Practical Equipment Ltd, known later simply as PEL, was the leading manufacturer of modernist tubular steel furniture in Britain. Established in Rounds Green, Oldbury, near Birmingham the company was formed in 1931 by Tube Investments Ltd, a steel tube company actively seeking to develop new markets for their products and keen to emulate the success of German furniture company Thonet. Critically acclaimed projects that commissioned work from PEL in the 1930s included the BBC’s Broadcasting House, Wells Coates’ luxury flats at Embassy Court in Brighton, and the De Le Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea.
In the same manner as Thonet each model in PEL’s range was known simply by an alpha-numeric model number rather than by a name or that of its designer, and whether by accident or design this concept neatly reflected the modernist ideal of anonymous mass-production. Just how well PEL’s domestic furniture sold however is unclear. There is certainly a reasonably plentiful supply of examples remaining in Britain, thanks chiefly to their high quality and simple construction.
Adapting to changing tastes and stiff international competition PEL gradually shifted emphasis from the ground-breaking modernist design of their early production to the functionalist practicality of their mass-produced stacking chairs. These latter items sold phenomenally well and kept the company bouyant throughout the 1930s.
Many items in PEL’s initial range are the work of British architect and designer Oliver Bernard. Before his association with PEL Bernard was known chiefly for his interior work for Lyons’ Tea Rooms and his entrance to the Strand Palace Hotel in London in which he used chairs by Thonet.
As early as 1932 PEL had hoped to begin volume manufacture of the RP6 stacking chair for the commercial market, but production was halted by a legal challenge from the designer Bruno Pollak. Pollak won his challenge over the patent for the stacking chair concept and PEL were forced to license it in order to begin production of the RP6 in 1934.
Serge Chermayeff the prolific Russian émigré designer, writer and architect of the De La Warr Pavilion (with Eric Mendelsohn), was commissioned to design several pieces for PEL including a version of the chair he supplied to the BBC at Broadcasting House. Other examples of his work from this period include several pieces of furniture for P.E. Gane and his delightful Ekco AC74 radio set.
PEL manufactured a small number of a Mart Stam designed chair.
Several PEL pieces were designed by the famous architect Wells Coates whose work includes the Isokon flats in Hampstead and Embassy Court in Brighton. PEL later supplied the furniture for Coates’ development at Embassy Court and his private flat in London.
Coates also had a successful relationship designing for Ekco, for whom he created what is perhaps the most iconic of all 1930’s British radio sets the Ekco AD65.
OTHER MODELS & APPLICATIONS
PEL were commissioned by Odeon cinemas to produce the lobby sofas for several of their new super-cinemas, and these were later made available to the public. Examples were originally to be found in our local Odeon in Muswell Hill by George Coles.
Here we see a pair of single bed frames (many married couples still often slept in separate beds in the 1930s) alongside a rarer double bed frame. PEL produced several successful bedroom ‘suites’.
Tables and sideboards
PEL produced a wide range of tables ranging from large dining tables to small cocktail trolleys. Most were available with either a glass or lacquered black top as shown.
PEL produced several sofas which made good use of tubular steel.
We are always happy to learn more about PEL and certainly if anyone has any original examples for sale please do let us know! See the about section for contact details.
© Modernist Tourists 2017