HOBART AT SIXTY: A DESIGN CAST IN IRON

As one of our much loved designs turns 60 years old, our Company Archivist tells the story of this unforeseen success, its eventual importance to the future of the company and the rare find that fills a big (huge!) gap in our design archive and story…

MAKE A THING, SELL A THING

 

In the early 1960s Robert Welch designed his first piece in cast iron; a candleholder. He organized its production in small numbers, the first order was for two dozen but its popularity meant that number was quickly expanded.

They were well received when shown to visitors at the studio and his home, with the result that he had 100 cast and boxes made. They were again received with interest and he felt he had a success on his hands, so proceeded to design a second smaller one referred to affectionately as the ‘mini’. Robert sold them himself out of a suitcase for about a year, and initial buyers included Liberty and Heal’s.

Known as Campden Designs the cast iron series expanded quickly to form a small family of shapes; including the nutcracker, fruit stand and a peppermill. The cast iron range helped Robert break into new markets and sold internationally in large quantities, teaching the still young Robert some lessons along the way.

 

I (often) think back to those early struggling days ... as we assembled peppermills in the Campden workshop and I would set off to sell the pieces packed in suitcases.

Robert Welch, Hand & Machine, p.172

 

Caption: Two glass plate negatives from the archive – Left: group of assembled cast iron peppermills photographed in the Old Silk Mill*, and Right: A handmade mock-up of the cover of a sales catalogue. (*This series of photographs often leave us wondering what the collective noun for peppermills is!)

 

This was to be my first venture into batch production. I had simply no idea of how to sell a product to a shop – selling to my friends had been easy, but now my problems were about to begin

Robert Welch, Hand & Machine, p.158

 

5 - Meanwhile whisk the egg yolks together with the remaining caster sugar until pale and creamy looking. Add the egg mixture to the infused milk and heat gently over a low heat. Stir continuously until the milk thickens to a custard consistency. The custard is ready when it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Spoon the custard into a clean bowl and to stop the custard from cooking any further, place the bowl in a sink filled with a little cold/iced water. Continue to stir intermittently as the custard cools.

6 - While the custard cools, whisk the cream until it is thick and forms soft peaks, being careful not to over whip.

7 - When the custard has cooled completely, carefully fold the whipped cream through the custard. Add the juice from one lemon and stir though. Taste and if needed, add the juice from the second lemon bit by bit until the preferred intensity of lemon flavour is achieved.

8 - Next, churn the custard in an ice cream maker* as per instructions.  

9 - Place the ice cream in a freezable container either with a lid or a sheet of grease-proof paper over the top and then wrap securely in tin foil. Place in the freezer until ready to serve.

 

5 - When you’re ready to serve. Tear each of the smoked burrata in half and place a piece on each of your serving plates.

6 - Layer up with a few slices of roasted squash. Drizzle over the basil oil, sprinkle over the pomegranates and pistachios. Serve straight away.


We'd love to see photos so please share them with us on social media by tagging us on @robertwelchuk

CAST IRON ORIGINS

 

As a silversmith, Robert understood cast iron. He used it to make stakes and mandrels for shaping silver onto. In 1960 a Midlands firm asked if he would prepare designs for them to cast. Most of their current work involved castings for the motor industry and they wanted a range of their own. Robert experimented and produced a few designs, though not in great numbers.

It wasn’t a very successful project, but in 1961 Robert was working on a commission for a silver candlestick in the workshop. The design featured stacked discs around a central core. It was as a result of this project, and the direct influence of silversmithing and its focus on ‘decorative’ items, which led him to consider the possibility of applying cast iron in this way, instead of solely as a material suitable for cookware or heavy duty fixtures - this was unusual.

 

“Welch later expanded his design repertoire to encompass a much more unlikely material, cast iron, scoring a great popular success with his chunky cast iron candlesticks, composed of a series of stacked discs. The cross-fertilisation between different media (was) characteristic of the period…”

Jackson, L. (2002). Fab Fash Pop – 'the look' of British Design during the early 1960s.

Twentieth Century Architecture, No.6, The Sixties: life : style : architecture. Pp. 18-26. Pub: The Twentieth Century Society

Caption: Left: The prototype of the silver candlestick, with no base - the cut out portions were oxidized black. It is not known what happened to it. Right: The final version had a wider base, stood 8” tall and was gold plated inside each section. The commissioner, Goldsmiths' Hall showed it at the Zurich British Trade Fair in 1963. It remains in their collection.

 

He conceived of an inexpensive, robust candle holder as a contrast to the silver design. He experimented with casting the candle holder in bronze, but opted to use iron. The silver and cast iron designs are reminiscent of each other, but the sculptural simplicity of the cast iron shape he produced turned out to be one of the runaway successes of his career. The stark silhouette of its industrial shapes became iconic.

Caption: Annotated slide, October 1963. Candlesticks in bronze and cast iron, vitreous enamelled. H. 5 ½” Designed and made by Robert Welch.

 

Additional designs were soon added, including the nutcracker, fruit stand and peppermill. The tazza-shaped fruit stand was especially well received in Denmark; images of these had featured in the Decorative Art Yearbook 1964 and not long afterwards a letter arrived from design retailer Hagbarth Skjalm Petersen: ‘please send 2 dozen’, for his eponymous shop in Copenhagen - H. Skjalm P. At that point what Robert had photographed were models, and hadn’t yet gone into production so he urgently set about rectifying the situation to honour the order.

