Were you aware that you currently live, or study, in ‘the original design city’? A lot of people aren’t, and the ‘Birmingham Made Me’ project was launched at The Mailbox to show people the true greatness of this city. With over 100 different exhibitors it pays homage to products and brands that have come right from the heart of the Midlands. For years Birmingham and the Midlands has quietly been playing key roles using design to improve people’s quality of life, and the legacy of this region has now been showcased.
Approaching The Mailbox from the centre of town the first thing you will see is the collection of cars out the front; a sleek silver Jaguar sits next to a Land Rover amidst other cars whose roots stem from Birmingham. Being such big brands we forget that they come from our town but this is where they had there beginnings: the company moved to the region after their original factory in Coventry was bombed during World War II. It is here that the design for a Land Rover was born and gradually developed to eventually become the second oldest four-wheel-drive car brand in the world.
Exhibitions are split throughout The Mailbox into categories such as ‘Interiors and Lifestyle’ and ‘Jewellery’. Neatly showcased were products such as the ‘Odd Couples’ Bench’ from Plant and Moss – makers of contemporary furniture. The ‘Odd Couples’ Bench’ is said to represent various different characters that may grace the bench – with two separate backs, each different, the bench seems to stand for the differences in couples and accommodates for this. The quirky design is something I hadn’t seen before and the idea behind it is a bold one.
Gracing the ceiling of one of the rooms in a chandelier design, I almost missed the uniqueness of it until I was leaving and then I saw it; the ‘chandelier’ was actually whistles handing to make the chandelier shape, each one shiny, bright, and reflecting the light off its surface. The reason behind this feature is that the Acme whistle was actually developed here – they are the world’s largest and most famous producer of whistles and still have their headquarters in the Jewellery Quarter.
Moving around the exhibition I was struck with the variety of things that Birmingham has to be proud of. Beautiful jewellery, cufflinks, and brooches are displayed from Birmingham jewellers and more unique pieces such as a glass chess board with intricately designed pieces resembling a honey comb pattern catches the eye. Vases shaped like chickens stand tall and proud on display, despite the simplistic idea of a chicken they manage to look like the special works they are.
Although it was a proud moment for me (a true Brummy and proud) to see what a great history our region has, the most interesting exhibition was ‘What Made Me’. On the wall of one of the rooms a big board was placed with pins sticking out attached to words such as ‘hell’, ‘religion’, ‘city’, ‘love’. Visitors to the exhibition were invited to take some wool and wrap it round, connecting relevant words to answer questions which then corresponded to a certain colour wool; e.g. yellow for what makes you happy, pink for what makes you think and so on. Looking at the piece you can follow the lines of wool around the words, see what makes the people of Birmingham tick and discover what has shaped the lives of those from the region. This is a map of feelings, emotions and life for the people of Birmingham and the result is impressive.
The week of this exhibition has opened my eyes to the impressive history of this region, with talk of nation pride due to the Olympics coming to London it is a good time for those is the West Midlands to take stock of what we have to be proud of right here; years of design and innovation that leaves a magnificent legacy for the people of Birmingham to follow.
Words and photography by Libby Hewitt