Occasionally, I used to drop in on the hub of David Mellor’s empire up in Hathersage – near Sheffield, but actually in Derbyshire. Chances are – even if it was a weekend – if you peered in through the windows of the Michael Hopkins-designed circular factory building, there would be Mellor himself, wielding the knives he made, or attending to machinery.
Mellor, who died earlier this year, was seen off in fine style last month with a (wholly secular) memorial service at the marvellous George Frederick Bodley church of Holy Trinity on London’s Prince Consort Road – handy for the Royal College of Art, which is where everyone went afterwards for the party. Not just a party, but a complete pop-up David Mellor exhibition organised by his designer son Corin, who has taken over his father’s role in the business.
It’s important that the David Mellor enterprise continues to thrive, because the honourable trade of designer-manufacturer does not have so many members. I don’t mean designer-maker in the craftsman sense, because what they produce are mostly one-offs or very limited runs. What Mellor did was design for production, which he controlled. And while some of his pieces – the Embassy silverware or the church candlesticks – aren’t produced in great quantities, he designed for the common man, too. My kitchen drawers are stuffed with David Mellor’s basic Classic stainless-steel cutlery. I’m lucky/ I can afford it, when there’s a sale on.
It’s a tricky business, because this kind of production does not mean mass-production in the Fordist sense. David Mellor cutlery is properly made (I love the fact that the sales website offers you a thorough description of the manufacturing process) by a small English workforce with a lot of hand-finishing involved. What all this boils down to is that if you buy a large Classic knife, the list price is £12, with a 44-piece canteen £504. Other ranges, such as his famous Pride design, which dates back to 1953, are more complex designs that cost a lot more. The lovely, perfectly balanced carving knife I bought myself in the sale last year is listed at £48.
It is thoroughly worth it, I might add. This cutlery brings me joy every time I use it. But this is the price of retaining control over every aspect of your business, from concept sketch through manufacturing to sales, which entails positioning yourself upmarket in consequence. David Mellor’s Sloane Square shop in London was originally an ironmonger’s. Nice idea, but there was no profit in screws and nails.
This desire to achieve design for Everyman, coupled with the economics of small-scale production in an affluent nation, has exercised the minds of everyone from William Morris to Terence Conran. It can’t be done without that magic ingredient, economy of scale. Morris & Co, the Conran Shop, David Mellor/ their founders all aspired to equip Everyman, and all ended up selling to the well-off. Conran got further than most with Habitat, the loss of which he felt (and still feels) keenly.
But look at it this way: how long do you keep a bit of furniture from Ikea? That stuff is brilliant in its way, but it’s not for the long term. Mellor may have driven an E-type Jaguar in the 1960s, but he never subscribed to the 1960s notion of the throwaway society.
The concept of high-quality design and careful manufacture for the long term is more relevant today than it has ever been. Save up for David Mellor goods: you’ll have them for life.