David Mellor: British design icon

Newtown House is all about bringing you exclusive, beautiful products that have a soul – a soul that comes from the craft and passion of their makers.

All images supplied by David Mellor Design

There is no better example of this than David Mellor.

This iconic brand carries the name of its founder, a man who through outstanding design skill, innovative use of technology, and clever entrepreneurship changed the world that he lived in.

David Mellor’s stunning legacy began in the United Kingdom of the 1950s.

He trained as a silversmith at the Royal Academy of Art (RCA) and, at just 23 and still a student, designed ‘Pride’ - a cutlery pattern that drew its inspiration from Scandinavian minimalist design. The result is cutlery that is exquisitely balanced and a joy to hold.

Peter Inchbold was a fellow student. He spotted the potential in Pride and asked his family’s firm, Walker & Hall, to manufacture it. They not only agreed, they also appointed David as their design consultant.

‘Pride’ went on to be world famous – and David kept moving forward.

David Mellor streetscape exhibition

Britain was rapidly modernising with a great deal of public investment aimed at lifting the country out of its post-war malaise. Through a series of industrial design commissions, many from construction company Abacus, David Mellor changed the face of the urban landscape during the whirlwind ‘Swinging ‘60s’.

He overhauled the design and introduced new construction materials for traffic light signals that took the national road network in a whole new direction. He created graceful bus shelters, made from galvanised steel and aluminium, to hold inclement weather at bay. His street furniture gave respite and comfort to all and sundry. His pavement bollards safely separated vehicles and pedestrians, his street lighting columns lit the way in the bourgeoning new housing estates, and the humble street litterbin was never the same after his makeover.

All these remain today and are ingrained into the psyche of anyone who has ever walked or driven a British Isles mile.

His only misstep was to get too far ahead of the public when his square-edged, cast-iron minimalism stripped all artifice from Royal Mail post boxes that to that point had remained unchanged for over a century. It created nationwide controversy. It was a bridge too far, but that happens occasionally when you’re on the design edge.

Through it all, David Mellor’s true passion remained cutlery that was designed and manufactured in buildings that he renovated or purpose-built in hometown Sheffield. His approach to work followed William Morris’ Arts and Crafts philosophy that work can be play and play can be work, so family space was always integrated into his working space.

In 1966 he married the journalist and design historian Fiona MacCarthy. They met when Fiona was interviewing him for an article in The Guardian. As The Independent stated in David's 2009 obituary "Together they made a powerful unit within the design world and beyond, demonstrating through their work and lifestyle a belief in the integrity of making well whatever needs making."

His stainless steel creations transformed the dining experience in homes all over the UK, as well as for those who got their hands on it for free - on British Rail, in National Health Service hospitals and public service office canteens nationwide, as well as for ‘guests of Her Majesty’ staying with HM Prison Service. At the other end of the spectrum was his specially commissioned ‘Embassy’ range of tableware that graced the rarefied air of British High Commissions around the world.

David shifted mediums effortlessly, designing disposable plastic cutlery for Cross Paperware and then his own range using acetel resin handles to create an ivory and ebony look.

Pride would be my favourite cutlery design. It’s absolutely beautiful to look at but it’s also beautiful to use. It’s so light, which surprises people. It’s like eating with jewellery.

- Corin Mellor

He continually adopted cutting-edge technology and techniques to lead cutlery design into the 21st century.

This included an ergonomically designed range to create more independence for people with physical disabilities.

Not content to remain just a manufacturer, he opened his first shop in Sloane Square in 1969 because he wanted to link product design with product users. The shop challenged retail conventions of the day with a whole new approach to product display and merchandising. Instead of being kept behind counters, the goods were on display so customers could pick them up and touch them.

This lateral thinking also led him to develop a workplace system in the factory that enables the craftspeople to rotate around all the factory tasks and use a range of production skills, rather than be stuck doing just one task day in, day out.

The current factory and Mellor family base is now in Hathersage in the Peak District National Park just south-west of Sheffield. It was purpose-built in 1990. Given it used an old gas tank as its base, it is simply called ‘The Round Building’. Its self-supporting circular roof means there are no pillars to interrupt the workspace flow and the whole area is flooded with natural light. It’s just another example of the Mellor way – simple, functional, elegant.

