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Pearlfisher co-founder Karen Welman dies at 59

Pearlfisher’s founding partner and chief creative officer, Karen Welman, has died following a heart attack while on holiday in Greece on 24 June. She was 59.

The designer and innovator founded the design company with her husband, Jonathan Ford, whom she met when the two worked for Peters & Partners in the 80s. During that time, they spent three years in New York helping build the agency’s American office, which then became Sterling Design. The couple moved back to the UK and joined forces with friend and colleague Mike Branson to found Pearlfisher in 1992.

L-R Mike Branson, Karen Welman, Jonathan Ford

Welman secured an 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, paving the way for a notable roll call of international challenger and leading clients including Unilever, Coca-Cola, Absolut Vodka, Innocent, Jamie Oliver and Waitrose.

Pearlfisher, which now has studios in London, New York, San Francisco and Copenhagen, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2018.

Her obituary stated that Welman’s lifelong passion for turning ideas into action and for innovation was globally realized 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, she co-founded the private member’s gym, The Clock, devising its new training equipment and showpiece, The Timepiece. In 2018, Welman drove an idea to highlight the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans through an underwater show garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

She 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 her words, third founding partner of Pearlfisher and chief executive 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.”

Ford paid tribute to his wife and partner: “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.”

Featured by The Drum