A unique sculpture made by Birmingham company Queen & Crawford caught the eye of Japanese car giant Honda for its latest TV advert. Stacey Barnfield visited the company’s Digbeth workshop to find out more.
While Jaguar Land Rover continues to make headlines for its global sales success another Birmingham business has forged links with the automotive sector in an entirely different fashion.
Digbeth company Queen & Crawford has been recognised by Honda as a leading innovator in design and fabrication.
Footage of a unique sculpture made at the company’s workshop at Minerva Works in Fazeley Street is being used by the Japanese car maker in its latest advertisement currently on show in Asia, the US and online.
And, in a vote of confidence for Birmingham’s creative industries, an initial prototype of the sculpture was so successful that the original plan to build the finished version in China was ditched, instead choosing Queen & Crawford and its network of Birmingham-based manufacturers and other skilled contacts to create the work.
The sculpture, called Little Shining Man, is a kite-like object made from 23,000 individual pieces.
It is made with carbon fibre rods and Cuben Fibre, a fabric traditionally used in yacht sales, all linked together using a unique system of nylon joints. The finished sculpture is a cube shape that looks light despite its sturdy build.
Matthew Higginbottom, director of Queen & Crawford, said: “The original client was a property developer in Jersey who commissioned the kite to hang in the atrium of one of its developments, but a video of the kite in flight developed a life of its own and went viral. This is when Honda spotted it and asked to use it in an ad for the new Civic.
“This was an inspiring project to work on that is now being seen across Asia and Australia which is fantastic for the reputation of British design and manufacturing overseas.”
Little Shining Man’s prototype hangs in the middle of Matthew’s studio, taking pride of place among his many other ongoing projects.
“The finished version took four or five people about a year to complete and eight months of that was spent building the 3,000 wings,” he said.
“It’s my most high profile piece of work to date. I’ve made a lot of pieces for artists Heather and Ivor Morison who asked me to build the prototype to be manufactured in China by the country’s biggest kite factory but it worked so well in terms of its structure we ended up making the finished version here. Honda were over the moon with it.”
Footage of Little Shining Man flying on St Aubin’s Bay in Jersey has been used in the new advertisement for the Honda Civic with the theme ‘Things can only get better’.
The ad features different inventions from around the world, each getting its own brief clip.
For the Little Shining Man prototype each of the 300 joints was painstakingly drilled by hand. The 6,000 joints on the final kite were made using the latest 3D printing techniques by a company in Aston.
Little Shining Man has also appeared on television and in print in Australia and the Far East.
South Korean education experts are also using the sculpture to promote the links between engineering and mathematics in schools.
Matthew, who founded Queen & Crawford four years ago, makes a point of using traditional Birmingham manufacturers as well as working with the more recent arrivals in Digbeth’s arts scene.
“I work with a steel fabricator just across the road. My timber merchant is just around the corner. My suppliers for silicon mould making and wrapping prototypes are in Aston.
“Historically Birmingham is a city of a thousand trades but none of those could operate in isolation. It was all about being part of a wider network.
“I live in the Jewellery Quarter and I’ve learned how the businesses there work together. It’s something that I discovered through doing what I do, but it’s something I’m appreciative of in terms of the city and what it has to offer.”
Birmingham’s industrial heritage is something that features largely in Matthew’s daily routine.
Hanging over one of his work benches is a beautiful framed engraving of William Westley’s 1732 East Prospect of Birmingham, on which he is able to pinpoint the exact location of his workshop thanks to its vicinity to the original Heath Mill, from which Digbeth’s Heath Mill Lane takes its name.
“To be able to acknowledge the fact that I’m at a centre of industry is the same reason that my business is based here, in this community of manufacturers,” he said.
“I don’t think Birmingham celebrates enough its history as one of the greatest manufacturing centres on the planet.
“I see myself as part of that industrial past and I’m proud to talk about my business as being based in Birmingham and I’ll talk about the city as still being a great place to make things.”
Queen & Crawford has worked with Tate Modern, Ikon Gallery, Venice Biennale and Frieze Art Fair among other world-famous galleries.
The design and manufacture specialists’ current project Design for Pleasure is a concrete shelter designed by artists Tom and Simon Bloor and commissioned by the Leamington Pump Rooms.
Matthew, who grew up in London, also works closely with the Grand Union arts collective based next door to his unit at the Minerva Works.
“The kite was a private commission which is unusual, but indirectly a lot of the work I’m doing is funded locally or nationally. I designed and built the Grand Union studios and gallery space, which was funded by Birmingham City Council and the Arts Council.
“In terms of what I do I’m fortunate to have carved a niche.
“There are similar businesses in London who are better established but I can be far more competitive in Birmingham because my rent is much cheaper and suppliers much closer.”
The 38-year-old studied design and digital media at Coventry University and his early apprenticeship was with his father, who was a model maker.
“I came to this career in a roundabout way, initially through working with artists and filmmakers but I grew up making model toys, inspired by my dad, who I brought out of retirement to help with Little Shining Man.
"It was the first time I’ve worked on a commission with him and it was lovely.”