On one of the opening pages of the new book, Inside Out (Phaidon), marking the 20th anniversary of the London-based architectural practice Universal Design Studio (UDS), there’s a comprehensive list of every person who has contributed to the practice during its two decades.
It’s over 240 people.
Therein lies the beating heart of how this studio, founded by the award-winning British designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, functions. It’s about the multiple thinkers who’ve contributed to the diverse range of 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.
When UDS was founded in 2001, it was a way of Barber and Osgerby separating their product and furniture design studio from their work across other design disciplines, including architecture.
‘In the mid-late 90s when we started, while this was perfectly normal in Italy where there’s a history of architects working in all aspects of design, here in the UK it was considered odd,’ says Osgerby. ‘We were finding it hard to explain to people in the industry what we were doing so we decided to create a new division, which focused on architecture and interiors with an eye on collaboration.’
At UDS, there’s never one author for a project, nor a set formula, but instead an egalitarian approach – a team of creatives working collectively, utilising the minds of many.
‘We’ve never been about that 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, is trying to break new ground within its sector and challenge the received wisdom of how things should be done. It’s also a practice that reuses and reprograms existing buildings, examining how they’re used and how they serve their community rather than demolishing and rebuilding.
‘We’re an architecture practice that doesn’t build buildings,’ says Osgerby.
The aim is ultimately to create spaces that, rather than be defined by stylistic signatures, are about the expression of how design and architecture can reflect changes in society. Jason Holley, director of UDS, explains the studio’s principle: ‘as the book title suggests, we try to work from the inside out. We’re thinking about humans and the context in which a building is used. That means every response is site and user specific.’
There are the stand-out projects, of course. The expressive Stella McCartney stores in New York’s Meatpacking District and on London’s Bruton Street were early defining moments for the studio in 2003. Barber and Osgerby, who remain on the board of the company, but are no longer part of the day-to-day running of the studio, led the project, which successfully married bespoke product, industrial design and interior architecture.
The custom-made tile they designed and used across the wall space is one such example. ‘We often talk about our architecture having the level of detail that a piece of furniture might have,’ says Holley.
Similarly, the interactive Google Web Lab at the Science Museum, which opened in 2012, was about using a space for unpacking ideas and storytelling. Weaving physical and digital worlds together, it looked at how a playful exhibition space could enable people to engage with technology in a meaningful way.
The Ace Hotel in Shoreditch, completed in 2013, was a pivotal moment for both the studio and the neighbourhood. ‘We’d not worked on a hotel at that point,’ admits Holley, ‘but the Ace team loved how we challenged them. They didn’t give us much of a brief, but we went on this journey together.’
UDS associate director Carly Sweeney, who worked on the project, agrees. ‘We learned so much on that project and became a genuine contributor to the area,’ she says. ‘What made it special was the blurring of boundaries to make a hybrid space that was partly about transient guests from out of town, and partly about local culture and that casual workspace in the lobby.’
That project has led to a long-term collaboration with the design-led, co-working brand The Office Group, for which UDS designed Tintagel House in 2018, a flagship 12-storey heritage building, along with numerous other workspaces in the pipeline.
So, what’s next for UDS? ‘We’ve not yet delved into the ageing community,’ says co-director Paul Gulati. ‘We need better experiences in healthcare and a focus back on to the high street. If retail is dead, then there’s real estate that’s important to not just business, but also local community – we can use our experience there. We’re also interested in mobility and electric vehicles.’ Holley agrees: ‘We’re trying to give people the spaces they deserve. We look for collaborators and clients who share that same passion and openness.’
Ultimately, Barber and Osgerby's core aim has always been about collaboration: to create a campus atmosphere. ‘I honestly think that Ed and I have spent 25 years trying to recreate college,’ Osgerby says.
‘That feeling we had at the Royal College of Art of wandering around, going between departments, being friends with people in graphics, product design, architecture and knowing that sharing ideas between disciplines without being siloed was productive and exciting. It’s still the best way to work. That’s it, really.’ universaldesignstudio.com