ORIGINS OF A DESIGN ARCHIVE
We are lucky to be custodians of a wonderful archive, charting the career of company founder, Robert Radford Welch.
In early summer 1955 Robert, then aged 26, rented the top floor of the 18th century silk mill at Chipping Campden for 10 shillings a week. The large, open space was piled high with junk and the windows were thick with dust. It had been unused since the 1920s, but J. & J. Wiggin’s early confidence in Robert Welch’s abilities, and their job offer of Consultant Designer for their Old Hall Tableware brand, led to a small interest-free loan which enabled him to rent the studio and fit it out. His first job was making it habitable and establishing a comfortable place to work.
Photograph of the Old Silk Mill as Robert Welch converted it and a letter from Robert Welch to J. & J. Wiggin
1995, Robert Welch quoted in an article from the Birmingham Daily Post (Craftsman with a silver touch).
FUTURE OF A DESIGN LEGACY
A look behind the scenes with Company Archivist, Charlotte Booth
To say that Robert Welch kept an archive from a very early stage in his career makes it sound as though he was aware of what it would become, which isn’t necessarily true. As with much of the stuff of life, it would have grown organically.
Initially, perhaps, he would simply have been recording work and keeping ledgers for financial purposes. Over time of course the archive grew to include drawings, models, prototypes, and much more, as we now know.
In his sketchbooks (of which there are over 600) there are several drawings for display ideas, written and sketched out by Robert, and references to his archive. There is one drawing from the 1980s showing an ‘archive office’ or ‘record room’, annotated as a ‘place to keep relevant papers, drawings, photos’.
This clearly shows that Robert began to understand that his design legacy could develop into a source of both inspiration and information. He left us this legacy, his archive, and whilst the company has made good use of it in graphics, marketing, PR and brand terms, it has been used less in the product design process. This is something now being addressed by way of a project to digitise sketchbooks and drawings to make them more accessible.
OPENING UP THE ARCHIVE
The archive was stored for many years in the attic of the Old Silk Mill. It is an old building and conditions varied daily. As a consequence, conflicting materials in the sketchbooks and rolls of drawings were beginning to impact on each other and cause damage. This material contains a wealth of information but it isn’t that easy to access, it is largely uncatalogued and the paper is often fragile so it takes time to look through carefully.
Robert Welch’s archive provides a record of his training and practice as a silversmith and designer, his business and its history, as well as a unique insight into the period and context in which he was working. It is a uniquely positioned legacy, and one which the modern business is proud to preserve. Nearly a decade ago we removed the archive and started to catalogue and repackage it. Now it is housed in a new, environmentally monitored store. However, whilst this was a positive step for the collections it meant that Alice and Rupert Welch could no longer just wander up to the attic and look around, turn the pages of the sketchbooks and pick up what had been placed there by their father.
This could have had the effect of making the collections less visible within the company, but with an ongoing project to flatten, catalogue and photograph the 600 plus sketchbooks and thousands of drawings we will ultimately be able to use the visual legacy much more readily in design research.
During the first phase of cataloguing, each book or bundle of drawings was roughly described in a database and given a reference number, this was linked to a box or location so the physical object could be found again.
During the next phase, each page of each book and each drawing in each bundle will be individually described in detail so that what is drawn on that page can be specifically searched for within a database of digitised images. Each image will be tagged using these terms building a subject specific research library which will open the archive back up, digitally rather than physically.
This resource will allow users to search at the touch of a button, or browse, and to zoom into images to see in much more detail than they would be able to with the naked eye. To collate material relating to one search term, build mood boards, or download and rework drawings with new ideas. The physical material will remain safely in storage, to be referred to where necessary.
Ultimately this work will support the online display of material from the archive, opening it up to inspire, inform and educate outside of the business too, supporting design and research students.
Taking care of the company’s heritage is not only about protecting the past. Making an archive relevant within a creative company is as much about looking out rather than looking inwards, looking ahead alongside looking back: identifying its continued relevance, taking inspiration from it and making use of it to support the commercial side of the business. This approach ensures its future, and protects the legacy left by one of the most successful designers of the 20th century.
IF WALLPAPER COULD TALK
“Towards the end of September 1955 came the moment of truth, with his workshop operational he vividly remembers pinning the first sheet of paper to his drawing board, sharpening his pencil and thinking “what now?”
Taken from Biography of Robert Welch by W. A. Whatley, c. 1973
Of course, thanks to Robert's tendency to store things in the attic, we are lucky enough to know exactly what happened next!
The archive includes several thousand drawings, hundreds of sketchbooks, thousands of glass plates, transparencies, photo negatives and prints, project files and a growing assortment of nearly 4000 objects – which represent all stages of the design and making process, from material samples and trials, to models, prototypes, and finished pieces.
And, because we are still based in the same building that Robert began working in, we often uncover extra details…
The image above left shows the drawing studio in 1955, it is from the earliest series of images we have of the converted space. You can just see Robert’s bed in the background - he slept here until an illness that first Christmas forced him to look for somewhere else to live.
During the renovation of the building in 2013, a makeshift room that housed the company's first 3D printer was removed from this corner and, behind the skirting board, a strip of wallpaper was found.
Luckily our Graphic Designer, who has a keen eye for pattern, tucked it safely away. Later, when the original negatives of the photo (above left) of the drawing studio were found in the archive, showing this wallpaper on his drawing studio wall, she recalled it and found it in the plan chest.
It feels thick, almost hand printed, but we don’t know if it was Robert himself or an associate who made it. In trying to track down its source we started with known connections at that time. Having found out that his Silversmithing tutor at the Royal College of Art, Robert Goodden had designed and printed wallpaper we thought we had a good lead.
“He designed, produced, and marketed his own collection of delicately abstract wallpapers, named ‘Asterisk’.” Fiona MacCarthy, 2006
In 1934 Goodden had established Asterisk Wallpapers, which wasn’t very successful. The remaining stock was bought in its entirety by art and architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner who at that time was the managing the Gordon Russell showroom at Wigmore Street in London. It was Gordon Russell (at the suggestion of Goodden) who suggested that Robert Welch try to take a studio at the Old Silk Mill so it just felt like there might be a connection there somehow – sadly, other than getting in touch with staff at Margaret Howell (who are based in the same shop which used to be the Gordon Russell Showroom on Wigmore Street, and which also happened to be the venue for our 2015 Robert Welch: Design, Craft & Industry book launch) it hasn’t been possible to get any further in finding out any more. There doesn’t appear to be an archive of Asterisk, or not one that is yet catalogued. The one image I did find of an Asterisk design, in the Royal Institute of British Architects archive, was a very much simpler design, made up of one repeated wavy line.
1956, Robert (seated) and friend and jeweller, Donald McFall who was an occasional visitor to the workshop in the early days
Given the level of disrepair of the building when Robert had moved in, and his apparently tight budget, to buy wallpaper feels like a luxury. Perhaps he designed and made it himself, but it is also very possible that it could have been designed by a fellow student of Robert’s at the Royal College of Art. We may never discover the connection.
This strip of wallpaper marks Robert Welch’s origins, placing him in the building for the first time. Previously it had been thought that his first studio had been at the other end. It makes the early days of Robert Welch Designs very tangible, and anything which allows the business to connect directly with its past can only help inform the way it develops in the future.