In the month that one of the champions of Midlands manufacturing died, it seems apt to look back at some of the well-known brands to come out of Birmingham. Kumar Bhattacharyya is a prime example. He moved to Britain in 1961 and challenged the norm by helping bridge the gap between academia and manufacturing businesses. He founded the Warwick Manufacturing Group – now a world leader in cutting-edge manufacturing research. Birmingham furniture manufacturer Rigg is surrounded by a rich history of making design classics. Director Kevin White reminds us of a few here.
1. Mini Cooper
This was the first car for many people of a certain generation. 2019 is a big year for the Mini and its followers as it celebrates turning 60 years young – and is marking this auspicious occasion with the release of the Mini 60 Years Edition. For now, just look at the picture, reminisce and enjoy.
2. PEL Chair
The austere sounding name of Practical Equipment Ltd doesn’t do justice to some of the modernist designs to come out of this Oldbury manufacturer. Known later simply as PEL, the company manufactured on a huge scale, some design classics such as the PEL stacking chair. The simple, functional bent tubular frame was durable and definitely ‘practical’. Their products were ubiquitous, appearing in church halls to posh houses. Working with famous designers of the time, including Serge Chermayeff and Wells Coates, they had much success in the commercial market. Alas, the company is no more… but thanks to huge numbers being made, we can still enjoy them today.
3. Bird’s Custard
Partners often ask many things of us, but the desire for egg-free custard probably isn’t all that common. Long before the recent vegan trend, a Mr Bird of Birmingham found himself in this position. Keen to please his wife, he developed a recipe, which not only pleased her but also guests to their home. Being a keen Victorian type of guy, he developed the recipe into the familiar product with its distinctive red, yellow and blue packaging. The factory is now home to the Custard Factory Arts and Business Centre in Birmingham.
4. Brooks Saddle
When John Boultbee Brooks arrived in Birmingham in 1866, he was about to embark on a business that would eventually bring us this classic design. High quality materials and a sound design won favour with buyers and firmly established the company as leading saddle makers. The aesthetic of the ‘B66CH’ from 1929 is still familiar to us today. Brooks still manufacture high quality bicycle accessories in Smethwick.
5. Best & Lloyd ‘Bestlite’
It is very easy to think of a common design style or genre as being so ‘obvious’. However, we should remember that perhaps the ‘obviousness’ only comes with familiarity. When Best & Lloyd of Birmingham first brought out their range of desk lamps, they were something fresh and exciting.
6. Land Rover
At the heart of UK car design and production, it was inevitable that more than one automotive great would come out of the Midlands. Simple in form, easy to maintain and very definite in purpose, the Land Rover became the workhorse of many an agricultural business. Like the Mini and other classic designs, you can imagine it in a wide variety of situations, from a modest farm to the rural transport of landed gentry.
7. The Mellotron
Imagine that you wanted to make a musical sampler keyboard in the 1960s. With microelectronics in its infancy, how on earth would you do this? The answer: use loads of strips of recording tape to store sounds, which are then played when you press a key. It sounds a bit bonkers nowadays, but that is just how this instrument works. Les Bradley of tape engineering company Bradmatic (genius name) improved on existing ideas and sold their machine to numerous bands of the day, including the Beatles. You can still get one of these beauties from Birmingham company Streetly Electronics.