 

Caption: Campden Designs graphic, from the cover of a 1970s marketing booklet (based on a version from the 1960s)

 

This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the two men, and the cast iron candleholders would be renamed ‘Hobart’ in the mid-1990s to mark this.

The cast iron forms Robert created stand the test of time. Nearly 60 years later they are still in demand. Much of Robert Welch’s industrial and product design work embodies this same sense of permanence, as summed up by his biographer and friend Alan Crawford:

 

“The distinction of all (his) work, whether it was made by hand or by machine, consists in a mixture of English modernist restraint, playfulness, and a sense of shapeliness and weight. Some of his designs are like small sculptures.”

Crawford, A. (2004). Welch, Robert Radford (1929–2000), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press

 

FROM CAMPDEN TO THE WORLD

 

Following this success, Robert visited Scandinavia on a sales tour - Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark - he met the Vice President of US firm Raymour and returned home with a huge order for the States. That order wasn’t repeated, but the cast iron sold well in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Scandinavia and across Europe. The Vice President* of Georg Jensen bought regular quantities for their American store, which they presented beautifully and sold in large quantities. (*He later became VP of Lauffer, the company which Robert would go onto design a successful range of cast iron cookware for in 1971. Sadly no longer in production, but sought after on the vintage market.)

By 1963 the whole venture had grown to such an extent that it was necessary to collaborate with a specialist agency, Heal’s recommended Wigmore Distributors. Together they formed a joint holding company, which took the name “Campden Designs” from the cast iron pieces, and they sold the range until 1967 when Old Hall Tableware, who Robert had designed stainless steel tableware and cutlery for since 1955, took over.

 

Caption: After they went their separate ways, Wigmore began distributing a similar but distinct range with another design firm; Robert tried to fight the infringement on intellectual property grounds but didn’t succeed, however it serves as an illustration of just how successful his designs were that there were attempts to copy the concept.

 

Robert’s designs were being cast in a range of UK foundries, from Stratford to Scotland, but by the early 1970s Victor Cast Ware, based in the West Midlands had taken over production. They would also eventually streamline the packaging before marketing and distributing the range. With their help, throughout the 1970s and 1980s Robert would add to his cast iron designs significantly, and some continue to be successful, but it is those original shapes, designed in the early 1960s which endure.

 

A RARE FIND THAT FILLS A BIG GAP IN OUR STORY

 

Last year we were lucky enough to find and acquire a pair of giant Campden Designs cast iron candlesticks for the archive. It isn’t thought that many were made, and initially it was considered that they had only been produced for shop or exhibition display purposes, but recently uncovered correspondence from November 1964 shows that they were accepted for inclusion in the Design Index. Numbered CD40, these were dubbed (by Robert himself) as the ‘Jumbo’.

 

Caption: The CD40 cast iron candlesticks, each weigh ½ cwt. (hundredweight) which is roughly 4 stone.

 

The Design Centre, Haymarket was established in 1956, and any product which had been endorsed by the Council of Industrial Design could be selected for exhibition there, or could be found as part of the Design Index which you could look through if you visited. It is now part of the Victoria and Albert Museum Archive. In 1964 a pair of giant Campden Designs cast iron candlesticks were accepted to the Design Index and, rather fittingly, included as part of a Christmas themed room set at the Design Centre and thereafter put on permanent display.

The Design Centre was a place the consumer could go to seek out good design, but they could also recognise that something had been selected to be included by the black and white triangular kite mark stickers and labels which can still sometimes be found on vintage Robert Welch designs today. They were on most of his products sold in the Chipping Campden Studio Shop.

Caption: Triangular monochrome Design Council swing tags

 

As archivist there are a few pieces which we are missing from the collections which I am constantly looking out for. I have been trying to find one of these jumbo cast iron candlesticks for the eight years that I have looked after the Robert Welch Design Archive, then, like buses, two come along at once!

I only know the whereabouts of five of these designs, including this pair. The other three (individual candlesticks) are owned by avid collectors of Robert Welch. Are there any more out there? If you do own one or more, then please get in touch.

Only very few were made in the 1960s, I can account for about seven through evidence in the archive - maybe a handful more. Two were on display in the Design Centre, London in 1964, and a third is discussed in written correspondence as having been misplaced. A pair went on display in Heal’s in 1967 and a pair were on the altar at Southwark Cathedral in 1970, but apparently disappeared a few years later (although I have struggled to prove this). More were made by Victor Cast Ware in the 1970s, although it is hard to know how many as this was only discovered as a group were accidentally captured in the shot of a local news piece, behind the foundry manager being interviewed in c.1976.

Of course, as with everything we have in the archive, this might not be the end of the story, but as we celebrate sixty years of the Hobart design it feels particularly poignant to be bringing the ‘Jumbos’ back to the company.

Seeing them grouped together, is a very special moment for Alice, Rupert and myself.

 

Charlotte Booth, Company Archivist

 

Caption: September 1967, A retrospective exhibition of Robert Welch's Industrial and Silver Designs at Heal's Tottenham Court Road, including a pair of Campden Designs Jumbo cast iron candlesticks (If you look in the mirror underneath the shop window you can see Robert's feet and tripod legs, as he photographs his work)

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