Olssøn Barbieri on creating projects that change attitudes and contribute to a better future
Since 2012, Olssøn Barbieri has collaborated with small family companies and big corporations, both locally in Oslo and on a global scale. Through it all, they’ve stayed true to their belief that there is a better way to make products and empower a world of mindful consumers. We caught up with Erika Barbieri to find out more.
EM How did the studio get started?
EB Henrik and I met studying communication and industrial design in Florence. Italians love their food and we often made lunch together to go back to class in the afternoon. Those trips to the supermarkets were part of everyday routines and how our common interest for packaging probably started.
We moved to Oslo in 2005 and have worked together since then. In 2012, we started our new studio, OlssønBarbieri, with new goals and visions. We wanted to create beautiful and meaningful work and collaborate with progressive brands, visionary clients and other talented creatives.
Now, eight years later, we have created a path that keeps us growing and engaged. We’re grateful that we’re attracting clients with challenging and interesting missions, which are tuned to a growing desire for products and experiences that are long-lasting, beautiful and meaningful. Food and drinks have remained a big part of our interest. We are still preparing lunch in the office every day.
EM What have you learnt starting out?
EB Endurance is as important as talent. Make a list of things you want to achieve, it helps to focus and clarify goals. There is not only one way to succeed. Trust your process. Work and life are not very separate for us, we have been growing following our interests and this keeps us motivated. Surround yourself with people you admire. “The opposite of beautiful is lazy, not ugly” by Paola Antonelli.
There is not only one way to succeed. Trust your process.
EM Can you highlight a major challenge you’ve faced?
EB Growing our team.
Me and Henrik have worked together for 16 years and at certain points, we felt we met our limits when it came to strengthening the business side of the studio. We sought help to recruit and understand who could help us, which started a long learning process. A process that forced us to look at ourselves with honesty and to grow out of our own fears.
To make a long story short, instead of getting a new managing director, we chose to continue to lead our own studio, and we believe this allows us to keep our integrity and focus on quality. Last year we hired a new designer, and we hope to be able to grow into a team of five-six people in the near future. We’re looking for people who share our ambitions – to create meaningful and beautiful projects that inspire a change of attitude and contribute to a better future.
CF18 is one of our most recent projects and we are very proud of it.
EM We first heard of you through your identity for CF18 Chocolatier. It’s clear that a lot of thought went into the packaging to make it plastic-free. Can you describe that process?
EB Our desire in the past years has been to focus on taking responsibility and contribute to challenging production systems, inspire critical consumer behaviour and to be part of creating the future of packaging. We feel that our background as product designers is helping us to have a holistic approach in regards to production techniques and use of materials. CF18 is one of our most recent projects and we are very proud of it. Fredrik is an engineer turned chocolatier and he needed an identity and packaging for his exquisite chocolates. He didn’t have a proper brief but it was clear that he was ambitious and open to create something new.
Fibreform is a paper that can be moulded and allows for deep embossing/debossing. Thanks to its special properties it can substitute plastic. We had samples of this material in our archive for some time and with CF18 we were finally able to explore some of its qualities. We wanted to develop a packaging solution that created a unique experience but also addresses ecology with a creative approach. In order to do that, we needed to be in conversation with the paper producer to understand the possibilities of the material but also its limits.
Looking at standard chocolate boxes, we saw it was common to use plastic trays and inlays with additional material framing the trays, increasing the overall size and complicating the assembly of those boxes. The debossed inlays to position the chocolates became an important aspect of the project to be able to avoid plastic. We dressed the boxes in textile, enabling the possibility of a second life, and used the same material for the inlays as for the outer packaging, adding a 360 tear-off opening.
EB Once we had designed the different elements of the packaging we needed a producer that was open to testing untested solutions. There are not so many of those around so we were grateful that Göteborgstryckeriet was interested in taking up this challenge with us. The customised packaging solution went hand-in-hand with the identity and storytelling. We feel CF18 is a pilot project for the studio to prove there is an alternative way to produce, where beauty and purpose can meet. This project gave us the opportunity to explore material possibilities and to challenge some pre-established ideas of what premium packaging could be.
Today, a company needs to commit to its social responsibilities. Material producers are investing to improve and create new materials that often require expensive machines in order for companies to introduce their product in the market and improve their ecological impact. In our experience, the involvement of designers is often happening at the end and not as an integral part of that conversation. As the need for alternative materials and critical thinking is urgent in our industry, collaboration and sharing of knowledge should also increase.
