Alice and Rupert Welch in the Chipping Campden studio. Photograph by Tony Muranka
The work of designer and silversmith Robert Welch married craft-manufacture and industrial production and his broad range of designs brought clean, modern silhouettes into postwar homes. In MidCentury 09, you can read our Buyer’s Guide to collecting mid-century Welch. We also had the honour of speaking to Robert’s Welch’s children, Alice and Rupert Welch, who continue to run Robert Welch Designs from the Old Silk Mill in Chipping Campden.
Alveston cutlery. Photograph courtesy of Robert Welch Designs
Robert Welch worked across a wide range of products. What characteristics unite the designs?
Alice: Strong, sculptural silhouettes, families of unified shapes and a keen understanding of the vital importance of the functionality of design. Robert was driven to collect natural objects: bird eggs, pebbles, driftwood, shells and many more. They were displayed in his studio. He spent many hours drawing from nature, an understanding which formed the basis for the pure and perfect shapes and curves that were the trademark of his designs.
Lumitron lighting, 1966. Photograph courtesy of Robert Welch Design Archive
What are your favourite pieces from your father’s design archive and why?
Alice: I love the Lumitron lighting range of 1966 and have two desk lamps in my office. They speak to me of the efficiency of design and manufacture, a purity of form and of truth to materials. The range comprised six differently scaled lights purposefully designed with interrelated components. This meant that the various sizes of acrylic dome fit the different parts of the larger and smaller lights. They were the first time Dad had worked in acrylic, and he referred to how easily the design evolved, famously describing the process as “just having this thought and putting a pencil round it.”
I own canteens of the original 1965 Design Centre Award winning Alveston cutlery, as well as the modern version of the same. RW2 is ever so slightly bigger and therefore I find it complements today’s larger place settings in a more balanced way.
A lot of my favourite designs relate to stories that I remember, and one of these started with a car tyre design for Dunlop in 1979. The ‘Denovo’ was at the time being developed for the Ford Metro, but the design for the multi-facetted tyre pattern was too expensive to be put into production. However it started Dad thinking about how he could apply a similar pattern in another way. The outcome, with help from the American arm of Japanese firm Yamazaki Kinzoku Kogyo, was Regalia cutlery, aimed at both the Japanese and American markets. After this success came a range of fluted tableware for Yamazaki which used the same principles. We sell this tableware to this day, only it has been rechristened ‘Metro’ as a nod to its origins.
Rupert: Dad’s interest in design, detail and precision engineering is best seen in the stainless steel Alveston tea set, which took nearly four years to perfect. Inherent to this design is the ethos of Robert Welch Designs and it reminds me of our values and principles as a company, so much so that when we had the building renovated in 2013 I commissioned a keystone in the shape of the teapot in profile, which has pride of place in my office.
Alveston teapot. Photograph courtesy of Robert Welch Designs
You’ve described Robert Welch’s pursuit of good design as a “lifelong and all-encompassing obsession”. What do you remember about your father’s work habits from your childhood?
Alice: At our home in Alveston, near Stratford on Avon, friends from the design world would regularly visit and I vividly remember sitting with them at the dining table listening to heated debates about the world of art and its relevance to the day. As contemporaries they were confident in challenging each other intellectually.
Throughout his career Dad always brought home the designs that he was working on and from an early age Rupert and I joined our parents to gather around the dining table whilst they discussed the design and the feasibility of making the pieces. At this point in his career he self-funded his own silverware, so from an early age (about 5 years old) I became aware that he was very different to other friend’s fathers!
An abiding memory of my father was that he was always drawing or photographing and collecting things, absorbing nature and the world around him in all its form and light. We have over 600 sketchbooks in the archive. One of my favourite quotes about where his inspiration came from comes from a film, One Man’s Style, made for the Arts Council in 1971: “There is no one source, one just sort of reacts to life, rather like a light meter, you can see things under any conditions, in any circumstances. Of course consciously one can keep one’s mind alert; I like to spend a great deal of time in museums, I like to carefully study all sorts of things, I enjoy looking and browsing through books on old silver, books on old iron. Inspiration can come from anywhere, from bubbles, from looking at a beehive, from looking at a birds nest, anything can happen.”
What memories do you associate with the Old Silk Mill, where the products are still designed?
Alice: We were occasionally invited up to the Mill to work on various projects, for example dark room processing or filing. I remember the quiet, calm and focussed environment, interrupted only by the tapping of silver hammering from the workshop. In sharp contrast, today the office is bustling with more people and technology, but it feels just as creative.
Chipping Camden Studio Shop opening, 1969. Photograph courtesy of Robert Welch Design Archive
Why was the Studio Shop so important?
Alice: The Chipping Campden Studio Shop was built in 1680, and was first a Beer House known as the Elms All, and later as the Plough Inn. Our father rented it in the late 1960s, and his Studio Shop opened in 1969. It was most unusual in that everything he sold was designed by him. I was the youngest ‘serving wench’ at the opening party!
Rupert: The shop’s main purpose was to be a ‘window’, not for the products that could be bought elsewhere, but for the silver. From 1964 Heal’s in London had been the window for the pieces of domestic silver made in the Campden Workshop. The Chipping Campden Studio Shop made this concept into a permanent retail platform for the business and soon the shop was full of both silver and industrial design. It was also where Dad would listen to the opinions and needs of his customers, as he worked in the shop every Saturday for over thirty years.
In managing Robert Welch Designs, what are some of the challenges and joys of marrying your father’s legacy with the changing times?
Alice: The 1950s and 60s were eras of great experimentation and rule breaking. These dramatic changes will probably not be seen again. The opportunity for newness and appetite for change was particular to those times. However, I believe that his eye for perfect form within the constraints of materials would still be relevant today.
Rupert: The design team continue to work in a way which reflects Robert Welch’s ethos. Balancing form and function, their style is one of classic yet contemporary line and shape which give the products a timeless appeal. Still sculptural, the uncluttered outlines of our modern products are instantly recognisable as descendants of his forms.
There is potential to either get stuck in the past or to be so forward thinking that you disregard it, but the two are not mutually exclusive, one can inform the other. We have recently catalogued the archive collection which contains a wealth of significant information. As such we are really just beginning to understand the story of the brand.
We continue to design cutlery, kitchenware and giftware ranges as well as adding to growing living collections, such as the Limbrey range, originally inspired by the shape of domestic silver tableware which Dad designed for Heal’s Present Choice Department in 1963. The pieces would have been made by his long-term silversmith John Limbrey, hence the name of our modern stainless steel and walnut range.
Products on display at Heal’s, 1967. Photograph courtesy of Robert Welch Design Archive
Why do you think Robert Welch’s designs remain so popular today?
Alice: Robert’s designs have so many qualities that help them to endure. The attention to detail of the designer’s craft speaks for itself, as does the quality of the manufacture. It helps of course that many of the materials themselves, stainless steel or cast iron for example, have a solidity and permanence. I think he learnt from the materials he worked with. He certainly was careful about what he designed for silver because he felt the material elevated a design to a level of importance perhaps not always deserved.
What feels most reassuring is his investment in their creation, in time spent getting the thing just right. Whether teapot, cutlery set, or lamp, the product is never designed for design’s sake – not fashionable and therefore not fleeting – always just beautifully considered.
Cast iron candlestick from Campden Designs range, 1961. Photograph courtesy of Robert Welch Designs
Read our Buyer’s Guide to Robert Welch’s mid-century designs in MidCentury 09
Find out more about Robert Welch Designs
Buy a copy of the Robert Welch: Design: Craft and Industry book
Take a look at our article about Robert Welch and David Mellor, pioneers of cutlery design here