The owner of Birmingham’s Custard Factory has unveiled ambitious expansion plans for it to double in size.
Already the largest digital creative hub outside of London, the family behind the Digbeth centre said rising demand meant they needed more studio space.
The Custard Factory and Fazeley Studios make up just a quarter of the sprawling 15-acre estate owned by Lucan Gray and his father Benny.
“The estate is quite large,” said Lucan, 43.
“We hope that over the coming years we’ll double the amount of space by using some of the other buildings we have got, providing space for the large demand there is.”
The riverside factories were originally built 100 years ago by Sir Alfred Bird, the inventor of powdered custard, who at one time employed more than a thousand people there.
But by the early 1980s, the factories were no longer in use and had fallen into ruin. The Grays took them on in 1988 and were approached by various creative visionaries who wanted to use the space for their projects.
Lucan explained: “There was a Custard Factory theatre company and various artists who asked if they could borrow some space.
“We let them use it for free and, in time, they inhabited and colonised the building. It was a bit dangerous because it was so derelict.
“However, we realised there was a high demand from creative people to have somewhere to congregate.”
The Grays secured a grant to help start phase one of the rebuilding, a project which cost £2.4 million and took 12 months to complete.
“It was a real adventure for me,” he said. “I was only 23 when I began working with architect Glenn Howells, who is now one of the best architects in the city.
“He did it as a direct commission and we had 100 men working on the building. For a young man to have that many people working for me was a big thing. I certainly learned a thing or two in the process.”
Phase one of the mammoth project opened up 86,000 sq ft of the Custard Factory, launching 132 new studios.
The official launch took place in August 1993 with a party, a fashion show and an art installation across the lake.
Lucan said: “We had planned a marketing campaign to try to fill up all of the studios. But by the time the brochures had been printed, it was already full. There was a sense this was something that didn’t exist in the city at all, a special secret place.
“It was great to feel we were part of something that was cutting edge, it had an underground bohemian atmosphere.”
Since then, some £50 million has been spent on the Custard Factory and neighbouring Fazeley Studios, which opened in 2010 as a dedicated events business, bringing live music, street entertainment and fairs to the quarter.
Today, more than 5,000 people work in The Custard Factory Quarter and its surrounding area.
It is home to 400 creative and digital businesses, which themselves employ more than 2,000 people.
There’s a theatre, cafés, art galleries, educational space, TV studios and a series of dramatic public open spaces which have been used to house large art installations such as the Falling Men and Green Man sculptures by Toin Adams.
The latter was a 40 foot high ‘living statue’ featuring fossils, a waterfall and live flames which changed its shape over the seasons as the organic materials it was made of rotted and the plants that covered it grew.
Lucan said: “There are lots of interesting things going on at The Custard Factory all the time.
“There are plenty of great independent shops, together with galleries and a music college where people can learn how to make a living in the music industry.
“There are normally at least two weddings every weekend in Digbeth, which some people might not imagine.
“The weddings take place at the Old Library and Fazeley Studios. Couples like the romantic buildings set in an unusual city location.
“There’s also a huge underground nightlife scene.
“It’s amazing really when you think back to 1992 when it was in post-industrial decline.”