David Mellor: A ‘king’ at the cutting edge of modern design

The work of Sheffield designer David Mellor is to be celebrated in two exhibitions that reveal the ‘cutlery king’s’ genius and quest for perfection. Sharon Dale reports.

David Mellor
David Mellor

When it comes to gift shopping, men are notoriously difficult to buy for, but finding the right gift for designer David Mellor has always been a nightmare.

“It was very difficult to get him anything for Christmas because if it wasn’t quite right it went in the dustbin,” says his son Corin.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“He was very visually aware and was affronted by objects that didn’t look right. He was like that at work too. He was bothered about how a machine functioned, of course, but also about how it looked. It had to be painted exactly the right shade of grey. Everything was visually thought out.”

This highly-developed sense was undiminished by the dementia he suffered at the end of his life. He regularly complained about the flowery cups that the care staff brought his tea in and, after decades working hard to fill the world with beautiful and useful objects, he had earned the right to take umbrage at the ugly and inferior.

“It’s funny how that never left him,” says Corin, a designer who now heads the family business based in Hathersage, near Chatsworth, with a shop in London’s Sloane Square. His father’s attention to detail and his genius for form and function can be seen at two new exhibitions next month that celebrate his work.

The first is at Mellor HQ in the Peak District, home to the Round Building cutlery factory designed by architect Michael Hopkins and to a museum, café and shop. It already has a permanent exhibition of his work but the latest, Street Scene, is outside and is dedicated solely to his street furniture and his traffic lights.

Famous for cutlery and tableware, few realise that David Mellor designed the traffic light in 1965 and that 25,000 continue to flash red, amber and green at us. He also created street lighting, seating, bins, bollards and a post box for the public realm. His ambition when he won the commission from Abacus was to “change the visual culture of Britain’s streets” and he achieved it.

“That part of his career is forgotten. We have a set of traffic lights in the café and people have no idea that they are there as an exhibit because my father designed them. They think it’s some kind of stop and go system for the queue,” says Corin. “The idea for Street Scene came as part of improvements we’ve made outside. People will walk past it on the way in and it will help inform them of the breadth of my father’s work.”

David Mellor – Steel and Light runs from September to October at The Sheffield Institute of Arts at Sheffield Hallam University. It is part of the city’s 100 years of stainless steel celebrations and pays homage to Mellor’s metalwork. His iconic cutlery, including the exquisite Pride, designed in 1953, and his private commissions will feature.

The exhibition will also reveal how the boy from a working class Sheffield family became a world famous designer. The story starts in Stannington View Road, a respectable working class area of the city, where he was born on October 5, 1930, and where his father Colin exerted a great influence.

A new edition of the biography David Mellor Master Metalworker, written by his wife Fiona MacCarthy, reveals how factory toolmaker Colin once painted a bunch of flowers on his son’s bedroom door to cheer him up when he was poorly with measles. He too was visually sensitive and enjoyed making things.

Encouraged by his family, David, who disliked all school lessons except art, went to the Junior Department at Sheffield College of Art at the age of 11. It was part of an initiative to give specialist vocational training instead of herding all children down a purely academic route.

His prodigious talent for metalwork was spotted and he was recruited by the Royal College of Art. It was there he embraced modernism and afterwards headed back to Sheffield to set up his first studio workshop in Eyre Street.

Revealing a talent for business, bloody-mindedness and a determination to do his own thing, he concentrated on contemporary designs and clever marketing. For his early catalogues, he employed draughtsmen and artists to draw all the products.

In 1960, he indulged his love of architecture and built his own workshop, design studio and home in one long, light-filled, modernist building on Park Lane, Sheffield.

Living and working in the same place allowed him to embrace his philosophy of work as pleasure and in 1973 he moved his operation to the Georgian mansion, Broom Hall, rescuing it from dereliction and providing more space for his children, Corin and Clare, alongside a manufacturing operation.

Eventually the company outgrew Broom Hall and he built The Round Building in 1990. The move to his purpose-built factory in the country gave him added impetus. From here, he created the fashionable City range of cutlery and collaborated with son Corin on the Transit trolley for Magis.

“He didn’t have any favourite design, though we always used Provencal cutlery at home. He was very much about moving onto the next new thing. He enjoyed the excitement of it,” says Corin, a chip off the old block, who continues to design new products and take commissions. His latest is for a bridge linking two buildings at Sheffield Hallam University.

David Mellor died in 2009 but his designs have become even more popular.

“We are exporting a huge amount to America. We don’t shout enough about what we do here. I think it’s our understated, pure design that appeals to American tastes,” says Corin. “My father was a perfectionist, particularly with the silver. That’s why his cutlery is as near to perfection as you can get.”

Master of metal hailed by Conran

The ‘Cutlery King’ learned his trade in Sheffield, attending the junior school of art from the age of 11. Sir Terence Conran called him ‘Britain’s greatest post-war product designer’.

Street Scene opens on September 8 and is a permanent exhibition at David Mellor’s factory, shop and museum in Hathersage, www.davidmellordesign.com.

The latest edition of the biography, David Mellor Master Metalworker, is available from the shop and website.

David Mellor: Steel and Light is at Sheffield Institute of Arts Gallery at Sheffield Hallam University from September 27 to November 3. It includes a walking map of David Mellor’s Sheffield.