Table talk

The Design Museum’s exhibition of David Mellor’s work is evidence of renewed interest in tableware. Fay Sweet looks at work from the cutting edge of cutlery design.

For 700 years the cutlers of Sheffield have been going at it hammer and tongs. Strung out along the banks of the River Don, this highly specialised industry has, for centuries, led the world in the production of the most exquisite and elegant knives, forks, spoons, slices and servers. But, while it’s not quite a death rattle, it’s possible to detect a hollow clattering in the sheds of Steel City.

The big-name cutlery producers have gone in for massive buyouts and consolidation, and there are now really only three major players: Viners of Sheffield, Arthur Price of England and Oneida Silversmiths. This triumvirate claims a massive 90 per cent of all UK retail cutlery sales. However, few, if any, traditional producers seem to have invested in the future by developing new designs. They do “tradition” in a big way – and they do it very well – but there are indications that the buying public may have had its fill of curly-wurly neo-Georgian twiddles.

The success of modern designs by the likes of David Mellor bears witness to this, and so too do the big sales of cutlery through stores like Habitat and Ikea. The cutlery outlets at department stores (the traditional place to buy canteens) are also experiencing changes in public taste. “Since its redesign, Selfridges has started buying our cutlery designs and it’s been incredibly successful,” says David Mellor, the subject of a major retrospective currently on show at the Design Museum.

Mellor is a one-man phenomenon, standing pretty much as a lone figure in this industry. In his Sir Michael Hopkins-designed circular building in Derbyshire, Mellor has for the past decade been producing contemporary cutlery which is exported worldwide. “I’ve worked at all sorts of scales, including on whole buildings and the British traffic signal network, but there came a time when I wanted to design and manufacture,” explains Mellor. “I started this in Sheffield, but eventually moved out to Hathersage.”

He has designed countless cutlery sets, including the beautiful hand-forged Embassy silverware produced in 1963 for use in British embassies and commissioned by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works. This was followed just two years later by its antithesis, Thrift, also commissioned by the ministry, but this time for use in Government canteens. It caused outrage in Sheffield because Mellor’s pared-down five-piece table setting in stainless steel was designed to replace the standard 11-piece Old English that had previously been in use.

Such was its success with the ministry that the service became ubiquitous in the Civil Service and was soon found in use in prisons, hospitals, schools and on the national railways. Of course, there have been many designs since then including most recently the beautifully sculptural City, which has appeared just in time for the exhibition. Here Mellor not only creates exciting, richly curved shapes, but has also developed new construction techniques in stainless steel by welding together three individual components.

Not surprisingly, he is despairing of low quality cutlery. “Restaurants used to take as much pride in their table settings as they did in their food, but now almost everywhere has forgotten about the importance of good cutlery. So much modern stuff is junk. I think it’s a tremendous shame the catering business just doesn’t seem to bother, while, at the same time, the public seems to be showing a great deal more interest in good design and is certainly more adventurous in its taste for cutlery than a decade ago.”

This observation is certainly borne out in the latest report issued this summer by market watcher Mintel. While modern design comes just seventh on the list of factors when buying cutlery, this has changed significantly from a similar survey conducted in 1995 when respondents put modern design 11th on their list of priorities. It was also clear that, as a reflection of our informal lifestyles, people are less interested nowadays in buying accessories for the basic place settings – the demand for such genteel delicacies as fish knives and pastry forks is in steep decline. As you might expect, the leading factors are that the cutlery should be for everyday use, it should be a reasonable price and made of stainless steel.

The survey revealed that more than half of © all sales are of stainless steel ware, with silver-plated goods at just 28 per cent. Solid silver is way below at 7 per cent, but this has increased on a couple of years ago, demonstrating that more people are prepared to invest in the truly upmarket products. Indeed, total cutlery sales between 1993 and 1998 have increased in value by over 10 per cent.

However, in general the predictions are not good – there are many factors conspiring against the cutlers. With fewer people getting married there are reduced opportunities for giving high-value canteens as gifts. More people are choosing to live alone, reducing demand for large sets, and cheap imports threaten the domestic producers. But, in addition to all this, the cutlers should look at themselves. It’s clear that more forward thinking is required and a closer understanding of changing lifestyles and new consumer needs. The industry doesn’t even advertise its wares.

