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. Besides industrial applications for their tubing they had already established bicycle frame and golf club companies, and after acquiring tube manufacturers Accles and Pollock (who had experimented with a steel chair of their own) PEL’s Director Captain Carew was keen to emulate the success of German furniture company Thonet. Critically acclaimed projects that commissioned work from PEL in the 1930’s 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. The main prefixes used included SP (Spring Pattern), RP (Rigid Pattern) and HT (Harmony Table). Whether by accident or design this concept neatly reflected the modernist ideal of anonymous mass-production, more so even than Thonet who frequently used their famous designers’ names in advertising material. 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. However it is reported that the British public, inherently conservative in the domestic setting, felt that such overtly ‘European style’ furniture was too cold and clinical. So much then for the man (and woman) in the street, but a review of the contemporary architectural press suggests that PEL furniture was frequently used to furnish expensive modernist villas where bespoke furniture was not supplied by the architect. For a brief period in the early 1930’s PEL furniture was very modish with the fashionable-end of British high society. That PEL was sold by Harrods and Heal’s (who carried PEL’s bedroom suite from as early as 1931), and later by Bowman’s of Camden, is indicative of the social standing of early buyers. Orders from luxury hotels soon followed and PEL supplied furniture to the Savoy, Claridge’s and the Metropole in Brighton. However, perhaps in part due to its relatively late arrival in Britain, steel furniture was quickly supplanted in the hearts of fashionable customers by the smart new bent-ply furniture coming to Britain from Finland. In recognition of this PEL gradually shifted emphasis from the ground-breaking modernist design of their luxury products to the functionalist practicality of their mass-produced stacking chairs. These latter items sold phenomenally well to commercial buyers and kept the company bouyant throughout the 1930’s, and contemporary advertising materials indicate that PEL relied increasingly on the overseas market (largely Commonwealth) for the sale of their more expensive models.
Many items in PEL’s initial range are the work of British architect and designer Oliver Bernard. Before his association with PEL (roughly 1931-1933) 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. In fact both his SP2 and SP4 chairs had very clear antecedents in chairs made by Thonet (the Mart Stam S33 chair and the Anton Lorenz SS33) but Bernard also produced several new designs of his own such as the RP1 café chair. Given that PEL were seeking to mimic the German company’s success Bernard arrival was something of coup; especially since Bernard had served as judge on Thonet’s 1929 design competition alongside Le Corbusier. Keeping him happy may have been a challenge however, since Bernard is reported to have had a short temper and once threw a type-writer out the of the window of his London office.
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 Pollack (sometimes spelled Pollak), who was alerted to PEL’s unauthorised usage of his 1929 design by their own promotional material. Pollack won his challenge and PEL were forced to license the patent in order to begin production of the RP6 in 1934. The chair was initially sold with canvas seating supports as standard but could also be supplied in slatted wood, bent-ply and plastic/bakelite variants. So successful was this chair for PEL that other Pollack designs were soon put into production including the SP3, RP7, RP17 and RP18 chairs.
Interestingly PEL’s main British rival, Cox, had also started manufacturing the Pollack stacking chair, apparently in full knowledge of PEL having purchased the patent. The inevitable happened and after further legal wranglings Cox were forced to pay PEL a fee of 6d for each chair they sold.
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. Essentially it is the same chair as those manufactured in the Czech Republic by the Kovana furniture company and in Germany by Thonet. PEL model number SP43F (Thonet code B43F).
The PEL SD range of desks was designed by the famous architect Wells Coates whose work includes the Isokon flats in Hampstead and Embassy Court in Brighton. Given Coates’ somewhat erratic professional relationships his period with PEL from 1931 to 1936 was relatively long. He was first recruited by Capt. Carew, presumably through fellow designer Oliver Bernard, in order to complete a commission for the BBC at Broadcasting House. No doubt PEL were keen to make use of Coates’ engineering expertise, but the BBC had also specified they only wanted British and Commonwealth designers involved in the project. PEL later supplied the furniture for Coates’ development at Embassy Court and his private flat in London, for which he designed a special ‘type-writing’ chair.
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 as the S2 sofa. The S2 was often paired with the SP7 chair as they shared the same design pattern. As we have alluded to above, the sleek modern look of tubular steel furniture was given a frosty reception by the general public in the domestic setting, but it was perfectly acceptable, indeed it was thought highly appropriate, in their local cinema. 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 slept in separate beds in the 1930’s) alongside a rarer double bed frame. PEL produced several successful bedroom ‘suites’ which were sold by Heal’s of Tottenham Court Road, and later by Bowman’s of Camden. The model below is the B4 (Bedstead). The designer of the B1 was Oliver Bernard but the designers of the B2, B3 and B4 are unknown.
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 as shown below; the influence of both Gispen and Le Corbusier is clear in their S1 sofa.
Here we see the PEL G7 umbrella stand. No doubt it is an extremely rare model today due to the high probability of corrosion in damp conditions.
Later expansion and decline
PEL continued to diversify their business after the war (having done a brisk trade supplying the M.O.D. and Admiralty with canvas stacking chairs). Several pre-war chair models were revived or modified, with their rexine and cloth coverings replaced with newer vinyl materials. Eventually the range was expanded to include office furniture and commercial interiors for ships and railway carriages.
Much of this post-war work lacked the clear design vision of their 1930’s output, and it wasn’t until a revival of fortunes in the 1960’s and 70’s that their work once more caught hold of the zeitgeist.
We are lucky to hold several original examples of PEL furniture and advertising material in our collection, however we are always happy to learn of new models. This article is not exhaustive and will be updated when new information comes to light.
If anyone discovers an RP7 chair or an early SP9 for sale please do let us know. See the about section for contact details.
© Modernist Tourists 2017