Practical Equipment Ltd, known later simply as PEL, were the leading manufacturers of modernist tubular steel furniture in Britain. Established in Oldbury, near Birmingham the company was formed in 1931 by parent company Tube Investments, who were seeking to develop new markets and hoped to emulate the success of Thonet in producing tubular steel furniture. Critically acclaimed projects which featured PEL furniture 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 manner of Thonet each model in PEL’s range was known simply by an alpha-numeric model number, and whether by accident or design this system neatly reflected the modernist ideal of anonymous industrial production. Adapting to changing tastes and competition from overseas PEL gradually shifted emphasis away from the ground-breaking modernist design of their early years to the functional practicality of their mass-produced stacking chairs. These stacking chairs, available with canvas, plywood or bakelite supports, sold in their millions and in recent years many have enjoyed a second life in Britain’s cafés and restaurants. Happily, there is a still a plentiful supply of vintage PEL chairs available in Britain thanks to their use of high-quality materials and simple yet elegant construction.
Many items in PEL’s initial range were the work of British architect and designer Oliver Percy Bernard. Before his association with PEL Bernard was known chiefly for his interior work for Lyons’ Tea Rooms and his spectacular glass entrance to the Strand Palace Hotel in London.
PEL began making their RP6 stacking chair for the commercial market as early as 1932, but production was soon halted by a successful legal challenge from the chair’s designer Bruno Pollak. As a result PEL and other British manufacturers were forced to license his patent in order to continue producing the chair.
Serge Chermayeff, the prolific Russian émigré designer, writer and architect of the De La Warr Pavilion (with Eric Mendelsohn), worked with PEL to design furniture for the BBC at Broadcasting House. Other examples of his work from this period include his wooden furniture designs for P.E. Gane of Bristol and his impressive Ekco AC74 radio set.
The modernist architect Wells Coates, whose work included the Isokon flats in Hampstead, London and Embassy Court in Brighton, designed several items for PEL. PEL supplied the furniture for Embassy Court and also for Coates’ private flat in London.
Like Chermayeff, Coates designed radio cabinets for Ekco, including what is perhaps the most iconic of all 1930s British radio sets the Ekco AD65.
PEL were commissioned by Odeon cinemas to supply the lobby sofas for many of their new super-cinemas. Examples were originally to be found in our local Odeon in Muswell Hill by George Coles.
PEL produced several bedroom ‘suites’ including dressing tables and tubular steel bed frames.
Tables and sideboards
PEL manufactured a wide range of tables, from large dining tables to small cocktail trolleys. Most were available with either a lacquered wooden top or with specially toughened safety glass (which was then a new material).
PEL produced several upholstered settees which made good use of tubular steel, the S2 model was based on their successful design for the Odeon cinema company.
We are always happy to learn more about PEL and to answer any questions if we can. Should you have any original examples for sale please do let us know – see the about section for our contact details.
© Modernist Tourists 2019
May 24, 2017 at 4:55 am
Thanks for the page.I worked Pel as TI student ’60s, v tedious. But they’d never explained all this super past. PS Accles+Pollock were principally tube mfrers from early on.
July 25, 2017 at 2:12 pm
Hi David, thanks for your comment. Very interesting to hear from a former employee albeit one who didn’t enjoy it so much! Thanks also for the A&P correction.
June 27, 2018 at 9:37 am
I was very interested in your website, my father Harry Potter was your chief designer between 1953-1966,he was responsible along with a Dutch designer Phillipus,for the first polypropylene stacking chair, and many other designs of that era.My dad is now deceased, he died aged 94 in April 2014.
June 27, 2018 at 9:44 am
How wonderful to hear from you Katherine! Yes, the ‘PP’ or Philipus Potter range was undoubtedly the highlight of PEL’s postwar production, and I am hoping to do more research on that era soon.
December 28, 2018 at 5:17 pm
Hi there, my granddad, William Harvey Reynolds (also known as James) was works manager (and designer?) at Pel from c1932 until his retirement. My aunt still has some of his early models including a sideboard and a side table.
Do you have any further info ony grandad?
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January 14, 2019 at 10:06 am
Hi Helen, thanks for getting in touch. How interesting to hear about William Harvey Reynolds. I’ve emailed you via the address on your profile – hopefully you receive it but if not please let me know. Michael
January 19, 2019 at 9:59 pm
Hi I worked at pel for Reyes from 1968 till I retired when I was 65 now 73 started on shop floor engineering working on setting section and links her but finished as health and safety manager
January 31, 2019 at 10:37 am
Hi Alan, that’s great! Who were Reyes, a parent company of some sort? best, Michael
January 19, 2019 at 10:00 pm
Worked at pel 42years
June 29, 2020 at 6:12 pm
Stumbled on this site. My father worked for PEL Limited after they moved Accles & Pollocks to Walsall. Unable to travel to Walsall he moved to PEL. We lived in Vicarage Road and I myself worked in the advertising section from 1974 to 1978. Dealing with exhibitions of our furniture and giving leads to fourteen sales persons. I loved every single minute working for Pel. My boss was a chap called Bill Markham and Maurice somebody? I would not have left only to buy a house out of area. I used to pop down to see my dad at lunch time daily and it was exciting seeing the factory floor. There was a massive canteen opposite which was a god send in the summer of 1976 heat wave as we could buy ice lollies to cool off. Wonderful times. My dad would have left about 1980 -1982.
