Crossrail’s super-fast Bombardier-built trains, which will be longer than Eurostar trains at an astonishing 656 feet, will each be capable of carrying up to 1,500 passengers. The mission for the Barber & Osgerby company is to help create a bold and dynamic look, both inside and out, to complement the service.
The pair have already given us, among other things, the 2012 London Olympic Torch; the impressive Information Age gallery at the Science Museum, opened by the Queen last month; the architectural scheme for this year’s Frieze London art fair; the Double Space for BMW at the V&A’s Raphael Gallery during London Design Festival, not to mention a new £2 coin to commemorate the London Underground’s 150th anniversary. And before all that, they gave us two decades of innovative lighting, furniture, interior and product design.
Barber & Osgerby is based in white, light-filled offices in Shoreditch. The Crossrail brief is to help direct what the trains’ interiors and exteriors should look and feel like — from the seat fabric and handrail colour to the livery. The duo have been given a fairly blank canvas to work on but have been sworn to secrecy when it comes to their progress. Fortunately, says Barber, 46, the details are mostly a matter of common sense.
“We all know when the lighting’s too bright, the seats are uncomfortable, or you can’t read the signage you need to see,” he explains. Adds Osgerby, also 46: “The hardest challenge has been to create something that matches the ambition of the infrastructure and network.”
Both awarded the OBE last year for their services to the design industry, the pair became business partners after graduating from the Royal College of Art with Masters degrees in architecture. After more than 20 years, they talk seamlessly, often finishing each other’s sentences.
“It’s an honour to be designing something that’s going to form part of the history of London. That’s is pretty incredible,” says Barber, who cites London Transport’s iconic, pre-Eighties graphics, signage and lighting as one of his big design influences. “And if our vision is realised and implemented, it will transform people’s experience of travel.”
As regular London commuters themselves, they are only too familiar with the horrors of the Tube during rush hour. “The trains are rammed. For Londoners it’s a nightmare,” says Barber, who lives near Paddington with his girlfriend, Ambra Medda, who co-founded Design Miami and now runs sophisticated online design gallery-cum-shop, L’ArcoBaleno.
Barber opts out of Tube crush by driving, while Osgerby commutes to work by bike. It’s six miles from Brockley, where he lives with his wife, Helen, who is setting up her own retail company, and their three children, aged 12, nine and six.
Osgerby says: “The fundamental problem is that London is amazing. It’s probably the best big city in the world to live in, so everybody wants to come here. As designers, architects and planners, the question is how to accommodate both that growing population and the city’s continued huge success.”
He could just as well be referring to their firm. In the past two years, the pair have doubled their staff to 60 and they now run three separate practices, which cover product and industrial design, architecture and emerging technology.
Their offices are being enlarged and are a mixture of workshops — think Q and his laboratory in a James Bond novel — and people working at white desks on iMacs and at drawing boards. The common factor is lots of light everywhere and an ethos of collaboration, the result of being partners for so long.
“We love collaboration and relish dialogue,” says Osgerby. “You end up with the best results. I’m sure there are designers out there who do one sketch and say ‘make it happen’, but it’s never right.”
On Friday afternoons one employee presents their latest project so everyone knows what everyone else is up to. Osgerby concludes: “There isn’t really anyone else in London who does what we do.”
“Are you sure about that?” asks Barber. “Yes,” comes the firm reply.
Thoughts on design by Barber and Osgerby…
Can’t live without
Barber: My Wusthof kitchen knife. I do a lot of cooking and can’t bear a bad knife.
Osgerby: My 9090 Alessi coffee maker (pictured). I find it hard to speak before I’ve had a coffee in the morning.
Idea of luxury
Barber: Swimming in the sea somewhere warm.
Osgerby: Spending time with my children.
Best London design shop
Barber: twentytwentyone in River Street, EC1. It is a shop full of brilliant things, a mix of classic furniture and new.
Osgerby: The markets at Golborne Road and Deptford. You never know what you’re going to find.
What I love most about London
Barber: The diversity of the architecture .
Osgerby: The energy of the place and the enduring thrill of crossing Waterloo Bridge.