Born in 1929, Robert Welch was one of the leading pioneers of British design with his exploits into highly functional and affordable products well documented. Famed for his successful introduction of stainless steel cutlery into the UK, Robert Welch transformed the affordable substance into a sought-after material for the home. Paving the way for the stainless steel industry we are now accustom to with nearly all kitchenware, utensils and cutlery made from the material, Robert worked tirelessly to alter the perceptions of stainless steel during his 50 years in the design industry. Renowned for excellence in both design and manufacture, he has left a legacy cherished by design devotees. The LuxPad takes a look at the history of one of the world’s great design minds and how his early innovations shaped the industry.
Renowned for his balance of craft-manufacture and industrial production, one of the key artistic eras that shaped Robert Welch’s journey was the Arts & Crafts Movement. Whilst apparent in the early 1800s, it was William Morris who launched the concept into the public consciousness and inspired generations with the idea that to reform the design industry you had to offer a hands-on approach. Morris’ career as both a designer-maker and successful retailer of his products inspired countless designers including Robert Welch in the decades after to create design-led products which appealed on a mass market level.
From Hereford, Robert was born to an artistic family with a home filled with canvases and craftwork which ignited a passion for design within him. Nurturing a keen interest in art throughout his education, he entered and won numerous competitions sponsored by the National Savings Movement and went on to enrol at the Malvern School of Art. Robert’s studies for his NDD (National Diploma in Design) was punctuated by then compulsory National Service and upon his return he decided to transfer to the Birmingham College of Art to study the art of silversmithing.
In 1952 having completed his studies in Birmingham Robert enrolled at the Royal College of Art at the age of 23 to study silversmithing further. This important year also saw the Festival of Britain which had converted the British public to contemporary design, opening up a new world of possibility for designers coming through the ranks at the time. The Royal College of Art during this period was buoyed by confidence on the key role modern design could play in shaping a better society, and Robert was able to enjoy great creative freedom because of this.
In the following years, Robert established an individual design furrow guided by his conviction of what good design really entailed, shaping his design aesthetic for the rest of his career. Robert first discovered the potential of stainless steel on a summer spent in Sweden attending a designer & architecture course. His moment of revelation came when he stumbled across a display of contemporary stainless steel products by Sigurd Persson. This encounter opened his eyes to the state-of-the-art material that could offer possibilities to rival traditional silverware. The discovery led to Robert making the career-defining decision to focus on stainless steel design during his last year at the Royal College of Art.
Robert’s journey into the stainless steel industry leaped forward when in his final year he designed a vegetable dish and cover with distinct mass-production qualities. It caught the eye of Leslie Wiggin, Chairman of J. & J. Wiggin, the only British manufacturer of the material at this the time. The Chairman was so bowled over with the design that he promptly bought it and invited Robert to visit the brand’s factory in 1954. By chance Robert had recently purchased a Lancia Lambda open tourer car of which Leslie and co-director Wilfred Wiggin were greatly fond of and it is rumoured that him arriving behind the wheel of the classic vehicle for his visit contributed to his appointment as the firm’s design consultant.
Upon completion of his studies, Robert began consulting for Old Hall (the operating brand of J. & J. Wiggin) one day a week, a role which he held until the brand’s closure in 1984. This left him enough time to open his own design studio and workshop in the Old Silk Mill in Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds. A historic building that had been the headquarters of the Guild of Handicraft founded by Charles Robert Ashbee, the Robert Welch Design Studio is still housed in the very same building to this day. Inspired by the Scandinavian mentality that good design is deserved by all, Robert spent the early years in his workshop balancing the mass-produced industrial design of stainless steel and bespoke silver craft.
Working within both worlds simultaneously meant Robert developed a keen appreciation for both forms of product design and creation. He believed that handicraft and machinery were not in direct competition but rather benefitted each other. Techniques used for mass-production items often inspired developments in his bespoke pieces, just as his understanding of craft informed his industrial production. Maintaining that a craft sensibility was needed for industrial mass-production set Robert Welch designs apart from earlier forays into stainless steel production. This helped to bring the material into homes of all circumstances thanks to impeccable design aesthetics. In the early years of Robert opening his design studio he was involved in the creation of Britain’s first modern tableware collection which would prove a benchmark for modernist design for decades to come.
The Campden cutlery collection created by Robert and David Mellor in 1958 was designed to appeal to both the domestic markets and the catering trade. The unadorned, satin finished designs offered striking modernity in stark contrast to the fussy decorative styles still being produced at the time. Including the Campden toast rack which has gone down in history as a leading example of modern homeware design. The release of this collection earned the designer great respect in the industry, a reputation which would remain with him until his death in 2000.
An incredibly modest and often charming man, he was known for applying the same high-standards to every product he produced, from unique silverware commissions, to his everyday mass-produced products. Working closely with numerous brands throughout his eminent career, the designer’s high-standards and craft mentality at the design stage was exhibited time and time again. With a place firmly secured in British history, Robert Welch was one of the forefathers of contemporary design who helped usher in a new era of metalwork. Still a family-run enterprise, the Robert Welch Design Studio is now in the hands of Alice and Rupert Welch who inherited their father’s creative flair and appreciation of exceptional craftsmanship. New collections released by the studio, still offer elements of Robert’s original masterpieces, demonstrating the timeless quality of his designs.