the practice that quietly shapes the way we live, work, shop and eat

Photo credit: Tina Hillier

On one of the first pages of the new book, Inside Out (Phaidon), marking the 20th anniversary of London-based architecture firm Universal Design Studio (UDS), there is a comprehensive list of everyone who has contributed to the firm in during his two decades.

It’s more than 240 people.

Therein lies the beating heart of the workings of this studio, founded by award-winning British designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby. It’s about the multiple thinkers who contributed to the diversity of the projects, which include retail spaces for Stella McCartney and Mulberry, hospitality ventures such as the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch and a cocktail bar for Fortnum & Mason , exhibition design for the V&A Museum and Frieze Art Fair as well as workspaces for IMB and Jimmy Choo.

Photo credit: Andrew Meredith

Photo credit: Andrew Meredith

When UDS was established in 2001, Barber and Osgerby separated their product and furniture design studio from their work in other design disciplines, including architecture.

“In the mid 90s when we started, while it was perfectly normal in Italy where there is a history of architects working in all aspects of design, here in the UK it was considered strange “, explains Osgerby. “We had a hard time explaining to people in the industry what we were doing, so we decided to create a new division, which focuses on architecture and interiors with an eye on collaboration.”

Photo credit: Andrew Meredith

Photo credit: Andrew Meredith

At UDS, there is never one writer for a project, nor a set formula, but rather an egalitarian approach – a team of creatives working collectively, using the minds of many.

“We never had this singular vision of a maestro,” says Osgerby. He calls the studio “an experimental playground that explores ideas about how we shop, live, eat out, learn.”

Each project, he says, tries to innovate in its sector and challenge conventional wisdom about how things should be done. It is also a practice that reuses and reprograms existing buildings, examining how they are used and how they serve their community rather than demolishing and rebuilding.

“We’re an architecture firm that doesn’t build buildings,” says Osgerby.

The goal is ultimately to create spaces that, rather than being defined by stylistic signatures, are an expression of how design and architecture can reflect changes in society. Jason Holley, director of UDS, explains the principle of the studio: “As the title of the book suggests, we try to work from the inside out. We think about humans and the context in which a building is used. This means that each response is site and user specific.

There are of course the flagship projects. Stella McCartney’s expressive stores in New York’s Meatpacking District and on London’s Bruton Street were early watershed moments for the studio in 2003. Barber and Osgerby, who remain on the company’s board but no longer no longer part of the daily management of the workshop, carried the project, which knew how to marry custom-made product, industrial design and interior architecture.

Photo credit: Barber Osgerby

Photo credit: Barber Osgerby

The bespoke tile they designed and used on the wall space is an example of this. “We often talk about our architecture having the level of detail that a piece of furniture could have,” says Holley.

Similarly, the Science Museum’s interactive Google Web Lab, which opened in 2012, aimed to use space to unpack ideas and tell stories. Weaving the physical and digital worlds together, he examined how a playful exhibition space could enable people to engage with technology in a meaningful way.

Photo credit: Andrew Meredith

Photo credit: Andrew Meredith

The Ace Hotel in Shoreditch, completed in 2013, was a pivotal moment for the studio and the neighborhood. “We hadn’t worked on a hotel at the time,” Holley admits, “but the Ace team loved how we challenged them. They didn’t give us a lot of briefing, but we did this journey together.

UDS associate director Carly Sweeney, who worked on the project, agrees. “We learned a lot about this project and became a real contributor to the region,” she says. “What made it special was the blurring of boundaries to create a hybrid space that was partly about out-of-town visiting guests, and partly about local culture and this laid-back workspace in the hall.”

This project led to a long-term collaboration with design-led coworking brand The Office Group, for which UDS designed Tintagel House in 2018, a landmark 12-storey heritage building, as well as many other workspaces in preperation.

Photo credit: Barber Osgerby

Photo credit: Barber Osgerby

So what’s next for UDS? “We haven’t delved into the aging community yet,” says co-director Paul Gulati. “We need better healthcare experiences and a focus on the high street. If retail is dead, then there is real estate which is important not only for business but also for the local community – we can use our experience there. We are also interested in mobility and electric vehicles. Holley agrees: “We try to give people the spaces they deserve. We are looking for collaborators and clients who share the same passion and openness.’

Ultimately, Barber and Osgerby’s main goal has always been collaboration: creating a campus atmosphere. “I honestly think Ed and I spent 25 years trying to recreate the university,” Osgerby says.

“That feeling we had at the Royal College of Art of walking around, moving from department to department, being friends with people in graphic design, product design, architecture and knowing that Sharing ideas across disciplines without being siled was productive and exciting. It’s still the best way to work. That’s it, really.

About Gertrude H. Kerr

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