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.
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