Combining the roles of designer, manufacturer, craftsman and retailer DAVID MELLOR (1930-) steered a unique position in late 20th century British design. Renowned as a designer and maker of cutlery, Mellor has also designed furniture, tools, ecclesiastical silver, traffic lights and a post box.
A truly British designer, David Mellor has built his reputation on the design of a particular product – cutlery – and by involving himself in its manufacturing. His career has been informed by his birthplace – Sheffield, city of steel. When he was growing up there in the 1930s more than half of the city’s workforce, including Mellor’s father, was employed in the cutlery and steel industries.
The teenage Mellor trained as a metal craftsman, destined to work in a Sheffield factory, but was so gifted that he won a place to study at the Royal College of Art in London. Rather than develop his career in London, which then dominated the fledgling British design industry, he returned to Sheffield after graduation. Mellor has since modernised and refined the city’s metalworking tradition to define his own style of cutlery design, distinguished by precision, practicality and beauty.
“He has been motivated by an extreme perfectionism, as applicable to the shaping of his own environment as to the detailing of his famously functional cutlery, with the angle of the blade, the roundness of the spoon, the precise sharpness of the prongs, the placing of the rivets all so carefully worked out,” pronounced the catalogue that accompanied the David Mellor: Master Metalworker exhibition at the Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield in 1999.
Mellor was born in Sheffield in 1930. His father Colin made tools for the Sheffield Twist Drill Company and encouraged his son to make things at home. At the age of 12, while Britain was at war, Mellor enrolled in the Junior Art Department of Sheffield Art School. ‘Junior’ departments provided vocational training for teenagers in the hope that they would become artisans or highly skilled factory workers. Mellor was taught metalwork, pottery, house-painting and decorating as well as conventional academic subjects. Showing a clear aptitude for metalwork he progressed in 1945 to Sheffield Art School, where his teachers included William E. Bennett, himself a former pupil of the Arts and Crafts silversmith Omar Ramsden.
The art school concentrated on perfecting traditional craft skills, but Mellor also became interested in contemporary design. In 1946 he visited the Britain Can Make It exhibition, which was organised at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London by the recently founded Council of Industrial Design to encourage British industry to use design to revitalise the post-war economy. The then-rector of the RCA, Robin Darwin, shared the same goal and was intent upon training young designers to reinvigorate British manufacturing. Determined to secure the best students, he travelled to regional art schools, including Sheffield, to recruit them. In 1948 Mellor was offered a place at the RCA. He enrolled there in 1950 after almost two years of national service with the army in the 8th Tank Regiment.
At the RCA Mellor developed his design language and craft skills. He also won scholarships to study at the British School in Rome and to travel in Scandinavia, where he absorbed new trends in design. His student work at the RCA included the prototyping of a complete set of cutlery, Pride. Light and slender, Pride is unmistakably modern yet reveals an appreciation of traditional English cutlery design in its style and the use of silver plated steel. Even in this student project Mellor succeeded in combining the skill and knowledge of generations of cutlers with a new aesthetic vision.
After graduating in 1954, Mellor returned to Sheffield and set up a studio in Eyre Street next to the silver plating company Walker & Hall. Founded in 1840, Walker and Hall was at the centre of silver plating in Sheffield and specialised in electroplating. It employed Mellor as a design consultant paying him an annual retainer of ￡1,000. Walker and Hall put his Pride cutlery into production, followed shortly by a silver plate tea service of the same name. In 1962 the company opened a purpose built factory at Bolsover in Derbyshire to concentrate on stainless steel production. Mellor developed the Symbol set of stainless steel cutlery to be made there, and designed it specifically to eliminate the use of handwork in the manufacturing process.
Until Mellor’s arrival, cutlery design tended to be very conservative, with few changes made to the traditional repertoire of styles that had been used for centuries. This was due in part to the expense of the materials used with the consequence that most people purchased only one set of cutlery in their life-time. By pioneering the use of cheaper materials such as stainless steel and, later plastics, in beautifully made cutlery, Mellor made it more adaptable to changes in design and technology.
