SBHD: David Mellor’s success has come in one of the most difficult areas: design/manufacture. José Manser reports on the illustrious career of Britain’s foremost metal worker
Immensely trenchant about his aims and ambitions, David Mellor, Royal Designer for Industry, manufacturer, retailer, architectural patron and long-serving member of the great and the good, is nevertheless genuinely self-deprecating when reminded of his achievements. For him, seemingly, it is the endeavour that counts rather than the ever-receding goalposts. Achievements there have been in plenty, but perhaps the most interesting to other designers has been his role as one of Britain’s ludicrously few designer manufacturers. There is Rodney Kinsman of OMK, and, if you discount those who have not progressed beyond limited runs, there is David Mellor.
Born in Sheffield in 1930, he entered one of the country’s few junior art departments, attached to Sheffield School of Art, at the age of 11. If such places existed now, they could set other aesthetically gifted children on an early road to fulfilment, as they did Mellor. He went on to art school proper, and then to the Royal College of Art, where he worked in the metalwork department and contributed, with other students, to the Festival of Britain. He followed this with a couple of terms at the British School in Rome. Chosen for this by the legendary RCA head Robin Darwin, his talents were clearly fortified by his simple conviction that he could open most doors if he tried hard enough.
This after all was a golden age for designers, an age of innocence and opportunity. They poured from the RCA throughout the Fifties, armed and eager to build that ideal, post-war world. As David Mellor affirms: “It was fallow ground. You had to convince manufacturers of your worth, but that was perfectly possible. It’s not so easy now with Britain’s manufacturing base virtually gone.”
Peter Inchbald, proprietor of Sheffield cutler Walker and Hall, who Mellor had met while at the RCA, took him on as consultant designer at Ãº500 a year (a nice sum in 1954). Not even recognising the possibility of failure (“completely naive”, he says now), the young Mellor rented premises in Sheffield and set up as a silversmith and consultant industrial designer.
He became obsessed with the poor design of British street lighting compared with what he’d seen in Rome. Some ingenuous door-knocking eventually took him to Mansfield where he found North Midlands Engineering, a lighting column manufacturer prepared to put his ideas into production. He worked for this firm for another 20 years on a royalty basis, but also attracted other prestigious clients such as the Post Office, British Rail, James Neill Tools and the Department of the Environment. And during this time he designed a major new traffic signal system that was made by GEC, examples of which can still be seen around the country.
Simultaneously he was making substantial pieces of commissioned silver for the likes of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, Essex University and Darwin College Cambridge. Over the years, he won seven Design Council Awards, four of them for cutlery.
Viewed from the Nineties, such breathtaking progress on such a broad front seems miraculous, particularly as it was done without bank funding or other financial support. Typically, Mellor offers no slick formula for success. Providence – being in the right place at the right time – must have played its part. But he makes no claims for his obvious talent, his undeviating commitment and his astuteness as possible contributing factors. You begin to wonder just who did blow a trumpet for this modest man.
One thing is certain. He never sat back and let events carry him along. The quiet persona masks a relentless drive which propelled him in a chosen direction. In 1969 he opened his first shop, selling kitchenware, in Sloane Square. It still flourishes. “I liked the idea of making and selling, choosing and selling.” In a certain type of household, this shop has made David Mellor an instantly recognisable name. Offering handsome, practical kitchen goods, some designed by himself, it epitomises everything foodies and design purists admire.
That was not all. “I wanted control. I’d had years of working as consultant with big organisations, but I knew I was getting further away from the design/make process. Many of my designs never actually went into production, and were wasted. When it came down to it I wanted to control all aspects of the way things were done.” Seeking the perfection that working for others denied him, Mellor started to make his own cutlery designs almost simultaneously with opening the shop. This side of his work has grown and flourished. Demonstrating his very particular design talents, it has resulted in a steady flow of exquisite cutlery designs while the old industry, once Sheffield’s pride, sickened and died. It remained steady even during the recessionary years, when another Mellor enterprise was to suffer cruelly.
Although he rejected an early leaning towards architecture in favour of design, Mellor’s interest in that subject never waned, and in his deceptively effortless way he has progressed from one fine building to another, living where he worked in the manner (albeit a more sophisticated one) of the old-time craftsmen. “After my first place – two floors in a good Georgian building – I built a studio-workshop in 1960, designed by Gollins Melvin Ward. When I first went into manufacture we were sub-contracting a lot, but quality was hard to control – again the control thing – so as the years passed I decided to do it all. At that point it became obvious that I must narrow down and concentrate on cutlery.”
By now Mellor had been married for some years to Fiona MacCarthy, the distinguished writer and, coincidentally, his mentor, comfort and, I suspect, constructive critic. “We bought Broom Hall, a listed mansion in the centre of Sheffield, restored it and made our factory and home there, all the while keeping the other building as a development centre.”
During the Eighties he commissioned Michael Hopkins and Partners (renowned for a series of popularly acclaimed buildings, including Glyndebourne) to design a factory on the site of an old gasometer in the Peak District National Park, several miles from Sheffield. In this idyllic setting, as different as can be imagined from the factories which prevailed in Sheffield years ago, the Mellors live and work. The Round House is pristine, flooded with daylight, more like a craft workshop than a setting for machines and manufacture, despite the fact that only forging and silver-plating are farmed out. Home is a restored building on the five-hectare site, and there is a thriving David Mellor shop to attract the tourist traffic. An aura of fastidious design and care for the environment prevails.
An uninhibited polemicist in the cause of design, Mellor’s extra-mural activities have been prodigious. He has been chairman of the Crafts Council, a trustee of the Victoria and Albert (where as chairman of the Buildings Committee his resolve did much to inspire the extensive building activity which has taken place there during recent years), and in the Eighties was chairman of the Design Council Committee of Inquiry into Standards of Design in Consumer Goods in Britain.
Despite a previously unbroken history of success, he showed his real mettle in the bad times. A building that he and his designer son Corin lovingly built in London Docklands to another Michael Hopkins’ design was finished at exactly the wrong moment: 1990. Forced, eventually, to close his shop there and abandon plans for a family apartment and offices, he sold to a re-emerging Terence Conran, commenting without bitterness: “I’m just glad it’s in good hands.” David Mellor recovered. He remains Britain’s only manufacturer of truly modern cutlery. New and successful designs like English and Paris continue to emerge from The Round House and the old perfectionism is intact. He is a master of whom the design industry can be proud.