Mellor’s list of honours was long: Royal Designer for Industry, Chairman of the Crafts Council, Trustee for the Victoria and Albert Museum, numerous honorary doctorates, and an OBE and CBE.

David died at age 78 in in 2009 after retiring from active duty only four years earlier.

The Guardian noted in its obituary on 8 May 2009, “William Morris urged his followers: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’ Mellor extended that precept to Britain's streets.” “He was in every sense a modern industrial designer, and technologically adept, but his spiritual roots were in the Arts and Crafts movement and its belief, not so much in work-life balance as in work-life integration. To him, the profession of design "is concerned not just with making objects ... but just as importantly with making choices, with choosing what we use, choosing how to live."

At this point his son, Corin Mellor, took over. 

As some may say, “The King is dead. Long live the King.”

Born in 1966 and trained as a product designer at Kingston University, Corin worked for a London architectural firm before joining his father and gaining the mantle of Creative Director of David Mellor Design in 2006.

Corin has significantly expanded the David Mellor offering by designing exquisite fine bone china, porcelain, birch plywood and glass ranges. But he wouldn’t be a Mellor without designing cutlery, so he introduced his own Chelsearange in 2011. It shows all the hallmarks of the design principles learnt co-designing with his father.

Corin Mellor also has excelled in using innovative technologies to push the possibilities of traditional materials – as shown with his kitchen knife production. It uses a clever, but fundamentally basic, technique of hot drop forging then ice hardening high carbon stainless steel to -80°C. This process stabilizes the metallurgical structure of the steel to create a blade of exceptional strength, durability and long- lasting sharpness.

David and Corin 

We spoke to Corin for an insight into what shapes his craft and what drives his passion:

NEWTOWN HOUSE: How would you describe the Mellor design philosophy? Is your approach to design different than your fathers?

CORIN MELLOR: I worked with my father for so many years, so I absorbed the way he would tackle designing something. That was to have a truth to the materials you’re working with and to understand that it’s a tool that has to work. That’s the most important bit, and then the visual bit just sort of finds its place.

I find if the design is not shouting out too much it tends to work better over time. What we are striving for is simplicity and timelessness. So the design approach we have remains the same, but the material you’re using and the function it’s performing are very important.

NH: David earned the title ‘King of Cutlery’. When you were designing the ‘Chelsea’ cutlery range, a number of years after his passing, did you feel like he was looking over your shoulder – encouraging and challenging?

CM: Yes, I think he was. I worked with my father on three previous designs, and I definitely think there were times when I was filing away on the Chelsea prototypes I could hear “Hmmm, no, no, take a bit a more off that.” I think that is inevitable when you work with someone for so long.

The idea with Chelsea was to have a design that covered many pieces and that was visually understated but that when you picked it up you felt something.

We spent a lot of time on the balance of it and getting weight into the middle. You pick up the fork and you go ‘This is really nice.’ That’s what I wanted to achieve with it, rather than it visually looking particularly different. I really wanted something that went with the fine bone china and glassware we had designed, which is modern but timeless.

NH: You have dramatically broadened the David Mellor product offering by designing across these different mediums…

CM: Yes, we have a lot of cutlery ranges, so I was keen to use other people’s skills and other materials so we could supplement them. If we kept developing new cutlery we would have to discontinue some ranges, otherwise it would get out of control. But we don’t want to discontinue any of the cutlery. I think it’s great someone can come back 20 years later and buy a teaspoon, so that was another reason for me to design the china and glassware.

NH: Does the material you are using change the way you approach design?

CM: Yes, to a certain extent. We still go through the same design process. The first part of that is to ask ‘What’s missing, what can we do?’ Then I’ll do some crude sketching, they’re just for me, they’re not particularly good but they’re just to get the idea down on paper. Recently I’ve started sketching in my head.

When I’ve got it worked out in my head I’ll jot it down on paper and then, and this is where it can differ depending on what it is, it may be that I’ll then liaise with James, my design assistant, who drives the computer to make a 3D image or we might go straight into the workshop and start knocking something up.

