At the beginning of 2014, we embarked on a project to move our studio to a new home in a disused factory space in Birmingham Jewellery Quarter. This is the story of how it went and what we discovered.
This post was first written by one of the original founding partners, John Newbold.
7,000 Sqft of potential
The space we purchased covered three floors, and occupied around 7000sqft of a larger development called ‘Victoria Works’. Much of our space had been vacant for many years and in some areas, on the upper floors, the roof space and fabric of the building were completely exposed. Despite the pretty tired appearance, we could see that underneath an amazing building remained. We’d fallen in love with its industrial period features when we first looked round.
Brickwork bowed in several places ensuring that nothing was quite square. The windows were traditional cast iron, some with original glass. Soot and smells from original fireplaces could still be found...
In short, it was great!
Victoria Works was built in 1840 and had been converted in to a mix of residential and commercial premises during the 1980s. The whole area is Grade II listed, including 383’s much loved existing premises, The Flaghouse. The listing with English Heritage stated:
The building is listed because of its importance in the industrial development of Birmingham and because of the international importance of this first mass production of pen nibs.
A trip to the pen museum
Given that the listing for the building mentioned pens it was pretty convenient for us that the Pen Museum was literally across the road from Victoria Works. We took a trip over to look through some of the archives on Victoria Works and find out more about what had gone on in the factory originally.
Meet Joseph Gillott
Joseph Gillott was the man who had built Victoria Works and was the owner of the company whose premises had first occupied our new studio. At the pen museum, we trawled the archives and found some fascinating facts about how the space had been used originally, and what an amazing impact what was produced there would have on the world. Joseph Gillott was the inventor of the steel pen press and would create a truly global industry from the rooms of our new building.
- The steel pen press; a world’s first innovation
- 150 million pens produced from Victoria Works alone
- Birmingham’s first major female employer
It was awesome being able to look at old sketches and photos of the original factory space and then stand in identical locations in the rooms as they are now. Looking at things like the roof trusses, window arches and number of glazing panes it was clear how much of the original character still shone out from the space. It didn’t just feel like we’d bought a new home for 383, but that we owned a little piece of Birmingham’s history.
During the 19th Century, 75% of everything written in the world was with a ‘Birmingham’ pen.
Our biggest challenge in making plans for the space is in designing something that suits how we want 383 to function as an organisation, whilst also retaining as much of the aesthetic of the building as we can. Up until now, we’ve been used to working in one large open plan space in the Flaghouse and so will need to adapt not just where we work, but how we work, when we move in.
We also feel like it’s important to bring some of the old building’s story back to life as we renovate. We’re planning to nod as much as we can it’s industrial past; leaving brickwork exposed, renovating the windows and borrowing some of the beautiful typography for our new internal signage and wayfinding.
We’re also going to try to keep the idea of ‘craft’ at the forefront of our plans – hand making things like our desks and repurposing materials like scaffold boards and old machinery to ‘make old things new’.
A message from the past
(update Apr 2014) This week we needed to cut through one of the old floorboards on the upper floor to access the ceiling below. What we found was pretty awesome. Of all the boards we could’ve lifted we’d managed to pick one which had been signed by one of the original workers who’d built the factory. What was even more of an amazing was the date;
We lifted the board on April the 4th - exactly 131 years to the day since it had been put down...
The text reads; West Newell. April 4th 1883. Followed by what is presumably the names of the workers ‘Nichols, Jones etc’
(update Apr 2014) The remainder of this month has mainly been about stripping out old cabling, plumbing and flooring ready to start the fit out and put new walls up. We’ve also taken delivery of a load of reclaimed scaffolding boards which we’ll be repurposing as studio desks, meeting tables and other pieces of furniture. Steel work for the desk legs is being fabricated locally and we’ve found some original enamel factory pendant lights at a reclamation yard nearby. Fun.
The last few weeks have been about cable. Lots and lots of cable. The building has now chewed up over 10km of it! Lighting is making a huge difference throughout though, with all the pendants and spots now in across most floors.
Turns out that reclaimed scaffold boards make pretty amazing studio desks. Here are some shots of what we’ve made so far. We fabricated all the legs locally in Birmingham and constructed on site. The tone of the boards also sits beautifully with the worn oak floor.
Six months later - we're in!
There’s a few finishing touches to make, but after 6 months of hard graft (by an amazing team of builders who’ve been faultless throughout) we are finally in! Hopefully, the space we’ve created speaks for itself. We set out to design something that was sympathetic to the fabric of the building we originally fell in love with and on the whole I think we ‘ve nailed it!
Now we’ve created the space we imagined on paper we need to figure out how we’re going to live in it in practice. We’ll be reconfiguring rooms, making tweaks and adding more stuff over the coming months as we learn how the space works.
Hopefully we’ll be able to do Joseph Gillott justice too, continuing to ‘think, design and make’ in the space he created.
And finally, here’s a short time-lapse of the build. plus some footage now we’re in. Enjoy!
We're finally in and the place looks amazing.