PEL (Practical Equipment Ltd) Pair of 'Spring' side chairs, model no. SP2, 1930-1931

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Lot 1TP
PEL (Practical Equipment Ltd)
Pair of 'Spring' side chairs, model no. SP2, 1930-1931

£ 500 - 700
US$ 670 - 930

Design

14 Oct 2020, 14:00 BST

London, New Bond Street

PEL (Practical Equipment Ltd)
Pair of 'Spring' side chairs, model no. SP2, 1930-1931
Chromium-plated tubular steel, fabric upholstery.
Each: 81 x 40.5 x 59 cm
Manufactured by PEL, Oldbury, Birmingham, United Kingdom. Each frame with manufacturer's metal roundel embossed PEL.

Footnotes

  • Provenance

    Mr & Mrs Blackstone, Bridlington, United Kingdom, 1932
    Thence by descent
    Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2000

    Literature
    Design For To-day, December 1935, n.p. for an advertisement
    Dennis Sharp, Tim Benton and Barbie Campbell Cole, Pel and Tubular Steel Furniture of the Thirties, London, 1977, pp. 28, 37
    Barbie Campbell Cole and Tim Benton, Tubular Steel Furniture, London, 1979, p. 64


    Practical Equipment Limited (PEL)

    Cycling to the Bauhaus on his Adler bicycle in 1925, German architect Marcel Breuer was struck by its strength, lightness and flexibility: the right qualities, he thought, for a chair designed for the modern home. With the help of a local plumber, a tubular steel frame was created which formed the outline of a traditional club chair. Strips of canvas were stretched between the frame to form armrests, a back and seat; the first tubular steel chair came into being. Now with a sleek chromium frame and leather instead of canvas, the Wassily chair – named after Breuer's friend, the painter Wassily Kandinsky – is still in production.

    In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, metal furniture was only used in industrial and commercial settings such as factories and offices and, for reasons of hygiene, in hospitals and for the manufacture of bedsteads. During the First World War, there were rapid leaps forward in technology. In the aviation industry, for example, there were design innovations in plywood and tubular steel to make stronger and lighter aircraft. After the war, these industries looked for peacetime applications to keep their manufacturing plants in business. On the Continent, Thonet, famous for its ubiquitous bentwood café chair, led the way in the design and manufacture of tubular steel chairs, utilising the skills of some of Europe's leading architects including Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand, Mart Stam, and Josef Hoffmann as well as Breuer.

    Thonet opened a showroom in London in 1929 and two of the company's tubular steel chairs were used in the spectacular steel and glass foyer of the Strand Palace Hotel designed by Oliver Percy Bernard in 1930 (now in the V&A Museum). In early 1931, the chairs were spotted by Captain Carew and Major Huggins, directors of Tube Investments, a consortium of Midlands' steel tube manufacturers. They immediately saw the potential of opening up a new market for their product. Practical Equipment Ltd, later known as Pel, was established in Oldbury, near Birmingham, in July 1931. Bernard was appointed as consultant. Although he was responsible for many of the initial Pel products, several designs were blatantly plagiarised from Thonet's catalogues. Thonet had previously refused to license its tubular steel furniture designs for manufacture in the UK and, in the years following, there were to be a number of patent disputes.

    Early Pel products were designed for an upmarket, avant-garde clientele and a smart showroom was opened in Henrietta Street in Covent Garden in December 1931. The company first exhibited at the Ideal Home exhibition in 1932. Although tubular steel furniture was treated with caution by some elements of the press – 'a large number of people still regard it as too cold and severe', according to the Cabinet Maker (16 April 1932) – orders flooded in from the design elite: McKnight Kauffer, Marion Dorn, Betty Joel amongst others. Department stores such as Heals and Harrods sold Pel furniture and the Army & Navy Stores exported vast amounts of Pel bedroom and dining room furniture to India to supply the British Raj. Pel also became popular with India's native rulers and found its way into the palaces of progressive maharajas.

    It was the commercial contracts, however, which would generate profits for Pel. During the 1930s, Pel furniture was to be seen in the UK's most stylish buildings and interiors: hotels such as the Savoy and Claridge's, the controversial De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea designed by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, Wells Coates' luxury flats at Embassy Court in Brighton and the foyers of Odeon cinemas. Pel had worked with Chermayeff and Coates on a key commercial contract at the very start of the company. The BBC aimed to use only products manufactured in Britain or the Commonwealth in the furnishing of their new building, Broadcasting House in Langham Place, London, which opened in 1932. Raymond McGrath was responsible for the interiors and he commissioned furniture from Chermayeff and Coates, much of which was manufactured by Pel. McGrath ordered Pel's RP6 stacking chair in large numbers for the BBC studios and the chair became a standard feature in BBC buildings around the world. After the Second World War, the RP6 proved to be Pel's most successful product and, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was to be found in schools and village halls all over the UK.

    The company survived into the twenty-first century, focusing on the manufacture of stadium seating. But, after a series of takeovers and bankruptcies, the Pel name disappeared.


    Lot nos. 1-8 were purchased by Mr Blackstone, managing director of the Bridlington Steam Laundry, at the 1932 Ideal Home exhibition to furnish the Sun Room of his new home, Cragg Hill in Bridlington, which was completed in the same year.


    © Richard Wilcock
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