No matter what material it is we’ll do some kind of prototype. It’s a mix of using technology, using rapid prototyping, and using handwork in the workshop to try and get it right.

And that’s where a lot of design goes wrong. If you just use the computer you can miss the fine details that you see when you’re handling the material. I’m adamant that whether it’s a knife or a cup that at some point I can go in and do some handwork on it.

NH: When you’re in the workshop do people walk past and throw ideas at you, or do they stay well away?

CM: They normally keep out the way. I don’t like too many opinions. I think you can just end up in a muddle because you end up compromising everything. I do listen, but I tend to bounce ideas off my wife and my mother and see what they reckon. I trust their views.

NH: David had a scholarship to Denmark and Sweden and was heavily influenced by mid-century Scandinavian design. He also had six months in Rome to absorb the style and grace of that culture. What or who has influenced you most?

CM: I’d probably say post-war British designers, of which my father was one. They were embracing materials and doing new things. I love technology and making. I love what you can do with different materials. I love going around factories seeing what processes they’re using. I’ll be asking myself, ‘How can I use that process?’ That influences me a lot. But I think the visual influences are early post-war.

NH: Is there a certain aesthetic that ties that period together?

CM: I think it’s generally understated, [with a] truth to materials. There’s Charles and Ray Eames, Robin Day, and Alvar Aalto.  Truth to materials is incredibly important to me. I mean, the Eames chair works, it’s so comfortable and it was meant to be accessible. That’s really important to us. We know our cutlery isn’t cheap but it isn’t really meant to be elitist. It’s meant to be the cutlery for everybody. That’s why our shops have a mix too, like a Lancaster potato peeler for one pound-fifty.

NH: There’s a fascination with ‘mid-century design’ over here, especially if it’s mid-century Scandinavian. It seems like you can stick that label on almost anything that looks vaguely modernist and people will go for it.

CM: Well, that’s interesting. We’ve always done modern design, even when people didn’t want modern design – like when everybody wanted Laura Ashley florals. I suppose we’ve been at it for a long time. I react against just sticking ’mid-century’ on something. I guess we’re the real thing.

NH: There was that whole sense of austerity of the war then the exuberance of the 1950s and ‘60s. You certainly saw that in America…

CM: That was incredible, wasn’t it? I have found that period still speaks to me. I’ve got a 1950s Chris-Craft boat [the drop dead gorgeous panelled mahogany motor boats] and I have a 1950s Ford Thunderbird. I’ve joined this club that has loads of members and everyone is quite aged and it’s sort of all these old men with their Thunderbirds, and I think, ‘This is all a bit strange, really.’

I don’t think it influences the way I style things. Actually, I don’t like the word style – the way I design things – but I appreciate that ‘Righto, no holds barred’ approach, but I think my design is completely different to Ford Thunderbird.

NH: So, with all the work you’ve done, do you have a favourite?

Pride range

Pride range

CM: Not really. I’ll get my mind on something and do that and then move onto the next. Sometimes I’ll look at something a few years later and go, “Mmm, I’m not sure about that one.’ I think I’m more critical than, ’Oh yeah, that’s fantastic.’ Obviously some designs are more successful than others.

I don’t think I have an absolute favourite. I mean, I really love my father’s first design. Pride would be my favourite cutlery design. It was so different to what was being done at the time. It’s absolutely beautiful to look at but it’s also beautiful to use. It’s so light, which surprises people. It’s like eating with jewellery.

Ironically it’s our biggest selling design from all those years ago. So it must be all those people who like mid-century! (laughs)

NH: Another angle on that question is what has given you the most pleasure?

CM: Gosh, I don’t know…I suppose I really love designing kitchen knives. If I could justify it I’d go off and design another range because I rather like them. Cutlery is actually really hard to design.

NH: Why is that?

CM: Well, I suppose you have lots of pieces and all the pieces are doing a different function. So, you have all these tools and you’re trying to get it to work ergonomically and then be something that you think is visually correct.