Thought I’d share.
July 1, 2020 at 10:32 am
Thanks for sharing. Very interesting to hear of these stories from the factory. I visited the Oldbury site recently – the factory building your father worked at has been demolished, it is now a small housing estate called Pel Crescent, but the canteen building is still there, and was operating as a large events/catering venue.
May 13, 2019 at 12:30 pm
I found this page while looking for information on a stack of chair frames I picked up – they were in a very poor state but I loved the design. I can now see they would have been the canvas version or the RP6 – so, thank you!
If you or any of your knowledgeable readers know where I might be able to find a pattern/template for the original canvas sections, I’d love to get them restored properly. I was thinking about asking a sail maker to make something up, but now I know they were such a popular design it would be nice to stay true to the original. Many thanks.
May 13, 2019 at 2:45 pm
Hi Sam. This is an excellent question and very pertinent to me as I have a chair in need of some new canvas too. My thought process was very much the same as yours but I haven’t taken the plunge yet and had any made up. Unfortunately I have no recommendations, only a word of caution that it needs to be good thick quality canvas, otherwise it will stretch and sag with time (although there is some adjustment built in to the design of the chair). If you do find a good sail maker or restorer please do let me know! I suspect there are lots of chairs out there whose owners have become attached to them and would also benefit from knowing of a craftsperson who can make new canvas pieces. These chairs would look wonderful with some colourful new canvas. Michael
January 20, 2020 at 8:55 pm
They were also commission during the late 50’s to design utilitarian table and chairs sets for the crown estate post offices in the Uk. Again steel tube Formica ply tables and grey faux leather covered ply board padded chairs.. they were very hard wearing and many lasted decades..
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May 1, 2020 at 7:29 pm
My father ernie bywater worked at pel on the setting section he started in what I think was the paddock works then moved to rood end road he worked there till his retirement some 35years ago I started there in 1968 started on setting section finishing and as I stated previously I went to oldbury college and studied health and safety and retired health and safety manager
July 1, 2020 at 10:35 am
Thanks Alan! Great to hear of Pel ‘family’ and especially of your dad who was at the original Paddock Works when the company was much smaller. When do you think he started on the job? Do you still have any old photos from Pel?
May 1, 2020 at 7:30 pm
Sorry should be linish section
October 15, 2020 at 3:41 pm
I found this site by accident whilst reminiscing. I lived on the Birmingham Road in the late 50/60s going to Rood End Infants school, so passed by the PEL most days. I remember one day especially as there was a fire at the works and the road was closed. I never knew what they made there, so this has been an interesting read, with some familiar company names mentioned e.g. Accles & Pollocks.
October 25, 2020 at 5:34 pm
Hi Stephen, glad to hear you enjoyed the page. I am working on much larger project about PEL and have a photograph of the fire you mention. I also recently visited the site in Oldbury, much has been demolished but the original 1930s factory and head office building remain. Thanks for sharing your memories!
January 5, 2022 at 10:27 pm
My name is Nazar Singh , I worked at PEL for about 30 years retiring in 2011. I worked as saw machine operator. It was a great place to work.
February 4, 2022 at 2:55 pm
Hi, did you know some named Gurdip Sagoo or also known as dipa. He work at PEL in the late 80 to early 2000s. He was supervisor and jig engineer.
February 12, 2023 at 7:18 pm
My Father , Ronald Daniels, (Ron), worked for pel in the 50’s , I think, or there abouts.
He is recently deceased aged 90 , and I’m trying to find something to say for his eulogy .
I believe there was a news article about a fire back then, in which it mentions that he rescued several people from the flames, together with a picture of him standing outside the fire damaged building.
It might have been the express and star, or Birmingham evening mail.
If you happened across this during your research, could you please pass on a copy.
K J Daniels.
February 15, 2023 at 1:27 pm
Our condolences Keverne, we’re sorry to hear of the passing of your father. I’m afraid we haven’t come across the news article you refer to but the fire was certainly a major one, and several people have mentioned it so it was clearly memorable. It seems to have destroyed most of their records and the old drawings for their designs, unfortunately.
February 14, 2023 at 4:33 pm
Hello lovely to look at your site I lived in St. John’s rd for many years often passed by PEL , my daughter won a competition in the eighties to design a chair and have it made at pel !im sure she still has it
February 15, 2023 at 1:23 pm
fantastic – we’d love to see a photo of it!