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’s historic Jewellery Quarter. The space covered three floors, occupying around 7,000 square foot of a larger development called Victoria Works.
Much of the 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 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 previous premises, The Flaghouse. The English Heritage listing 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.’
Uncovering the story
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 the archives and find out more about what had gone on in the factory originally.
Joseph Gillott built Victoria Works and was the owner of the company whose premises had first occupied our studio. We found some fascinating facts about how the space had been used originally, and what an amazing impact the products that were manufactured there had on the world.
Gillott invented the steel pen press and created a truly global industry from the rooms of our building. 150 million pens were produced at Victoria Works alone and it was Birmingham’s first major employer for women. In fact, during the 19th Century, 75% of everything written in the world was written with a pen nib manufactured in Birmingham.
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 were 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.
Our biggest challenge in redesigning the space was creating something that suited how we wanted 383 to function as an organisation, whilst also retaining as much of the aesthetic of the building as we could. Up until that point, we had been used to working in one large open plan space in the Flaghouse and so we needed to adapt not just where we worked, but how we worked, when we moved in.
We also felt it was important to bring some of the old building’s story back to life as we renovated. We planned to nod as much as we can to its industrial past by leaving brickwork exposed, renovating the windows, and borrowing some of the beautiful typography for our new internal signage and wayfinding.
We also wanted to keep the idea of craft at the forefront of our plans, hand-making desks and repurposing materials like scaffold boards and old machinery to make old things new.
A message from the past
At one point during the renovation, we needed to cut through an old floorboard 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 the original workers who had built the factory. The text read, ‘West Newell. April 4th 1883,’ followed by, presumably, the names of the workers.
What was even more amazing was the date.
We lifted the board on 4 April 2014 – 131 years to the day since it had been put down.
Making old things new
The renovation work involved stripping out old plumbing and flooring, putting new walls up, and a lot of cabling – over 10km of it in total!
We repurposed reclaimed scaffolding boards as studio desks, meeting tables and other pieces of furniture, with steel work fabricated locally. We even found some original enamel factory pendant lights at a reclamation yard nearby.
A new home
After six months of hard graft by an amazing team of builders, we finally moved in to our new home, and we’re still there today. The space has continued to change and adapt over the years, as our team has grown and the way we use the building has changed, but we think we achieved our goal to design something that was sympathetic to the fabric of the building we originally fell in love with.
Like what you see? We’ve got more where that came from.