It’s the balance that is difficult. It is also hard to prototype. What I’ll do is do a sketch and then get old bits of cutlery we have in stock and start sawing them up and welding them together because it’s the easiest way to create a form. I mean you can do a rapid prototype, but it’s useless. You have to really have to start with metal and shape it. It’s a challenge…

NH: You’ve prompted a thought. It’s almost like a symphony – you have to get all those instruments working together somehow.

CM: You’re absolutely right. I mean, a knife is so different than a spoon or fork in both its materials and also in terms of what it’s doing.

NH: Your point about the tactile workshop thing…do you think designers today have lost the practical skill and are happy getting lost in computers? Or is there still an ethos of ‘get your hands dirty and figure out how the materials work’?

CM: It varies course to course, but I think in the UK there is a sense that you need to be able to make things. You also definitely have to be able to drive the computer, so inevitably that dilutes the time they spend in the workshop. It’s not dying out but I’d say the old skills of model making are not as important as they used to be. I actually like the mix of the two.

We actually had a student who came to work with me over summer and I couldn’t get her off the machines, she’d be constantly going into the factory and making things, sometimes to my horror, she was so confident – she’d jump on the milling machine and I’d be going ’Hang on, you don’t know how to use that’. So they’re still out there.

NH: Was it difficult to leave an emerging architectural career to join the family firm?

CM:     Not really, no. It wasn’t hands-on. I was sort of on a drawing board and it was all rather distant. You’d design something and you wouldn’t get involved in the making. We sort of do lots of building ourselves and I like that where you’re designing trusses and beams and then we’re involved in putting them together.

NH: Yes, you’ve just done the staircase in the new David Mellor shop in Marylebone…

CM: Yes, we haven’t really designed anything for six months because we’ve been working on the shop. We designed all the shop fittings and made them and designed the interior and the staircase. I like all sorts of design. We did a glass and steel bridge for Sheffield University about two years ago. That was sort of architecture but we were involved in how it was made. Making is really important to me on whatever scale it is.

NH: Your sister, Clare, is a graphic designer. Was a design career inevitable for you both?

CM: It’s just what we did. I wasn’t any good at maths and English, so just wanted to make things. So I fell into it really. It was the fun, easy route and my sister has always been keen on the graphics side of things. She’s a freelancer but does all our design work. My wife, Helen, is a photographer, so she does all our photography. And my sons are in the workshop at the weekend making skateboards and things. My eldest is 12 and the younger one is six. He’s just learning how to use the power drill and the lathe. So yeah, we’re a family of making things, I think.

NH: What was it like growing up in the Mellor household? Your Mum, Fiona, has a wonderful backstory too as an art historian and journalist. One of her biographies was of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. What influence did she have on you?

CM: Yeah, Mum has always been a silent part of the company. She worked with my father and she works very much with me still. If we’re choosing things for the shop it will be her and I who decide. And if I’m working on a design I’ll get her view. She’s quite an influence on me, really, as was my father, but perhaps a bit more unsung.

I don’t think I was really challenged as a child. It was sort of, ‘Just go and do what you want to do’. I don’t think I was pushed, that’s why I probably ended up doing art and design. Perhaps I should have been, maybe I would have ended up a doctor or something!

In my house and in the factory everything has a place so there’s always been a visual aspect to living and working. That’s always been part of the family philosophy – living and working in the same environment. It sort of goes back to William Morris and his views that work should be a pleasure, that work is not work and play is not play - it’s all the same thing.

My father set up his first studio with his workshop below. It’s like that now – our house is on the same site as the factory and I can walk out of the office over a bridge and I’m home. It has changed a bit because we have more staff and more visitors…

NH: That makes sense – if you’re designing for the home you must bring that home influence to the factory…

CM: That’s very true. I’ll often make a prototype and take it home that night and eat with it to see if it’s any good. Our house is full of stuff that hasn’t quite got there.

NH: And finally, how do you think New Zealanders will react to the David Mellor Design aesthetic?

CM: I actually have no idea, but I would have thought it would fit. I think you’ve chosen a great selection with my father’s Pride range and my Chelsea range. You have both ends of the spectrum, and the Paris range is very popular, too. All you can do is see what works. Good luck!