The past life of Harrow Road
Following the launch of our show flat at Harrow Road within the last few weeks, we wanted to share the amazing history of the site. There’s a reason we decided to name the building Caseworks – a homage to the KIGU powder compact factory that once stood in place of our building. At KIGU, quality was of the utmost importance and this ethos filtered through to every aspect of the business during its lifetime. From the elaborate, eye-catching designs, to the way each compact case was carefully crafted by a marriage of hand and machine, KIGU exemplified its mission to create ‘Compacts of Character’.
In this journal entry we’ve taken a dive into the catalogue archives found at vintage-compacts.com – a website curated by David Kiashek, the fourth generation of the Kiashek family to steer KIGU since its beginnings in Central Europe in the 19th century. Read on to see what we discovered.
1950s KIGU advert
Artistry that runs in the blood
The legacy of KIGU began in 1873 in Prague when Josef Kiaschek started business as a goldsmith. His passion was soon passed onto his son, Gustav, who continued the business and became a master goldsmith, creating the first gold powder compact. It was Gustav who coined and registered the name KIGU in Budapest, taking the first two letters of his surname and first name: ‘Kiaschek’ and ‘Gustav’. After Gustav, his son, George, took the wheel and moved himself and the company to England in 1939, escaping the forthcoming clutches of a German-occupied Hungary. Upon moving, George dropped the ‘c’ from the family name which henceforth became ‘Kiashek’.
During the war, the UK government used George’s west London factory and his technical knowledge for vital munitions work. KIGU also made thousands of hair slides for the Women’s Royal Navy Service and the Women’s Royal Army Corps. And it wasn’t until the war was over that George was able to do what he initially came to do: to produce powder compacts in London, after purchasing a second factory for the firm.
One of KIGU’s three factories, situated a few doors down from our Harrow Road site on Trenmar Gardens
George’s brother, Paul, joined the company in 1947 as a working director, helping to build the firm up to its impressive size as KIGU compacts were shipped across the globe. Together, they were a strong team – George was remembered as ‘a creative engineer and artist, a man of inventiveness and originality’. Sadly, Paul passed away in 1976, shortly and unexpectedly followed by George in 1977.
As a student in his early twenties and heir to KIGU, David, George’s son, altered the plans he had made for himself and chose to continue the legacy of his predecessors. He completed his degree in Mechanical Engineering at Hatfield Polytechnic and set to work.
Paul Kiashek, Charles Kiaschek and George Kiashek in front of their compacts
With the help of the factory’s long-serving workers, many of whom were local families who, as he said in a 1970s article, ‘had known me since I was in nappies’, David worked his way through every department, learning and mastering the ropes. The fountain of knowledge and experience that the KIGU workers provided was invaluable, so too were the courses he attended in order to learn production and business techniques.
After his father’s death, David’s mother also turned her attention towards the business to help on the sales side. Being a qualified horticulturalist and viticulturist, Irene would work a full day in the office after tending to her garden early each morning.
Thanks to the unwavering support from the teams in the factories, as well as from his family, David became the managing director of KIGU, its three factories and roughly 150 workers when he was just 24. He continued to lead the company until the early 1980s when the brand was eventually acquired by another powder compact company.
KIGU compact assembly department
Cases of character
A 1950s magazine wrote that George Kiashek ‘foresaw that powder compacts would become a necessity for every woman. He combined the craftsmanship of the artist with the skill of the engineer to produce compacts of character, as his slogan puts it, at a price which all can afford.’ The compacts were not only beautiful objects, but they were also made with a level of precision that guaranteed they would last a lifetime. (They’re now sought-after collectibles.) Many of the intricate features – inner lid catches for easy operation, mirror frames protecting the glass, spill-proof inner lids keeping the powder inside – were patented, registered and trademarked; they were exclusive.
A huge amount of time and care went into the creation of each compact. After the rough shape of the compact’s body was stamped out using a 100 ton press, between 50 and 70 operations (by machines and hands) would then be carried out to produce the finished compact. KIGU had 10 basic shapes and over 600 different designs, each with their own problems to overcome throughout production. As well as this, there were also matching perfume atomisers, cigarette cases, pillboxes, contact lens cases, lip mirrors and pocket ashtrays. Every single product that came out of the factory had been trebly inspected and tested.
A page from the 1968-9 KIGU catalogue
Much of the artwork, silkscreens and transfers were produced in-house at KIGU under the watchful eye of Charles Jenkins, an artist familiar with exhibiting his paintings at Liberty’s and across the pond in Canada. Each of his powder compact designs were signed with a miniature ladybird, hidden somewhere within the pattern. David was also involved in this department, sometimes producing his own elegant designs.
KIGU’s undivided attention to detail is what made the company and its compacts so appealing to the millions – at home in the UK and across the globe. At one point, 65 per cent of KIGU’s production was shipped overseas, with Japan being the biggest market. However, this mass appeal didn’t stop KIGU inducing admiration from the few. In the 1950s, the Royal Family, including the Queen, were known to make purchases from the brand at the British Industries Fair.
Just one of the many hand-crafted operations used to produce the compacts
Although KIGU has officially left the building, we’ve endeavoured to create a set of apartments that mirrors the hard work, care and passion for craft that the KIGU family epitomised – the family of factory workers and the Kiasheks.
Cover illustration © Frederick Watts / Hamilton Court Developments
All photos within blog © David Kiashek / vintage-compacts.com