Karen Welman – who co-founded design agency, Pearlfisher – passed away on Monday 24th June aged 59, following a heart attack, whilst on holiday in Greece with family and friends.
Karen first met husband-to-be and future co-founding Partner of Pearlfisher, Jonathan Ford, when, fresh out of their respective design colleges, the pair worked for Michael Peters & Partners in the 1980’s. During this time, they spent three years in New York helping build the agency’s American office, which then became Sterling Design – a new brand of agency that she helped establish. They moved back to the UK and joined forces with friend and colleague, Mike Branson, to found Pearlfisher in 1992.
Karen’s mischievous and generous spirit made her a formidable presence both at work and play, and colleagues and clients alike could always count on Karen for a unique, unexpected and – often frank! – viewpoint. Added to that, a creative drive that knew no boundaries, Karen secured a truly impressive list of global award-winning designs in a career spanning more than 30 years.
She cited the design for the agency’s very first client – Green & Black’s – as a defining moment in her career, setting the brand on a newly iconic path and paving the way for a notable roll call of international challenger and iconic clients including Unilever, Coca-Cola, Absolut Vodka, Innocent, Jamie Oliver and Waitrose.
Celebrating their milestone 25th Anniversary in 2018 – now with 4 global studios in London, New York, San Francisco and Copenhagen – and with Karen as its Chief Creative Officer, Pearlfisher has achieved a reputation as one of the world’s greatest brand design agencies and has produced and nurtured some of the industry’s greatest design talent.
Karen’s lifelong passion for turning great ideas into action and for innovation was globally realised when, in 2004, she developed and launched the brand 37 Degrees, a clothing line for babies that uses NASA-developed material to regulate body temperature. Her work earned her a host of awards including the Kind & Jugend Innovation Award, the Good Design Award in Japan, a double gold in the Best Inventors Awards and most notably, she was named one of the Top 10 Global Female Inventors in an award ceremony in Singapore in 2006.
Most recently, Karen co-founded the award-winning private member’s gym, The Clock, devising its ground-breaking new training equipment and showpiece – The Timepiece. In 2018, Karen’s constant questioning of just what is possible, single-handedly drove an ambitious idea to highlight the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans. Karen masterminded a stunningly unique, innovative and sustainable design solution in the form of an underwater show garden at the prestigious RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The Pearlfisher Garden not only won a coveted Gold medal but garnered the interest of brands, politicians, celebrities and the world’s media.
As Karen herself explained, “As designers, we saw an opportunity, through design to creatively highlight one of the world’s most pressing problems and make change. My vision for The Pearlfisher Garden is to use bold, challenger, experiential design to showcase what we’re set to lose, and ultimately, change behaviour. My hope is that it will inspire and educate all and be a lasting visual legacy for our grandchildren and future generations to come.”
Reflecting on Karen’s own words, third Founding Partner of Pearlfisher and CEO Americas, Mike Branson, said, “Karen was an incredibly loyal friend and colleague as well as being one of the greatest designers and creative visionaries this industry has ever known. We will all miss her in so many ways but her zest for life, drive and inimitable design influence will live on in her work and our many memories and stories of her life, passion and courage will remain an amazing legacy for us all.”
Jonathan, and the couple’s four children – Jasper, Ophelia, Chloe and Oscar – were all at Karen’s bedside in Greece, from where Jonathan paid a fitting tribute:
“Karen had an amazingly beautiful island day before she passed away, looking great and watching a final beautiful sunset, after which she went to bed and a sleep she didn’t wake from. She left this world in true Karen Welman style, fulfilling her often joked about ambition to avoid reaching the age of 60. She wouldn’t have had it any other way.
She was an amazing wife, mother, designer, entrepreneur, partner, boss, friend, sister and relative, as well as being a creative genius and all-round inspirational woman. She always surprised and inspired, not only me, but our global teams and clients – on a daily basis with her brilliant imagination and fearless determination to make the impossible, possible.
The family and I toasted her life with a glass of Prosecco looking at the Acropolis, knowing she would fully approve. Please raise a glass of bubbly to her wherever you may be today or when you read this, and only think positive things about a brilliant and inspiring woman who changed all our lives for the better.”
If you would like to send a message of condolence, please do so to firstname.lastname@example.org. Arrangements for a celebration of Karen’s amazing life have yet to be finalised but will be shared very soon on Pearlfisher’s website.
“Designers can change the world, by thinking outside the box – and hopefully getting rid of it completely! Our brains don’t know the difference between imagination and reality, therefore, if we can dream it, we can create it.”Karen Welman, 1959-2019