David Mellor: industrial designer

by agwelch

David Mellor (1930-2009) is best known as a silversmith and designer of cutlery. However, through a prolific career he also made a significant contribution to the British tradition of product design.

From New Design 105

The designer and craftsman David Mellor  is often introduced by the moniker “the cutlery king”. Indeed, his work in cutlery and silverware defined the British mid-century modernist style. However, his pre-eminence in tableware overshadows his formidable industrial design output through which he made a significant contribution to the fabric of British public space. It is Mellor’s work in urban furniture and design for mass-manufacture that will be the focus of this piece.

David Mellor was born in Sheffield in 1930, a city where, at the time, over half of the workforce was engaged in the cutlery and steel industries. David’s father Colin was one of them, employed at the Sheffield Twist Drill Company where he made tools. Following his education at the Sheffield Art School, which placed particular significance on metalwork, pottery and house decorating alongside more conventional academic disciplines, David went up to the Royal College of Art (after his two years of national service) in 1950.

Bus shelter for Abacus

Bus shelter for Abacus

Mellor’s time at the RCA coincided with a period of post-war British optimism regarding social change. The welfare state was in its infancy and Government showed willing to look to designers to lead the rebuilding of Britain. Much of this optimism was encapsulated in the 1951 Festival of Britain – for which Mellor worked with RCA colleagues on the construction of the site.

It was at the RCA that Mellor came into contact with Robin Darwin. Before becoming Rector at the RCA, Darwin had worked with the Council of Industrial Design and his regime at the College was preoccupied with training young designers to go out and work in industry. Mellor learned from Darwin an appreciation of Scandinavian design and in 1952 embarked on a travelling scholarship that took him to Sweden and Denmark. He was particularly impressed by the quality of the street scene and the standard of public buildings in Stockholm; an understanding that the modern age expressed itself in modern products began to emerge.

Galvanized steel litter bin for Abacus

Galvanized steel litter bin for Abacus

Alongside his study in the RCA’s Silversmithing School, Mellor developed his interest in design for manufacturing such that his four years at the college paved the way for a career that would extend from small, privately commissioned pieces to large scale work that would be visible across the entire country.

Following his graduation, Mellor, already building a reputation as a cutlery designer with the success of his Pride collection, turned his attention to street lighting. British street lighting of the period was uniformly ugly cast concrete; Mellor began considering alternative, more modern designs in tubular steel.

After visiting a number of engineering firms to pitch his concept, Mellor met Jack Pratt, the proprietor of the East Midlands company that was to become Abacus. Pratt was impressed with Mellor’s design and took it on for a royalty – a first for Mellor in a successful series of designs for large scale urban equipment.

The controversial postbox

The controversial postbox

Mellor set up a studio in Sheffield and was also appointed design consultant at Walker and Hall, one of the city’s leading manufacturers. During this period, Mellor continued his involvement with Abacus designing a further set of lighting columns for the housing estates that were beginning to appear around Britain as part of the nation’s social housing strategy. Furthermore, in 1959 Mellor designed a range of bus shelters for the company in tubular steel with steel panels and aluminium roofing. It has been estimated that by the 1990s some 140,000 of the Mellor designed bus shelters had been installed.

1960 saw Mellor move his practice to the Sheffield suburb of Broomhall where he established a studio in the modernist building at One Park Lane. The following decade was the high point of Mellor’s career in design for the public sector with significant commissions from both the Ministry of Transport and the Post Office.

In 1966, with the Council for Industrial Design having been reborn with a more active policy remit as the Design Council, Mellor was selected by the Post Office to design a new pillar box. The cylindrical red pillar box had remained largely unchanged since 1879, but Mellor proposed a ‘square-shaped’ box with the idea of improving efficiency of collection. The box, originally designed in vitreous enamelled steel, included an inner clearance mechanism onto which the postman would hook his bag and pull a lever to release a hinged floor. Despite these improvements in usability and efficiency, the square design failed to capture the hearts of the British public and only around 200 were ever produced.

More successful, certainly in terms of popularity and longevity, was Mellor’s design for the national traffic light system – work that is still very much in evidence on our streets today. Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert had overhauled, magnificently, the country’s road signage system; the Ministry of Transport was now looking for a designer to update traffic lights. Given his experience working on street lighting for Abacus, Mellor was a natural choice.

Traffic lights

Traffic lights

Mellor’s central concern was to streamline and simplify a system that over the years had been complicated by additions and attachments. The new signals were intended to be maintenance free with all components either polypropylene plastic or PVC coated. The backboards, which also came under Mellor’s control, were made of flexible plastic in order to increase resistance to impact. That Mellor’s design is still in use today is testament to its clarity and robustness. According to Mellor’s son Corin (who succeeded his father as creative director of David Mellor Design), David viewed such public sector work as “an important opportunity for changing the visual culture of the country as a whole.”

Through the decade Mellor’s work as industrial designer brought him a large number of external clients. The bulk of these companies had not previously employed a designer and Mellor’s engagement with these businesses was part of the great flourishing of the discipline of industrial design in mid-20th century Britain.

Outdoor chair for Abacus

Outdoor chair for Abacus

Mellor valued the aesthetic of a product alongside the technical and was also active in the marketing of the products he designed, often overseeing packaging and promotion. Mellor worked extensively with John Guy of Sheffield on the design of tools and gardening equipment. Meanwhile, his design input helped another Sheffield tool manufacturer, Burgon and Ball, to access new markets.

From the early 1970s Mellor’s focus shifted away from industrial design practice to the fantastically successful manufacture and retail of his own cutlery designs.

David Mellor died at the age of 78 in 2009. In Mellor’s obituary in The Guardian another son of Sheffield, Roy Hattersley, wrote that “although cutlery made his reputation… it may well be that Mellor’s greatest contribution to civilisation will be more prosaic objects… we can sit on David Mellor park benches and wait patiently in David Mellor bus shelters.” An apt and perceptive tribute to a designer whose work has helped shape our street scene and everyday spaces.

Images courtesy of www.davidmellordesign.com

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