Inside the creative world of Robert Welch

For more than 50 years, within a few modest rooms in an 18th-century silk mill, a small team of people has created 3,418 new products, leading to sales of more than 46 million items around the world.

It is said that appearances can be deceptive and nowhere is this truer than at Chipping Campden, a small market town within the Cotswold district of Gloucestershire, western England. Its understated charm is perhaps its greatest attribute, for within its boundaries are the headquarters of Robert Welch Designs, a family-run business with a global reach.

The existence of the company at the old mill is the legacy of the man whose name the business carries and it all began in 1955 when, fresh from the Royal College of Art, Robert Welch was looking to set up a studio somewhere between his parents’ home in Malvern and London, where he might find work.

He rented a small room in the Old Silk Mill in Chipping Campden and installed his drawing board and a truckle bed. It was an inauspicious start for a man whose strong design principles would later lead to him being appointed a Royal Designer for Industry, and MBE – a Member of the Order of the British Empire, bestowed by the Queen in recognition of his work.

Welch trained as a silversmith at Birmingham College of Art before moving to the Royal College of Art in 1952 where he specialised exclusively in stainless steel production design. In 1965 he was honoured as a Royal Designer for Industry by the British Royal Society of Arts.

Being an enthusiastic cricketer, he believed in the close working efficiency of small teams, and therefore called on the complementary skills of designers, prototype makers and manufacturers to help realise his designs.

Unlike other design companies, none of the products are bought in or created by outside designers. Every item, large or small, is designed in-house in the same studio where Welch created his well-known everyday items all those years ago – from the original Kitchen Devil range of knives that sold more than 800,000 units in the first two years of production, to Prestige kitchen utensils.

Each new Robert Welch product is evolved from rigorous questioning about its function, manufacture, durability and ease of use. One of the simplest ways to understand what people want from a new product is to meet them. For this reason, since 1969 he has had a shop in Chipping Campden, only a hundred yards or so from the Old Silk Mill where the products are created.

The company worked with professional chefs to develop its multi-award-winning Signature knife and utensil ranges; each Signature knife has been individually constructed for its specific task in food preparation, with each blade honed and tempered to razor sharpness, producing a precision blade edge. Performance-tested by SheffieldĂ•s leading test establishment, they are in the world’s top one per cent of all knives tested for initial sharpness and edge retention.

The full product range includes cutlery, other tableware, lighting, glassware, bathroom accessories, a selection of unusual candlesticks and kitchenware. All designs are unique to Robert Welch Designs and can be ordered online, with many also available from leading retailers such as John Lewis and HealÕs in the UK, and Crate & Barrel in the United States.

Welch’s son Rupert and daughter Alice have been responsible for the company’s direction since 1993 and, although the business has expanded considerable since, they continue the legacy that Robert left. They have never lost sight of the passion for design excellence that was his hallmark – ageless designs that do not follow fashion but aim for a timeless beauty.

The Robert Welch mission has always been to combine a search for innovation with a sincere respect for the traditions of the past so that quality, ease of use and fine design are in harmony.

The company’s designs have won a host of coveted awards in recent years, including a Good Design 2011 honour from the Chicago Athenaeum: Museum of Architecture & Design for the Signature salt/peppermills – and in 2010, a Red Dot award for its Bud cutlery.

Managing director Rupert Welch commented: “As a small family-owned British company, we are very happy to have won these two awards as they recognise product design and originality throughout the world at the highest level.

“For the 2011 awards, the Athenaeum received submissions from several thousand of the world’s most innovative manufacturers and designers, so to have won is a fantastic achievement for the company. We are also delighted because this is the second award that the new Signature mills have won in just over two months,” he added.

The company’s clients and customers include Baliol College, Oxford; the Burj Al Arab hotel, Dubai; the British Embassy, Riyadh; Sir Winston Churchill; HRH Duke of Edinburgh; MoMA, New York; the Foreign & Commonwealth Office; the Smithsonian Institution, US; Virgin Atlantic; Westin Hotels; the Victoria & Albert Museum; Canterbury Cathedral; and 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence.

 

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