The Legacy of Robert Welch

JOURNAL

THE LEGACY OF ROBERT WELCH

Alice and Rupert Welch reflect on their father's legacy.


MAKING HISTORY

When Robert Radford Welch RDI, MBE started his company in 1955, he began building a design legacy that remains the abiding principle and inspiration for his children Rupert and Alice Welch, joint Managing Directors of Robert Welch Designs.

With the company now in its seventh decade, Alice and Rupert reflect on the way they have embraced that legacy and how it continues to shape the future of the company and the places we call home.

Q: Tell us about your Father's legacy. What does it mean to you and the company today?

Alice and Rupert Welch with a book telling the story of their father's design legacy and his company, Robert Wekch Designs

Rupert: Alice and I feel that the most important part of our inheritance are the design principles and philosophy which were instilled in us. These have become the DNA of the company. We lived and breathed design as we were growing up and instinctively used that education when we joined Dad in the business thirty years ago. When Dad passed away, it just wasn't questioned that we would continue to use that legacy; not by living in the past, but by building on it and evolving it even further. It is important to stay true to his original design ethos, to work with his legacy but still forge ahead.

For example, take a kitchen knife – Dad designed Kitchen Devil Professionals in the 1970s. It’s our job to ask: ‘how can we make a kitchen knife even better? How do we take it to the next level?’ It was that kind of questioning which led to our Signature range of Kitchen knives. And yet we still ask, can that be bettered? Sometimes this can involve very small changes, but you often have to do a lot of work to make just the right change – even a small one - to create a really good product.

Alice: His ethos is something we try and make sure that we hold firm to as a company now. It is over twenty years since his death but there is a memory that runs through the business' culture, guiding our ethics, informing every aspect of our work from design to manufacture, and helping us build strong relationships, which he always believed in. We work very closely with our partners and manufacturers and also care for the people who work within the company.

Rupert and I discuss and consider many possible products. It would be so easy to follow fashion and respond to the trends that are out there. Dad disliked passing fashions, and talked about searching for ‘eternal values’. He was modest about giving his views on trends in design because he felt that, as he worked primarily in metal, a material which lasts and lasts, he should aim for a style that would not date.

L: Alice and Rupert Welch with 2015 book telling the story of their father's design legacy and his company, Robert Welch Designs

Alice and Rupert Welch with a book telling the story of their father's design legacy and his company, Robert Wekch Designs

Alice and Rupert Welch with 2015 book telling the story of their father's design legacy and his company, Robert Welch Designs

Rupert: Alice and I feel that the most important part of our inheritance are the design principles and philosophy which were instilled in us. These have become the DNA of the company. We lived and breathed design as we were growing up and instinctively used that education when we joined Dad in the business thirty years ago. When Dad passed away, it just wasn't questioned that we would continue to use that legacy; not by living in the past, but by building on it and evolving it even further. It is important to stay true to his original design ethos, to work with his legacy but still forge ahead.

For example, take a kitchen knife – Dad designed Kitchen Devil Professionals in the 1970s. It’s our job to ask: ‘how can we make a kitchen knife even better? How do we take it to the next level?’ It was that kind of questioning which led to our Signature range of Kitchen knives. And yet we still ask, can that be bettered? Sometimes this can involve very small changes, but you often have to do a lot of work to make just the right change – even a small one - to create a really good product.

Alice: His ethos is something we try and make sure that we hold firm to as a company now. It is over twenty years since his death but there is a memory that runs through the business' culture, guiding our ethics, informing every aspect of our work from design to manufacture, and helping us build strong relationships, which he always believed in. We work very closely with our partners and manufacturers and also care for people within the company.

Rupert and I discuss and consider many possible products. It would be so easy to follow fashion and respond to the trends that are out there. Dad disliked passing fashions, and talked about searching for ‘eternal values’. He was modest about giving his views on trends in design because he felt that, as he worked primarily in metal, a material which lasts and lasts, he should aim for a style that would not date.