According to Mintel, Arthur Price is the only brand owner to have made any advertising investment recently. But it’s clear from shining examples like David Mellor that the cutlers need to open their doors and allow in some new talent; a blast of good contemporary design should blow away some cobwebs and put the industry a little closer to the cutting edge.

The next generation

Darren Bowden

Darren Bowden might have been a chef – he’s passionate about food. However, after studying jewellery design and metalworking at Loughborough, he forged a fascination for metals. Now he combines his dual enthusiasms to make cutlery. “Food was certainly the main impetus to designing. I wanted to make cutlery that really enhanced what was on the plate and promoted the enjoyment of food. But it extended further. I wanted to make the table look more exciting. So much mainstream cutlery is really disappointing. There are so many missed opportunities; manufacturers could continue to use the same production techniques, but they really need some better designs.”

When he graduated from the Royal College of Art this summer, he’d already completed the design and making of six cutlery sets. “I had the opportunity to complete my MA by project and one of those promoted by the college was based round domestic silverware. The challenge was to make the link between food and people, to make cutlery that was comfortable and practical and looked good. I started looking at the length and weight of pieces and then analysing cutlery’s contribution to the look of the table.”

His first design, called Braille, embeds clues in each piece to guide the user. “Each hand-forged silver piece contains a detail relating to its function. The fork, for example, has three raised dots on the handle, the spoon has a small concave indentation and, in the knife, where the blade enters the handle there is a long, shallow channel.”

One of his most startling designs is Fusion. “At the end of the pieces I’ve embedded a magnet which connects with magnets set into placemats, so that when the table is laid the cutlery stands upright in a corner of the slate mat. The idea was to add interest to the table, by adding height. The cutlery stands up to go with flowers or candles that might also be on the table,” he says.

For Bowden the cutlers of Sheffield hold no allure – “it’s an old-fashioned industry with people very stuck in their ways”. He is currently in the process of setting up his own workshop.

The Millennium Canteen

It has to be said that while traditional British cutlery has a certain robust quality to it, its designs are as dull as ditch water. Several projects are underway in an attempt to rectify this. At Sheffield’s Hallam University, the culmination of a two-year association with the British Cutlery and Silverware Association has produced a series of designs due to be launched in the spring. The work has involved input from metalwork and industrial design students, engineers and marketing students who have been following the briefs and stage-by-stage progress of the designs. The final quartet of new designs have been the work of the project’s design leader Nigel Turner.

Meanwhile, a startling Millennium Canteen has been created by 37 members of the Association of British Designer Silversmiths. Commissioned by Sheffield City Council, this incredible solid silver canteen was conceived to celebrate the city’s world renown as a cutlery centre. It was also a welcome opportunity for some of Britain’s best silversmiths to explore the design and manufacturing possibilities of cutlery. First shown at Mappin and Webb stores, it will be on show at Sheffield City Art Gallery from mid-October until Christmas.

The brief was an open one, leaving designers the freedom to interpret as they pleased. Some have stayed fairly close to traditional and familiar shapes, while others have given full rein to their creative fantasies.

Among my favourite pieces are the dinner knife and fork by David Bromilow – these resemble the forms of children’s cutlery with big, sure-grip chunky handles. Formed in halves, they are then press-formed from silver sheet and soldered with 9ct gold details. Understated and elegant are the Dart dinner knife and fork by Margaret Jackson and intriguingly organic are Wally Gilbert’s fish knife and fork – wonderfully watery with their flowing Art Nouveau tendrils, and functional-looking. Some of the wildest designs come from Stella Campion whose dinner knife and fork are in the three-dimensional shapes of a gryphon and dragon. The latter is particularly fascinating with its prongs as flames from the dragon’s mouth. My favourites, however, are the butter and cheese knife set by Lucian Taylor. These are given fluid, yet powerful shapes; the butter knife looks perfect for scooping a blob of creamy butter and the cheese knife has a good stable “heel” for cutting through the most mature of cheeses.

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