EM Illustration plays a significant role in many of your identity and packaging projects. What draws you to this approach?
EB As storytellers, we have a responsibility for the stories we are telling. Our research process is always exploring the historical and cultural context of a product or a brand and it’s symbolism. Visual storytelling is playing an important role in our work and so is the illustration.
In the past years, we think the role of illustration in packaging design has changed, manifesting a shift in the industry. (We think the flourishing of independent foundries is also a part of this.) The need to differentiate independent, progressive and challenging brands has created a need for a language that signals a more personal, characterful and honest point of view. Many illustrators today are also actively breaking paradigms. Through their choices and style, they can challenge the way we see the world, which can be quite powerful.
EB Different projects and research invites different choices, approaches and style. For Gullmunn Spritfabrikk, we paid homage to the work of researcher Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717), through the illustration of Irene Laschi (IT). Here the reference for the illustration was very precise to the original. In order to silkscreen directly on the bottle with seven screens, we chose a pointillism technique that demanded an illustrator with her skills.
For Hellstrøm Summer Aquavit, we wanted the whimsical illustrations of Bendik Kaltenborn (NO) to rekindle the Scandinavian folklore of midsummer night. Being an unaged aquavit and suited for cocktails, it needed to fit a new context and a younger crowd (as opposed to the Norwegian tradition of drinking matured aquavit for Christmas). Bendik’s contemporary illustration style helped to make this possible.
We should welcome a collaborative and cross-disciplinary attitude.
EB For our latest project, Ambijus, we collaborated with two different illustrators – Alexis Jamet (FR) and Espen Friberg (NO). Alexis created hypnotising grainy and dreamy illustrations and animations, and Espen added humour and wit to the concept. The two illustration styles balanced each other, making the products feel both intriguing and friendly.
EM You mentioned earlier that your backgrounds in product design have benefited you. Would you recommend that all designers have more than one string to their bow, or do you think it’s okay to specialise in one thing?
EB Hard to answer. It can be individual, though design is a discipline that is hard to outline its perimeters. I think today a designer needs to understand in a broader sense how and why a product is created and what is going to be its after-life. So even if you are specialised in one thing, in this time we should welcome a collaborative and cross-disciplinary attitude.
EM The ‘Tutto’ page on your website – are these your references?
EB At the beginning, our research is mostly driven by intuition and instinct until a path emerges. Most of the time we are unable to share what we find on the way so we felt that Tutto (‘everything’ in Italian) could be a place to show some of those things, but also things we like and some objects from the studio. A cabinet of curiosity. As this is an important part of who we are, we recently created an Instagram account with the same intention: olssonbarbieri_tutto.
EM How do you typically find new clients?
EB A good percentage of them have actually found us. In the past years, we’ve been receiving more inquiries from both independent brands and larger companies, both in Norway and abroad. At this moment we’re collaborating with our second Indian drink start-up, a Japanese artisan leather bag producer, an identity and range of products for a private residence in the north of Italy, a new brand of non-alcoholic mixers out of Copenhagen, and a farm in Norway doing regenerative agriculture with an edible garden and ecological chickens. A project that’s coming soon is for an urban cheesemaker from the west-coast of Norway that put a message on Facebook saying she was looking for a studio to redesign her identity. Usually, we prefer to meet people in person, but we’ve been able to collaborate also remotely, due to distance and the pandemic. If we see a company doing interesting products, but isn’t communicating as well as they could, we also contact them and try to get a meeting to see if there is something we could do for them.
EM Studios often describe the making of their own website as more challenging than any client project. How was the process of making yours?
EB Like the shoemaker’s son who always goes barefoot, a redesign of our website was long overdue. The process really started when Andreea joined the studio last year in June. It’s the result of a new pair of eyes looking at OlssønBarbieri, our process of going through and articulating our way of doing things and what we believe in. We’re very happy with the result and that we’re able to show more of what lies behind each project. We still want to publish more of our work, but I guess it’s the sort of project that’s never really finished.
EM How do you feel about the creative culture in Oslo?
EB It’s an exciting time to be here. Coming from Italy in 2005, the social life was very different here, with less diversity and options. In the beginning, this helped us to keep focused on working. Since then Oslo has changed a lot and it keeps on growing. The city is very invested in the future, sometimes at the expense of taking care of the past. New neighbourhoods are being built from the ground up, the hospitality industry is booming and local produce is more available thanks to a new generation of farmers and progressive entrepreneurs. The design scene is also getting more interesting, with new studios that are forward-thinking, hard-working and talented.