Our strategy is to design for the home, specifically from the kitchen to the table, always being mindful of how people use our products. We try to remain true to his timeless aesthetics and hope that our products might stand the test of time to become heirlooms, just as his have.

Q: Tell us about your Father's legacy. What does it mean to you and the company today?

Rupert: Alice and I feel that the most important part of our inheritance are the design principles and philosophy which were instilled in us. These have become the DNA of the company. We lived and breathed design as we were growing up and instinctively used that education when we joined Dad in the business thirty years ago. When Dad passed away, it just wasn't questioned that we would continue to use that legacy; not by living in the past, but by building on it and evolving it even further. It is important to stay true to his original design ethos, to work with his legacy but still forge ahead.

For example, take a kitchen knife – Dad designed Kitchen Devil Professionals in the 1970s. It’s our job to ask: ‘how can we make a kitchen knife even better? How do we take it to the next level?’ It was that kind of questioning which led to our Signature range of Kitchen knives. And yet we still ask, can that be bettered? Sometimes this can involve very small changes, but you often have to do a lot of work to make just the right change – even a small one - to create a really good product.

Alice: His ethos is something we try and make sure that we hold firm to as a company now. It is over twenty years since his death but there is a memory that runs through the business' culture, guiding our ethics, informing every aspect of our work from design to manufacture, and helping us build strong relationships, which he always believed in. We work very closely with our partners and manufacturers and also care for the people who work within the company.

Rupert and I discuss and consider many possible products. It would be so easy to follow fashion and respond to the trends that are out there. Dad disliked passing fashions, and talked about searching for ‘eternal values’. He was modest about giving his views on trends in design because he felt that, as he worked primarily in metal, a material which lasts and lasts, he should aim for a style that would not date.

Our strategy is to design for the home, specifically from the kitchen to the table, always being mindful of how people use our products. We try to remain true to his timeless aesthetics and hope that our products might stand the test of time to become heirlooms, just as his have.

Alice and Rupert Welch with 2015 book telling the story of their father's design legacy and his company, Robert Welch Designs

Q: Are there times when you have to re-immerse yourself in that legacy?

Alice: Yes, and we are lucky to have an enormous archive to refer to. We are working on a project to photograph aspects of the archive and make the digital images searchable.

The archive was stored for many years in the attic of the mill, an old building where conditions varied daily. As a consequence, conflicting materials in many of the books and rolls of drawings were beginning to impact on each other and cause damage.

Eight years ago we removed the archive and had it catalogued and repackaged. It is now housed in a new, environmentally monitored store. This was a positive step for the collections, but it meant that Rupert and I and the design team could no longer just wander up to the attic and look around, flick through the sketchbooks and pick up Dad’s designs. This could have had the effect of making the collections less visible within the company, but with the ongoing project to photograph the 600 plus sketchbooks and thousands of drawings and to catalogue them as part of a digital asset management system, we will ultimately be able use the visual legacy much more readily in our design research.

R: Alice visiting the new environmentally monitored Robert Welch Design Archive store

Q: Are there times when you have to re-immerse yourself in that legacy?

Alice: Yes, and we are lucky to have an enormous archive to refer to. We are working on a project to photograph aspects of the archive and make the digital images searchable.

The archive was stored for many years in the attic of the mill, an old building where conditions varied daily. As a consequence, conflicting materials in many of the books and rolls of drawings were beginning to impact on each other and cause damage.

Eight years ago we removed the archive and had it catalogued and repackaged. It is now housed in a new, environmentally monitored store. This was a positive step for the collections, but it meant that Rupert and I and the design team could no longer just wander up to the attic and look around, flick through the sketchbooks and pick up Dad’s designs. This could have had the effect of making the collections less visible within the company, but with the ongoing project to photograph the 600 plus sketchbooks and thousands of drawings and to catalogue them as part of a digital asset management system, we will ultimately be able use the visual legacy much more readily in our design research.

Alice visiting the new environmentally monitored Robert Welch Design Archive store

Q: When you look back are there things that still surprise you?

