Design: Fifty years at the cutting edge

You're more familiar with David Mellor's designs than you think. He's produced everything from cutlery in Conran restaurants to traffic lights. A new retrospective at the Design Museum highlights a half century of his work.
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The Independent Culture
Pride, like Modesty, or Humility is an old- fashioned grace, not really rated by the Prozac generation. But the David Mellor Retrospective, opening at the Design Museum next week celebrates all three of these qualities. It covers 50 years of his work - ranging from cutlery designs and household gadgets (trolleys and telephones) to street furniture (traffic lights, benches, bus shelters).

Philippe Starck once said that designing a knife was more difficult than designing a building - he spent a year on the former and 10 days on the latter - but David Mellor, Britain's last major designer-manufacturer, who has done both, is too self-effacing and too realistic to go for a soundbite like that. "The scale is different - it's like making jewellery, compared with buildings," he says.

Mellor has always commissioned photographs of his designs, and these are on view at the Retrospective; an impressive record of his work. Black and white pictures of his earliest cutlery design "Pride" can be seen in context with his latest design, "City", alongside other more prosaic objects. They show how much he has influenced our daily lives, as well as how he has given high-tech products an enviable quality of "touchability". "Pride" is the name he gave the cutlery set that evolved in 1948 from two teaspoons he made at art college. The mass production of the set began during his last year as a post-grad at the Royal College of Art in the Sixties: Peter Inchbald, the managing director of Sheffield's largest silver company, decided that he wanted to learn about silversmithing and spent a couple of terms at the College. Inchbald gave Mellor an annual pounds 1,000 consultancy fee, as well as a commission to put "Pride" into production. Thus David Mellor was the first student designer ever to produce a modern classic that went straight into production. "Pride" looks like old English silver cutlery, overlaid with a clean cut modernism that feels good in the hand and mouth. It became one of his best sellers, though you'll never get Mellor to admit that he's proud of it, any more than he will dwell on the sensuous nature of his designs. "I think I've always wanted things to work properly," is as far as he will go. "I expect the product I design to do its job and to have a visual quality as well, and I suppose that what's I look for in life too."

David Mellor is as much known for his kitchen shop in Sloane Square as for his cutlery that is exported all over Europe, but his influence extends far beyond the dining table. Every time you stop at a traffic light, for instance, you are obeying the muse of David Mellor - he designed the ubiquitous light 25 years ago

His latest design "City" was two years in the making. Its contoured profile inspired new welding technologies. He sounds like a Formula One driver as he describes the contouring of sculptural form in mass production: "If welding in a straight line needs, say, a temperature of 10 degrees, when you go round a slow curve, the heat drops to eight or seven. Cornering is not as fast, so that when you get to a really tight bend, it drops dramatically".

Mellor is one of the few surviving Sheffield manufacturers in an obsolete area - cutlery in steel and silver - and he is the only one making modern designs. "Quite rightly, they now only produce traditional cutlery, and they do it very well. They manage to hold on to their market, though its minute compared to what it used to be. The catering trade, on the whole, buys junk cutlery. Posh restaurants have posh cutlery." Terence Conran uses Mellor's "English" range in his Bluebird Cafe on the King's Road, and the black-handled "Odeon" in the Blueprint Cafe at the Design Museum.

Despite his brilliance as a cutlery designer, I suspect that Mellor would rather be known for his talents in media other than silver and steel - his group of modern buildings and his manufacturing base in Sheffield, for instance. Or for his recent installation in the Design Museum that controls the light for the whole top floor; or the wall space for his archive photo collection in his current exhibition. All his life he has either commissioned good architecture or built it himself. Michael Hopkins designed his Round Building, the great circle that houses the Mellor production cycle in Hathersage, Sheffield.

"I got involved in a lot of bigger things in the Sixties," he says. "For instance, I worked in large companies and a lot of government organisations, as well the Design Council who've rather lost their way now. I don't blame them - manufacturing isn't on the agenda very much any more. Governments don't seem to be involved with things nowadays, do they? In the Sixties, governments directed and developed things, like Ken Grange's marvellous bullet-nosed Intercity trains."

Now in his 68th year, Mellor is increasingly interested in the Italian notion of pride in artisanship and the fact that small family businesses invest in machinery to hand on to their children. In northern Italy - "you have to slice Italy in two halves really" - relatively small companies are involved in designing and making things. "They are good at making good new things in Italy. Over here, we've become rather lazy about it. We've found other, easier ways to make money. Dealing in it, for instance". With the Italian manufacturing company Magis (who fold and stack everyday items, like the best selling wine stack racks by Jasper Morrison), Mellor has developed a new trolley, "Transit". This racy number in shiny chrome and steel folds flat, almost to nothing. "I conceived the mechanism of it and ingenious engineers managed to make my scheme work superbly well".

As David Mellor's life story unfolds in this compelling retrospective exhibition, you also get a sense of the story of arts and crafts in Britain in the machine age. British silversmiths in Georgian times were the best in the world but the craft has now almost died out. "Silversmithing? Now, that is difficult. Do people put silver on tables these day, do they commission things? You can't see young people doing that", he says. "For this exhibition we unpacked boxes and discovered silverware we haven't looked at for 20 years. There are some nice surprises, as well as some dustbin lines".

In an attempt to kickstart centuries-old skills into life, the Crafts Council has commissioned watering cans and soup ladles and chopsticks in silver. Everyday utensils in such a precious metal may seem a strange notion, but Mellor, who used to be the chairman of the Crafts Council and resigned because he was unable to bring back age old craft into batch production, believes that the Crafts Council is on the right track. In the 21st century this pioneer of the Modern Movement in Britain will have restored some values that today are seen as shamefully old fashioned.

David Mellor's Retrospective, `The Real David Mellor', is at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1, from Tuesday 29 September until 24 November, 11.30am-6pm. Tickets, pounds 5.20. (0171-378 6055)