My name is Charlie Whitehead and I am Heritage Officer at Robert Welch Designs. Before qualifying as an archivist, with an MSc in Archives Administration from Aberystwyth University, I studied art & design to degree level.
Robert Welch kept an archive from a very early stage in his career. Over time this grew into an invaluable assortment of documents and objects detailing every aspect of his design process, the business he established and, as with every archive, plenty of unexpected and surprising details. It is this collection that the modern company are now custodians of.
It is my job to look after this material. To make sure it is preserved for the future whilst also making it safely accessible. It wasn’t always so, in fact it is only over the last three years that we have really appreciated what it is that we have. Many of the products and records which Robert put to one-side for his archive were kept in a very ad hoc way in an attic which he built above his workshop.
Over the course of 45 years, as things were placed up here for safekeeping, they accumulated. Today the Robert Welch Design Archive holds several thousand drawings, hundreds of sketchbooks, thousands of glass plates, transparencies, slides, negatives and prints, project files and a growing assortment of nearly 4000 objects - which represent all stages of the design process, from material samples and trials, to models, prototypes, and finished pieces.
A poignant section in a 1986 BBC documentary Designers, in an episode dedicated to Robert Welch, shows the lights coming on in the eaves, illuminating rows of shelves of products, models and rolls of drawings. In the next shot Robert ducks through the door and begins to talk about his thought and design processes whilst beginning to look around. He picks up and inspects objects, leafs through piles of drawings and photographs, makes connections, tells anecdotes and remembers…
“I’m terribly fortunate having this long rambling old attic, the graveyard of all the designs which have developed over the years. Sometimes when one (…) can’t think of, you know, a direction to be pursuing, it’s quite often helpful just to have a stroll round up here and look at these surprising collection of designs of years gone by, sometimes 20/30 years have passed and one picks up a design and (…) it’s a springboard for a new thought.”
I spent two weeks in this same attic, cleaning and packing everything before it was moved for cataloguing whilst the Old Silk Mill was being renovated in 2013. The attic no longer exists and without it and the archive, for a time at least, it must have felt a little like the company had lost its memory. Now the material is catalogued onto an electronic database it is actually more useful than ever. It has reinstated its place as a source of inspiration, of information and as a record of the past.
The archive is, unsurprisingly, a particularly visual one and whilst accessible, tested during research for a new book published last year, the process reinforced my feeling that a written catalogue cannot be the end. The book is a great step in making select content from the collections accessible visually, but to make the catalogue into a more meaningful resource, and to make the archive relevant for the business, it demands large-scale digitisation.
To achieve this the initial cataloguing work now needs to be significantly built upon. Ideally much of the material will be scanned or photographed, but before this is possible it will first be necessary to record individual drawings, pages of sketchbooks and bundles of photographic media. This work will eventually support an online display, a heritage website, opening up the archive to inspire, inform and educate.
Planning is now underway to establish how we will achieve this but, for now, as the archive becomes more and more central to the business it finds itself being used for a range of different projects and purposes. From design and marketing, to training, exhibitions and as a general point of interest for visitors to the business, all the while underpinning the inherent character of the brand.
Several drawings, sketched out by Robert, detail display ideas and his archive. As well as keeping a record, he was also committed to exhibiting his work. He particularly liked to show the stages of design and the processes involved in creating and manufacturing a product. The company still likes to illustrate the same today, telling the story of the individual designs.
In particular though, there is a drawing from the 1980s of an ‘archive office’ or ‘record room’ (as above) annotated as a ‘place to keep relevant papers, drawings, photos’. It shows how much importance Robert placed on maintaining his archive, how he anticipated using it and how he hoped it might be used in the future. I am very lucky to be helping the company take care of its heritage and design legacy, but mostly feel privileged to be realising Robert Welch’s vision.
Next time: See how we have made use of the archive to bring heritage designs back to life.