David Mellor: Influential designer whose classic and innovative work ranged from cutlery to street furniture

For almost 50 years David Mellor was one of Britain's leading designers. Working in various fields, as a silversmith, in urban and product design, and with the design and manufacture of cutlery, he pursued innovation and excellence and had far-reaching influence. He not only made exclusive silverware for churches and cathedrals, embassies, universities and livery companies, but also introduced radical improvements in street furniture, with his tubular steel lighting, his bus shelters, benches and traffic lights.

He is especially renowned for his cutlery. Each time he introduced a new range, his subtle stylistic alterations caught the temper of the day, with finesse and understated elegance. Central to his philosophy was the notion that an everyday object should be pleasing to look at, hold and use. He once prepared for a family holiday abroad in a rented house by packing a set of his own cutlery, in case the supplied knives, forks and spoons proved to be sub-standard.

Born in 1930 in Sheffield, he grew up in a stone-built back-to-back terraced house, in a respectable working-class area on the west side of the city. At that time, half its working population was employed in the cutlery and steel-producing trades. From both his father, Colin Mellor, a tool-maker for the Sheffield Twist Drill Company, and his mother, Ivy Rogerson, the daughter of a master baker, he inherited a respect for the processes of making. He and his sister played with toys made by their father. David himself became adept at model ships, one of which won him a prize and his first commission. He was asked, as a boy, by the Chairman of Thomas W. Ward, a Sheffield firm of ship breakers, to make models of all the ships the firm had broken up. These he delivered at intervals, taking pleasure, as he did so, in the streamlined revolving door that fronted Ward's palatial premises.

At school he showed scant interest in anything except art. But thanks to a national system of design training that was then the envy of the world, he moved at the age of 12 to the Junior Art Department of Sheffield College of Art. There, his tutor William E. Bennett, a pupil of the famous silversmith Omar Ramsden, inculcated him with a respect for craftsmanship, truth to materials and other ideals associated with William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement. But at the same time he began to be excited by the pared-down simplicity and functional clarity associated with modernism: when asked to make a wooden cabinet, he did so in a style that owed much to Gordon Russell. Then in 1948 he was recruited for the Royal College of Art by its Rector, Robin Darwin, who was trawling the provinces for talent.

First, Mellor had to do national service. An exceptionally focused individual, he had a knack for latching on to the things that mattered to him, while managing to avoid or ignore the rest. At Catterick, where he joined the 8th Tank Regiment, he discovered in a small hut the regimental signwriting department. He soon infiltrated this and began converting all the camp signage to Gill Sans. This and other welcome innovations gained him special leave of absence so that he could continue his studies at Newcastle College of Art.

He finally entered the Royal College of Art in 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain, much of it designed by RCA staff. At this time the Council for Industrial Design (founded in 1944 and later renamed the Design Council) was keen to raise national standards of design. There began a period of great optimism about the socially constructive role of good design. At the College, Mellor learnt much from Robert Gooden, Professor of Silversmithing, while also broadening his experience through travel: in 1952, a scholarship took him to Sweden and Denmark, where he admired the Scandinavian assumption that a modern age requires a modern look; the following year he spent six months in Rome at the British School, impressed by the Italian sense of style and the sophistication of Rome's shops. Despite the limitations of his background, or perhaps because of them, he proved exceptionally alert to new directions in taste and manufacture. He left the RCA in 1954 with the Silver Medal as the outstanding student of the year.

The subject of his RCA thesis had been the development of the cutlery industry. Alert to the tradition of design excellence, he produced, while still a student, a modern classic – "Pride" cutlery, which recreated Georgian elegance in modern terms. As he prepared it for machine production, he was watched by another student, Peter Inchbold, who was to return to, and modernise, his family firm, Walker & Hall, one of Sheffield's leading makers of silverware. Even before Mellor left the RCA, Inchbold had proposed the manufacture of "Pride". Walker & Hall eventually produced it and appointed Mellor their design consultant.

On his return to Sheffield, Mellor set up a silversmithing workshop and an industrial design consultancy in Eyre Street. Abacus were persuaded to produce his street lights, the initial inspiration for which came from the steel lighting columns he had seen in the Borghese Gardens in Rome. This marked the start of a successful sequence of designs for urban use, culminating a decade later in the Ministry of Transport commission for the redesign of the national traffic signal system. At the same time, Mellor was aware that the city around him was changing dramatically, notably with the building of Park Hill flats, one of the largest housing projects in Europe, followed by the nearby tower block, Hyde Park. The impact of such extensive regeneration on someone who had grown up during the Depression cannot be overestimated. Mellor could be critical of Sheffield, but his strong commitment to the city helped to bring it firmly into the 20th century.

