There are plenty of exhibitions about design. But there are very few about manufacture. When British designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby were asked to do a show at London’s Design Museum they declined the traditional retrospective (although their prolific output could have filled an entire gallery), and have instead curated a show about their real passion – production. The idea makes for a very curious but wonderfully engaging exhibition of half-finished objects, some of which, in their incomplete state, look seductively sculptural, abstract, occasionally deceptive and counterintuitive and, occasionally, utterly beautiful.
There is a rough-sawn block of wood en route to becoming a cricket bat, a clay extrusion waiting to be sliced into bricks, a silver fork with its tines still to be separated and an exquisitely coloured glass twist that looks like a piece from a Murano studio but turns out to be an embryonic set of glass marbles. What is striking is that despite their various states of incompleteness, some of these objects look fully formed. The fetching mauve felt hat would look utterly at home on a catwalk, a kind of extruded bell-shaped cloche. I imagined it becoming a bowler but was surprised to be told it was on its way to becoming a trilby.
There are higher-tech objects too – the aluminium slab destined to become a MacBook; and the front end of a Tube train, which looks curiously bigger than it should, like an architectural archway. Finally there are also some of BarberOsgerby’s own designs, the cut-outs that formed the 2012 Olympic torches, a part-built chair and the discs of an unassembled £2 coin.
There is something here of the neo-Platonic idea that the ideal form lurks within a material, like Michelangelo’s notion of “revealing” the form inherent in the marble rather than actively forming it. But there is also the idea that at each stage these products are full of potential, with the capability of becoming something different, that each design has lives in parallel universes in which it becomes something else, perhaps slightly, perhaps radically different to the finished product that it set out to be.
This is a design show of rare modesty, almost the opposite of a monographic exhibition. Instead it is a pure celebration of making and the designers’ pure pleasure in process shines through.
Until May 4, designmuseum.org