As well as Walker & Hall he worked for other companies, notably the Nottinghamshire street lighting manufacturer Abacus. During his six month scholarship at the British School in Rome, Mellor had been inspired by the city’s modern street lighting. On his return to the RCA he developed his own designs and sent them to various manufacturers. British street lighting was made in cast concrete at this time, but Mellor proposed a tubular steel structure for his lights. Abacus produced two of his designs in 1954 and 1955. Mellor continued to design for the company for many years, notably by producing a 1959 bus shelter made of galvanised steel with aluminium roof, and 1962 outdoor bench composed of galvanised steel and hardwood slats. Abacus has since manufactured more than 100,000 of his bus shelters.
In 1960 Mellor moved out of the centre of Sheffield into a purpose-built single storey glass and timber house, workshop and studio at 1 Park Lane in the Victorian suburb of Broomhall. Designed by Patric Guest of the local architectural practice Gollins Melvin Ward, it was inspired by the industrial aesthetic of the Eames House, the home of the US designers Charles and Ray Eames at Pacific Palisades in southern California. Mellor and his team helped with construction: as they continued to do whenever the company moved to new premises.
Now an established designer, Mellor employed three silversmiths, a draughtsman, model maker and secretary. Alongside his industrial projects, he designed and made one-off craft pieces, such as the 1963 set of a nave alter cross and candlesticks for Southwell Minster and 1969 silver crucifix and candlesticks for the Lady Chapel of the new Roman Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool. He collaborated on the Liverpool project with the sculptor Elizabeth Frink, who made the figure of Christ on the crucifix.
In 1963, Mellor was approached by the Ministry of Public Building and Works to design a new range of sterling silver tableware for British embassies. Lord Hope, the then-Minister of Works, wanted the embassies to be built and furnished in a contemporary style. The commission for glassware went to Robert Goodden, who had taught Mellor at the RCA, while Richard Guyatt was asked to decorate the Minton ceramic service. Mellor designed the Embassy set of hand-made silver cutlery with stainless steel blades and satin finish for production by C.W. Fletcher of Sheffield. The forks were three-pronged, rather than the conventional four-pronged style. All of the other items, including condiment sets, coffee pots, sugar bowls, cream jugs and candlesticks, were made in Mellor’s workshop at 1 Park Lane. The first new embassy to receive his designs was Warsaw, followed by Mexico City.
Two years later he received another commission from the Ministry of Public Works, this time for Thrift, an inexpensive set of stainless steel cutlery for use in government canteens in hospitals, schools, prisons and railways. Mellor strove to minimise production costs by reducing the form of each item to the simplest possible shape and by rationalising the standard 11-piece cutlery set to five pieces: a large spoon to be used both for soup and serving; a medium sized spoon for cereals, fruit, puddings; a small spoon for tea, coffee, ice cream or boiled eggs; a single knife and a single fork.
Throughout the 1960s he continued to design for Sheffield manufacturers including James Neill, then the largest tool maker in Europe, for which he worked as a design consultant. Many local companies had never before employed a designer, notably Burgon & Ball whose production had consisted solely of sheep shears for sale in Australia and New Zealand until Mellor designed a pair of garden shears with hardened steel blades and polypropylene handles moulded onto a wooden core. The garden shears were so successful that Burgon & Ball commissioned him to produce new designs for border and lawn shears.
Mellor’s public commissions included a 1966 project for a post box for the Post Office. He designed a discernibly modern box in the shape of a square made from vitreous enamelled steel panels. Intended to store more mail than conventional boxes and to improve the efficiency of the collection process, it contained an inner clearance mechanism onto which the postman hooked his bag. When a lever was pulled open, the hinged floor acted as a chute on which the letters slid into the bag thereby reducing the time spent by the postman in collecting them. Mellor’s square box proved too bold a move in a country where the classic circular pillar box was regarded as a national symbol. His square box provoked such a storm that only 200 were produced and, in 1968, the new Post Master General ordered them to be re-designed in cast iron.
During the same period Mellor worked for the Ministry of Transport on the design of a national traffic control system. Thousands of miles of new roads and motorways were built in Britain throughout the 1960s, and the government commissioned and installed new road signage and lighting systems too. Mellor designed the frame for a new set of traffic lights to be brighter during the day and softer at night. To eradicate the need for repainting, all of the components were either made of polypropylene plastic or coated in PVC. He also specified that the plastic in the hoods and backing boards should be flexible enough to increase their resistance if hit by a vehicle. More than 4,500 of Mellor’s traffic lights were installed throughout the country. Many of them are still in use today.