In 1960 he moved from the city centre to an inner suburb, the largely Victorian Broomhall. There, in an overgrown orchard, he built a long, single-storey building with large areas of double glazing set in a cedar frame, containing a workshop, a design studio and living accommodation. Journalists interviewing him never failed to remark on the bed, housed in a drawer in the living room, which slid out of sight underneath the kitchen units. While there, he benefited from a resurgence of interest in handmade silver. He received a commission from the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works for a complete new range of silverware for use in British Embassies. Other commissions at this time included a fountain for Cambridge University's Botanic Garden, various hand tools for Sheffield firms, and stainless steel cutlery for government canteens, afterwards also used in hospitals, schools, colleges, HM prisons and on the national railway. His reductionist thinking reduced the standard 11-piece place set to five necessary pieces.

Mellor's success received public acknowledgement when, in 1962, at the age of 31, he was elected the youngest ever Royal Designer for Industry. Two years later he became a Fellow of the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers. With his E-Type Jaguar and pioneering views, he was regarded as one of the most go-ahead members of the design establishment. In 1966 he married the journalist and design historian Fiona MacCarthy, later to become the biographer of William Morris and others. 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, not least through the style and simplicity with which they entertained a wide network of friends and associates.

In 1969 Mellor moved into retailing, opening the first of his kitchenware shops in London's Sloane Square. He rented what was just a shell in a new building, borrowing £12,000 from his wife's family to construct and stock the shop. Soon after, in 1973, he made the decision to purchase and renovate Broom Hall in Sheffield, a part-Tudor, part-Georgian mansion, in order to establish his first factory. From then on he manufactured his own designs for cutlery. The machinery was housed in the Georgian wing. At the end of each day the floors were swept clean, in keeping with Mellor's liking for pristine order.

The pattern of Mellor's career from then on was firmly established. He opened further shops, in Manchester, Covent Garden and, most spectacularly of all, on the ground floor of the building he created at 22 Shad Thames, in close proximity to London's Design Museum. This was part of the scheme to develop Butler's Wharf into a centre for art, craft and design. Hard hit by the recession, Mellor, obliged to rethink his strategy, sold the building to Terence Conran, who turned it into his headquarters. Before long Mellor had re-concentrated his energies elsewhere, building a new purpose-built factory, with the Michael Hopkins Partnership, on the concrete foundations of an old gasometer at Hathersage, outside Sheffield. This circular building, with its thick stone rim surmounted by a roof structured inside on the principle of a bicycle wheel, was to win numerous architectural and environmental awards.

Once again, Mellor combined living and working on the same site by converting the Retort House, one of the substantial stone buildings that came with the plot, into a living space, design and administration offices. Here, as in his previous homes, there was a mind-altering clarity, a purposeful organisation into which were incorporated carefully selected pictures and furniture. Behind Mellor's practicality, his single-mindedness and dogged pursuit of perfection lay an unremitting integrity of purpose, as well as a gentle humanity and a self-deprecating sense of humour. More at home in a donkey jacket than in a smart suit, he nevertheless occupied an unchallenged position at the heart of the design establishment. The recipient of many prizes, awards and honorary degrees, he sat on the Design Council, chaired the Crafts Council (1981-83) and was a trustee of the Victoria & Albert Museum (1983-88).

Sadly, the final years of his life were curtailed by dementia which did not, however, prevent him noticing, at times, in hospitals and care homes, when his surroundings fell short of his high visual standards. Though by then an absent presence in the design world, he inspired many and attracted great loyalty, the current factory manager having worked for David Mellor Design for many years, since leaving school. It is no small accolade to Mellor that his daughter, Clare, a graphic designer, controls all the firm's publications and exhibition lettering, while his son, Corin, also a designer, has succeeded to the management, and continuing success, of the family firm. Here, too, on the Hathersage site, was recently installed a fine display of David Mellor's work from all periods. It now becomes a fitting memorial.

Frances Spalding

David Mellor, designer: born Sheffield 5 October 1930; OBE, 1981; Chairman, Crafts Council, 1982–84; CBE, 2001; Victoria & Albert Museum Lifetime Achievement Award, 2006; married 1966 Fiona MacCarthy (one son, one daughter); died Sheffield 7 May 2009.

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