Mid-century modern denotes the design movement that began around 1933 and reached its height in the post-war years of 1945-1965. During this historical period, designers re-evaluated their surroundings and began exploring ways to integrate the natural with the manmade, creating an optimistic new look. It wasn’t until the mid 1950s that the term mid-century modern was used to describe the trend. A look characterised by functional beauty - elegance, and sculptural simplicity with a tinge of pop culture whimsy. The philosophy being affordable design, attainable by the average homeowner.
Whilst not immune to the appeal of experimentation, Robert Welch was still somewhat cautious of fashion. He felt that some areas of design benefitted from this form of scrutiny and push towards originality, but others did not.
He designed and produced three new sets of handmade silver cutlery in 1959 for an American competition. The International Silver Corporation of Meriden in the USA was attempting to attract fresh talent and was offering generous prize money to that end.
1959, Robert Welch’s competition Cutlery prototypes (1 to 3) now part of a collection at Goldsmiths’ Hall, London
Soon after submitting the experimental design prototypes, Robert had a change of heart and regretted his decision, believing the entries to be overly self-indulgent: ‘I realised that experiments in other areas had worked well enough, but the same principles did not necessarily apply to cutlery design.’ Welch, R. (1986) Hand & Machine, p126. The three designs he produced each consisted of a knife, fork and spoon. Most likely only surviving due to the permanence of the material they were made from; all three sets were purchased by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmith’s to be included in their permanent collections. At one stage, Robert Welch even made an attempt to get the cutlery back, aiming to dispose of it, but he was not successful – luckily for us.
After his brief foray into the experimental and imaginative, Robert returned to his original design principles of elegant and simple form and function. He worked towards fixing the mistake, with a design he hoped would stand the test of time. As was the case with many other designers of this time, Robert Welch took inspiration from Scandinavian design, both its aesthetic and philosophy. However, during the 1960s, Robert’s development process included a great deal of research into the history of cutlery right up to English cutlery of the Georgian period. He researched the origins and evolution of the knife, spoon and fork, discovering that each piece began its life separately, only coming together to form a set in the late 1600s.
In Sheffield in 1963 Robert unofficially launched his new pattern. He had been giving a lecture on Designing Cutlery and it was the third day of a five day cutlery course undertaken by retailers and organised the by Council of Industrial Design. The original notes and slides have been maintained in the Robert Welch Design Archive including some very fascinating facts. For example, did you know:
- Originally the spoon’s handle was held in the palm. It eventually started to flatten out and lengthen as the fashion of neck-ruffs grew.
- Once considered to be sinful, decadent and associated with the devil, forks were seen as an unsuitable substitute for bringing food to the mouth with fingers or bread.
- Up until the 1600s, knives were sharp and had pointed tips. They were used for hunting as well as eating with, whereby food was skewered before placing it into the mouth. It wasn’t until later when the fork became accepted that table knife blades were made with a rounded end as it was now considered bad mannered to skewer the food in such a way.
Not long after the knife, fork and spoon were brought together as a set, people who could afford to would carry their own set with them in a box known as a ‘Cadena’. It wasn’t until the Georgian period that it became accepted practice for wealthy hosts to place cutlery at the table by the plates of their guests.
Finishing up his historical review of the knife, fork and spoon, Robert revealed his new design classic, Alveston. He concluded by saying the following:
‘In my opinion the English contribution to modern cutlery design should not even attempt to be extremist (…) One of the criticisms of modern cutlery like so much modern furniture is that it is not comfortable to use. This is one thing that we should (…) remedy. It is unlikely that one would buy an expensive chair without sitting in it, so potential purchasers of cutlery should have a meal, preferably rare roast beef with all the trimmings before they commit themselves to a pattern.’ Robert Welch, Designing Cutlery, 11th September 1963 Was this a new sales technique perhaps? Robert felt very strongly that revolutionary design should be so because it was better, not just because it was new. And after almost 60 years, it could be said that the RW2 collection is still one of the very best.
Section from Robert Welch’s notes for: Designing Cutlery, presented 11th September 1963
Another pattern which was developed out of a similar review of what came before is Radford, an evolution of the Premier pattern from 1984. Premier itself was a modern take on the shape and weight of the Georgian cutlery that was its original inspiration. In the 1970s the workshop staff often received requests for hand-made replacement knives. Replacing the original ivory handles and carbon steel blades with all silver handles and stainless steel blades to ensure a close and sympathetic match with customers’ existing Georgian cutlery pieces. The knives in Georgian canteens did not seem to last as long as the other pieces. They were made with bone or ivory handles, or of a hollow silver two piece silver handle which was joined and filled with a cement, resin or sand holding the blade in place.
John Limbrey, 1972. Knife (two sides) to match Georgian pieces. Handles hollow, oval section.
With the increasing frequency of these requests for replacement, the design of a new pattern, Premier, was developed. Premier was produced in Sheffield as was available in silver plate, solid silver and stainless steel. It was distributed by Courtier Cutlery, later known as Villeroy & Boch.
Sketches for Premier, c.1984
Made with hollow handled knives, Premier had a feeling of lightness in the hand. Often associated with more inexpensive cutlery, this lightness is created by a process which is actually far more labour intensive and as such, costly to produce. The Alveston design was originally produced in this same way, as was RW1, both being precursors of today’s RW2 pattern. These manufacturing processes were described in the sketchbooks of Robert Welch “Hollow handled knives with forged bolsters are very difficult to model as prototypes. In the early design stages, the first models are often made in wood, or carved out of solid aluminium bar. However, if we decide to make up the knife as a close replica of a finished manufactured piece, we have to follow parts of the factory process by utilising, wherever possible, existing hot stampings which are modified to suit the new design. The sketches, (…) show off some of the processes in making of a knife in the true Sheffield tradition with no concessions for cost savings (…) because our knives are made to such high standards it is inevitable that these are by far the most expensive item in a place setting.”
Just as RW2 is the reinvention of Alveston, the modern design being heavier and somewhat larger, Radford is a reinvention of Premier. In 2003, Premier was restyled, renamed and re-launched in memory of Robert Welch with the assistance of his friend of over 40 years, chief silversmith, draftsman and model maker, John Limbrey. With design origins based on the contours and balance of traditional eighteenth century cutlery, it was aptly named Radford after Robert’s middle name. Imbued with timeless appeal, to this day Radford remains a classic English design.
The iconic RW2’s sculptural simplicity epitomises the mid-century modern aesthetic and has a distinct Scandinavian influence. To this day, almost 60 years later, RW2 remains a design classic. Robert Welch certainly knew his cutlery and for this reason should have the last word:
“I think it is abundantly clear that any major departure from traditional forms in cutlery usually produces unhappy results that will not stand the test of time, but within the limitations of established forms the designer must strive to express his individuality in subtleties of proportion and fine detail.” Robert Welch, 1963.