By the late 1960s Mellor’s business was flourishing but the Sheffield steel and cutlery industries were in turmoil. Unable to compete against lower cost sources of production, many companies were forced to merge or close, including Mellor’s first client Walker & Hall which merged with Mappin & Webb and Elkington & Company to form British Silverware Ltd. Realising that he would only ever have limited control over the development of a product as a consultant designer, he determined to change his way of working to control every part of the process: design, manufacturing and retailing.
In 1969 Mellor opened a shop opposite the Royal Court Theatre on Sloane Square in London. He envisaged his role as a shopkeeper as that of a contemporary ironmonger, selling Wedgwood earthenware alongside nails and screws. Mellor soon realised that it did not make financial sense to sell nails and brushes in such an expensive part of London, and concentrated on kitchenware and tableware instead. He made many of the products sold in the shop, including the cutlery, aluminium saucepans, and brass bowls and dishes. Other items were selected with great care from British craftspeople.
In 1973 he expanded his production facilities by buying Broom Hall, a 15th century building with Georgian additions in order to restore it as a home, design studio, workshop and factory. “At a time when the specialist skills of the trade are disappearing, and the scope for experiment and innovation becoming increasingly rare, the need for a new organisation of this kind, small enough in scale for freedom of manoeuvre and aiming for a really high standard of production, is more and more pronounced,” Mellor observed.
As at 1 Park Lane and later in The Round Building, Mellor lived on the premises. Choosing to live and work side by side evoked the spirit of the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement, which had influenced his early education. His desire to produce objects to improve the quality of daily life sprang from the same ethos, but Mellor’s approach differed from the advocates of the Arts and Crafts movement particularly in his passion for industrial production and for modern forms that reflected the present, not an idealised vision of the rural past.
The first cutlery set designed at Broomhall was 1973’s Proven?al cut in stainless steel with rosewood handles and brass rivets. Two years later Mellor produced it with moulded black acetal resin handles, becoming the first designer to adopt this particular combination. In the same year he launched the Chinese Ivory set, which was to become one of his most popular cutlery designs. Produced in stainless steel with white acetal handles, Chinese Ivory was chunky, rounded and fun with a two dimensional quality forged by blanking the metal parts out of flat strip steel. The informal design proved popular at a time when eating habits were changing from formal meals in the dining room to casual eating in the kitchen. Mellor’s two-part design combining steel and plastic proved to be extremely influential. By the turn of the 1980s, almost every British kitchen contained a set of cutlery with colourful plastic handles.
During the 1960s and 1970s the British market for modern household products, like Mellor’s cutlery, had been relatively small. He concentrated on designing for this fashionable elite and, as a result, his products were comparatively expensive. By the 1980s the market for contemporary design was expanding and in 1982 he developed Café as an updated version of his simple Thrift cutlery. In 1984 he produced Classic which, like Thrift and Café, is a simply constructed one-part design in stainless steel.
By 1990 the workshops at Broom Hall had become too small and Mellor moved to new premises in the Peak District, some 12 miles from Sheffield. The Round Building, designed by the architects Michael Hopkins and Partners, is a purpose-built cutlery factory constructed on a disused gasworks in the Derbyshire village of Hathersage. The form was determined by the circular concrete foundations of the old gas works. Hopkins topped the local stone and tiled shell with a high-tech steel roof. Mellor and his team carried out much of the construction work, as they had with all his previous buildings. By integrating local materials and a pre-existing structure into proudly modern architecture, The Round Building illustrates how a factory can sit harmoniously within a National Park. Mellor equipped it with the sophisticated machinery needed to enable him to employ advanced technology in his work. Now autonomous, Mellor could carry out every stage in the making of cutlery from the cutting of metal, the grinding and polishing, to the packaging.
Cutlery developed at The Round Building include the 1993 sets Paris and English and, possibly the most radical of Mellor’s designs, 2003’s Minimal. Simple, angular and smart, this set is highly finished in satin polished steel. It consists of only one knife, one fork and three spoons – one for tea, one for soup and serving and one for dessert – reflecting the even greater informality in dining, with guests rarely expecting bread knives or dessert forks.
