Futurespace Magazine talks to stove producer A.J Wells about its Vitreous Enamelling arm, a business thriving from a renewed interest in its use for signage, cladding and artistic purposes.
The Charnwood arm of A.J Wells makes wood burners, some of which are finished in vitreous enamel. This is essentially a glass fused to metal resulting in a hardwearing, glossy surface, which is very easy to maintain and clean, creative director Ced Wells told Futurespace Magazine.
About 20 years ago, the firm invested in its own furnace and milling facilities to produce enamel and apply it to the surface of the stoves, “and it grew out of there,” Wells explains.
Wells says being based on the Isle of Wight means the company needs to be self-sufficient, as the island generally tends to fend for itself. “We’re one of the bigger employers here, so we have our own little self-sufficiency thing going on, which has helped us because we’ve had to survive as a manufacturer and we’ve had to become smarter as well because the temptation is strong to get products made in China, but you’ve got a lot more control and quality if you make it here.”
Forming about 20 per cent of the A.J Wells business, its “Vitreous Enamellers” division produces a lot of iconic, directional signage and cladding for London Underground, which now specifies vitreous enamel for all of its signage after the 1988 Kings Cross fire, where much of the vinyl signage it used was insufficient. They needed a material that was really durable and withstood high temperatures: Vitreous Enamel was the answer, Wells explains.
Enamel signage used to be huge in the 19th – 20th century as that was one of the only ways of producing signage, but then power coating and vinyl signage came in, which to some extent killed the vitreous enamel industry, he says. There used to be hundreds of vitreous enamelling companies in the UK that produced signs but slowly they all just went under – so A.J Wells bought the equipment from one which was closing down in the late 80s.
At this time, there remained about 10 vitreous enamelling companies left in the country, which has since shrunk to about five. “We pick up a lot of the vitreous enamel signage work. It’s interesting because many railways use us now – there’s a mini revival.”
The firm also gets a lot of artists and designers coming in and using the Vitreous Enamel facilities. This can be for, sometimes, quite random things, Wells says, “architects have enamelled sinks, and recently we had an artist who wanted to enamel part of her house, so we get quite unusual jobs coming through.”
Overall, A.J Wells is quite a creative company, “We’ve always been into making things, we’re a family company with nine of us working here. We employ about 160 people in total, but we’ve always had engineering and creative backgrounds.”
The company works closely with artists, which is quite unusual, according to the creative director. “We have a good relationship with artists and they enjoy working in our environment as well.”
“Being innovative is really key, just keep things moving, keep things fresh and just try new things out..”
Wells says usually the commercial and the art world don’t really mix because there are few differences and they tend to clash “But I think because we’re quite creatively minded we’ve always enjoyed working with artists because it keeps us sharp as a business. What we’ve found, especially in these recession times – it’s actually been a nice marriage, the commercial and the artistic side of things.”
One example is a project the company worked on in Aylesbury where they reclad a bus station. Originally they were going to use just plain white panels to clad it, using vitreous enamel for its durability, but then an artist approached Aylesbury local authority and asked if they could apply some artwork to it, to liven up the place up a bit.
“The local authority agreed, and instead of printing the artwork, we got the artist to come in to hand-paint all the panels – she produced an amazing colour landscape of fields and trees through different seasons, it’s really regenerated the area in a way, and it’s made people feel a lot more positive. It’s good for the soul I guess,” says Wells.
“The interesting part is, the idea of her painting the panels came out of budget constraints, because screen printing would have been expensive, due to the set up and artwork costs. It’s about going back to basics, she comes in and gets her hands dirty and the Local Authority end up with a beautiful, one-off piece of art – that’s priceless. The commercial world wouldn’t usually buy that, but I think, because of our past experience of working with artists we said ‘yeah! We can do this.’”
“I think also the enamel process is quite primitive and artists love working with it because the inks are very similar to oil paints, it’s a very tactile medium to work in, so it benefits from that as well.”
What also keeps the business fresh, Wells says, is collaborations with different companies – “We just like bouncing ideas around really. It’s all part of it being fun.”
Keeping their finger on the pulse with, not just stove, but fashion and interiors trends is also important, says Wells. “I think it’s something we’ll continue to do and plan to do more of in the future.”
And it’s probably due to such initiative and creative openness that is helping the A.J Wells to continue to thrive, even during the UK’s more financially turbulent times. Of course this means a slight drop in business, Wells says, but overall the company is doing quite well. “Being innovative is really key I think, just to keep things moving, keep things fresh and just try new things out,” he says.
“Our products are quite niche, quite unique and there’s always a call for something that’s a little bit different.”