Alice: Oh yes definitely! Quite often it can just be a spark of inspiration that helps us to say, right, we are going to build a whole design on just that little element that we’ve seen.

The sketchbooks contain a wealth of information but it isn’t that easy to access, the pages are fragile and it takes time to look through them carefully. The project to digitise material will allow us to search through at the touch of a button, and to zoom into images to see in much more detail than we would be able to with the naked eye. This will give us a whole new perspective on our Father’s work.

Q: Do you still find ways of looking at the legacy with fresh eyes?

Rupert: Looking through the archive in this way you might focus in on a line or a shape and then keep that in the forefront of your mind as you move forward with a new concept. This means that the design is new but it uses language which is instantly recognisable. It is the same as looking at old prototypes or models, which we also have thousands of in the archive. You might pick the really good elements from a design and say these are all brilliant, but we will improve on the weaknesses and take it to another level – that might be in perfecting the idea, the actual design, the materials, the manufacturing or the finish.

One of our new cutlery designs for 2020 was a hollow-handled pattern, Radford Air, which is quite rare these days. It is inspired by one of Dad’s desires to create cutlery which was perfectly balanced in the hand, and takes his original designs from the early 80s as inspiration. When people use it they absolutely adore the way it feels so different and alters their experience of eating. We have called it ‘Air’ because it is very light; it goes against the expectation of heavy cutlery but it still has a feeling of quality.

L: Alice and Rupert Welch at the 2015 launch of Robert Welch - Design: Craft and Industry

Q: When you look back are there things that still surprise you?

Alice: Oh yes definitely! Quite often it can just be a spark of inspiration that helps us to say, right, we are going to build a whole design on just that little element that we’ve seen.

The sketchbooks contain a wealth of information but it isn’t that easy to access, the pages are fragile and it takes time to look through them carefully. The project to digitise material will allow us to search through at the touch of a button, and to zoom into images to see in much more detail than we would be able to with the naked eye. This will give us a whole new perspective on our Father’s work.

Q: Do you still find ways of looking at the legacy with fresh eyes?

Rupert: Looking through the archive in this way you might focus in on a line or a shape and then keep that in the forefront of your mind as you move forward with a new concept. This means that the design is new but it uses language which is instantly recognisable. It is the same as looking at old prototypes or models, which we also have thousands of in the archive. You might pick the really good elements from a design and say these are all brilliant, but we will improve on the weaknesses and take it to another level – that might be in perfecting the idea, the actual design, the materials, the manufacturing or the finish.

One of our new cutlery designs for 2020 was a hollow-handled pattern, Radford Air, which is quite rare these days. It is inspired by one of Dad’s desires to create cutlery which was perfectly balanced in the hand, and takes his original designs from the early 80s as inspiration. When people use it they absolutely adore the way it feels so different and alters their experience of eating. We have called it ‘Air’ because it is very light; it goes against the expectation of heavy cutlery but it still has a feeling of quality.

Alice and Rupert Welch at the 2015 launch of Robert Welch - Design: Craft and Industry

Q: Do you find ways of applying the heritage in new ways?

Alice: Another new approach we have taken in our cutlery ranges is to use texture. Dad was careful with pattern and quite minimal in his approach to using it, but these designs take their inspiration from techniques that he would have used as a silversmith in the workshop, when he first started working at the Old Silk Mill in Chipping Campden.

The markings on the surface of Honeybourne reflect a technique called planishing, which is a method of working silver. These designs feel right because they are tied so authentically to our roots and the origins of the business.

We would like to develop and encourage the young designers of the future with a view to keeping Britain on the map for excellence in design, and we have exciting developments in mind to do just that using the archive.

R: Robert Welch's silversmithing workbench, photographed in the 1970s

 

Q: Do you find ways of applying the heritage in new ways?

Alice: Another new approach we have taken in our cutlery ranges is to use texture. Dad was careful with pattern and quite minimal in his approach to using it, but these designs take their inspiration from techniques that he would have used as a silversmith in the workshop, when he first started working at the Old Silk Mill in Chipping Campden.

