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In 2008, Ed Barber and Jay Osgerby were asked to consult on the furniture for a new secondary academy school at Tipton in the West Midlands. When they saw what was available – cheap plastic and tubular metal chairs with sharp edges and fiddly fittings that invited children to destroy them or take them to bits (research told them that, when it came to furniture, schools and prisons are the most destructive environments) – they realised immediately there must be a better answer.
They had to take into account cost, indestructibility, weight, colour (not only for decorative reasons but because schools use chairs to demarcate different areas), shape (they had to stack) and relative comfort. They wanted a one-piece chair that was strong enough to last for a decade and which could be entirely recycled. They wanted a chair that would encourage slight movement to keep the blood circulating (children begin to fidget when their circulation slows and they grow tired; minimal activity encourages them to concentrate).
At first they attempted a chair that rocked from the axis between the back and the seat. Then they tried a chair that worked on the same principle as a rocking chair but prevented the chair rocking backwards and offered two fixed positions: flat and slightly tipped forward. The idea was not to throw children face first into their textbooks but to encourage them to lean forward without hunching right over. (They discovered, inadvertently, the chair had an advantage for pregnant women, who could lean forward while keeping their backs straight and not squash their bump.)
Once the basic design was decided, they translated their drawings into three dimensions with the Swiss manufacturers, Vitra. They developed a form of hollowed-out plastic tubing (much stronger than solid plastic) that internally resembles the structure of human bone. They used digital simulations to test the strength of the chair and finally built a 20-ton steel mould, at a cost of about €300,000, to injection-mould the chairs one by one. Since then, the TipTon chair has been selling by the tens of thousands all over the world to both domestic and commercial customers.
‘We didn’t want to design just another chair. We realised during our research that the modern way of teaching required a new typology of chair. TipTon offers a new way of sitting, in two positions, giving ergonomic advantages’
Bio: Met as students at the Royal College of Art. Founded main Barber Osgerby studio, 1996; sister company, Universal Design Studio, founded 2001; MAP strategic design lab, founded 2012
Known for Home table 2000, Iris table 2008, Olympic and Paralympic torches, 2012; £2 coin to celebrate 150 years of the London Underground, 2013