ft space in Covent

Garden (exact venue still secret). Opens later this year.

STOCKISTS

Coexistence 288 Upper St, London N1, 0171-354 8817. This design store has all BOA products available to order.

The Conran Shop 81 Fulham Rd, London SW3, 0171-589

7401. Sells BOA's Loop table (pounds 650) and Loop CD shelf (pounds 125).

Lloyd Davis 14 John Dalton St, Manchester, 0161 8323700.

Limited range of BOA furniture, including Loop collection.

Twentieth Century Design 274 Upper St, London N1,

0171-288 1996. Sells the BOA-designed Loop table

(pounds 645 with a walnut veneer; pounds 595 with a birch veneer or painted white).The showroom is due to be refitted by

BOA in late September, and will relaunch with an exhibition of designs by BOA and others.

Contact Barber Osgerby Associates direct on 0181-742 0410.

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