The markings on the surface of Honeybourne reflect a technique called planishing, which is a method of working silver. These designs feel right because they are tied so authentically to our roots and the origins of the business.

We would like to develop and encourage the young designers of the future with a view to keeping Britain on the map for excellence in design, and we have exciting developments in mind to do just that using the archive.

Robert Welch's silversmithing workbench, photographed in the 1970s

THE FUTURE

 

    Rupert Welch as a boy, photographed for the Alveston cutlery packaging. He grew up with his father's designs and that informed his future

Rupert Welch as a boy, photographed for the Alveston cutlery packaging. He grew up with his father's designs and that informed his future

 

Q: How much of your work is driven by practicality and what is happening in the market, against inspiration from your own past?

Rupert: Well, we don’t want to be led but there is a balance to be had as you have to make products that people want to buy. For example, there have been lots of coloured finishes coming out - especially gold and copper - which we did look at, but it didn’t really work for us. One of my favourite quotes from my Dad is about the bravery of trying, from a film made about his career by the BBC: “There has to be this flow of new designs all the time, and there’s going to be failures - no doubt about that, but you have to have the faith and the courage to keep on and on trying new things.” RW, Designers, 1986

Q: What would you say is a more breakaway design for you?

Rupert: We are creating new cutlery designs that are pushing boundaries. We recently launched Contour Noir, which uses a combination of plastic and metal. It uses different angles and shapes, and therefore creates a new sensation in the hand, the reaction we have had to it has been great. It is still cutlery - Robert Welch cutlery - but it is something new and innovative.

Q: With the environment so much on the agenda, is sustainability important to you?

Rupert: Definitely. The beauty is we work with stainless steel, which is a sustainable material, so we have a very good start.

Another way of looking at sustainability is the product lasts for such a long time. It is made to last so it doesn't have to be disposed of and when it does, it can be passed on or recycled. It is an investment in the future.

Interestingly that's always been part of our story, but has become even more relevant today.

 

A young Alice Welch, sitting in her father's prized Mogens Kock folding chair. One of several he had owned since the 1960s and which remain in her office today

 

Q: Have you ever been tempted to design anything completely different?

Alice: We consider and talk through any number of products that people use in the home and then we both, actually often by mutual agreement, pull back. One of the abiding principles Dad worked by was ‘can it be improved’ and if we don’t think it can be we won’t entertain the idea. Of course there have been departures.

An exception to that was when in 2010 we were asked to create a bathroom range by John Lewis. The first, Burford Bathroom Range proved to be so successful that John Lewis subsequently asked for a complementary range of bathroom accessories and fittings to be developed. This eventually launched in 2014 as the Oblique Bathroom Range. It isn’t an area we would have considered, although Dad had been designing bathroom fittings and general ironmongery such as door handles and letterboxes since the 1960s.

Q: So what will you take forward into the future and how do you want to contribute to that legacy yourselves?

Rupert: Dad's principles are instilled in us but we need to work to pass that knowledge on. A product's got to feel right, it's got to look right, it's got to handle right, and it's got to do what it's meant to do. The details are very important, and if you get those right, you'll be successful.

What we like is when somebody looks at what we do and says, ‘that’s a Robert Welch product’, and then we know we have our own identity, with designs that are enduring and timeless. The hope is that each piece that leaves the studio will stand for itself aesthetically and have a long life.

Alice: Customers often tell us they've had our cutlery, tableware or a teapot for 30, 40, 50 years. They still love it and they still use it. In fact it's one of the few products in their life that they've possibly used every day for 50 years, which is extraordinary really.

Our legacy becomes part of their family legacy. I hope we can continue to impact on peoples' lives in that same way.

 
 
DESIGNING THE ROBERT WELCH WAY

 

Robert Welch left the Royal College of Art in 1955. That same year he set up his drawing board and a camp bed, in a little rented room on the top floor of the 18th Century Silk Milk in Chipping Campden.

Find out how Robert Welch's strong design principles led him to becoming an MBE and a Royal Designer for Industry.


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