The period between setting up the cutlery workshop at Broom Hall in the early 1970s and the late 1990s had been devoted solely to the design and manufacture of cutlery, with Mellor refusing any external design work. In 1998 he was persuaded by the Italian plastics manufacturer Magis to develop a cutlery trolley, the chromed steel Transit. Mellor’s son, Corin, also a designer, helped him to design the Transit and has continued to work with his father.
Despite the decline of the traditional Sheffield manufacturers, who had inspired him to become a cutlery designer and employed him in the early years of his career, Mellor’s business has thrived thanks to his foresight in embracing new technology, while developing formally elegant, yet fresh and enduring designs for the upper end of the market. Concern with detail, quality and the visual rightness of the object have been constants throughout Mellor’s varied and fruitful career.
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1930 Born in Sheffield.
1935 Attends Crookes Endowed School, Sheffield, later renamed Lydgate Lane School.
1942 Joins the Junior Art Department of Sheffield College of Art.
1945 Enrols at Sheffield College of Art.
1948 Wins a place at the Royal College of Art in London, but delays his entry for 18 months to complete National Service in the 8th Tank Regiment.
1950 Enrols in the RCA Silversmithing School under Robert Goodden. While still a student Mellor prototypes his silver plate Pride cutlery and writes his thesis on The Development of the Cutlery Industry.
1952 Wins a travel scholarship, and visits Sweden and Denmark.
1953 Chosen as one of two students to study at the British School in Rome.
1954 Graduates from the RCA with a Silver Medal and returns to Sheffield to open a workshop on Eyre Street to work on one-off silverware commissions and for industry, notably as design consultant to Walker & Hall, which puts Pride into production.
Abacus Lighting manufactures the street lighting designed by Mellor at the RCA.
1957 Pride is given one of the first Design Centre Awards.
1960 Constructs a purpose-built studio-workshop at 1 Park Lane designed by the Sheffield architect Patric Guest of Gollins Melvin Ward.
1962 Designs the Symbol set of stainless steel cutlery for Walker & Hall’s new factory.
1963 Commissioned to design the Embassy range of sterling silver tableware for use in Britain’s embassies.
1965 Starts a five year consultancy for the Ministry of Transport on the design of a national traffic signal system and automatic half-barrier crossings.
1966 Launch of the Thrift stainless steel cutlery commissioned by the Ministry of Public Building and Works for use in government canteens in hospitals, schools and prisons.
Designs a controversial square pillar box for the Post Office.
1967 Collaborating with the sculptor Elizabeth Frink, Mellor designs a silver altar cross and candlesticks for new Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool.
1968 Exhibition of David Mellor’s work at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
1969 Opens his first London shop on Sloane Square, selling kitchenware and tableware. This was followed by shops in Manchester and Covent Garden.
1973 Moves to Broom Hall, a historic building in Sheffield, where he constructs a cutlery production facility.
Launches Proven?al as the first cutlery to be designed at Broom Hall.
Commissioned to make a silver bowl of 201 segments to mark the bicentenary of the Cutler’s Company in Sheffield.
1975 Designs Black Proven?al and Chinese Ivory cutlery.
1982 Becomes Chairman of the Crafts Council.
Develops Café as a new version of 1966’s Thrift cutlery.
1984 Introduces the Classic range of stainless steel cutlery.
1986 Designs cutlery for people with disabilities in association with the Helen Hamlyn Foundation.
1990 The Round Building, designed by Michael Hopkins and Partners, opens at Hathersage in the Peak District. It receives many architectural prizes including an RIBA National Award and the Civic Trust Award.
1996 The Paris and English ranges of cutlery go into production.
1998 Designs the City range of cutlery and a trolley for Magis, the Italian plastics manufacturer.
A retrospective of David Mellor’s work is organised by the Sheffield Galleries & Museums Trust for presentation at the Design Museum in London, Dean Clough Galleries in Halifax and the Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield.
2003 Launch of the Minimal range of cutlery.
2007 Selector for 25/25 - Celebrating 25 Years of Design exhibition at the Design Museum 29 March - 22 June.
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David Mellor: master metalworker, Sheffield Galleries & Museums Trust, 1998
Visit David Mellor’s website davidmellordesign.com
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run in collaboration by the Design Museum and the British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain
Design Museum + British Council