Style

Design for Life

David Mellor, a brand founded by one of the true giants of British design, makes beautiful, highly distinctive cutlery at a factory in the Peak District, a few miles from Sheffield—the historic heartland of British steelworking. The Journal pays a visit

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Joseph Fox

I’ve spent just 30 minutes at the David Mellor factory in the Peak District when I read the four words that convince me of the superior nature of the brand’s cutlery. They’re buried modestly within an example client list, among a wealth of celebrities, Michelin-starred restaurants and five-star hotels. “James Dyson?!” I exclaim, as I run my eyes down the glittering monikers. “JONATHAN IVE?!”

I almost choke on the soup we’ve been spooning into our mouths (with, of course, David Mellor soup spoons) while sitting in the cafe before our factory tour. “Yes, that was a nice one because he wanted a range in solid silver, which we were able to do because we’re small and can do special jobs like that,” says Corin Mellor, son of the eponymous founder, now creative director—seeming surprisingly casual for a man who’s designing cutlery for the godfathers of 21st century design.

The David Mellor brand has been designing cutlery for more than 60 years, and Corin’s been running the show since 2009 when his father passed away. Their products may not be as universally known as the iPhone or the Dyson vacuum cleaner, but they’re certainly up there. “It is one of those things you always see today whenever someone compiles a list of ‘top 10 British designs’,” says cutlery accounts manager James Lawless, speaking about Pride, David Mellor’s first ever cutlery range. “It felt like something from another planet. When it came out in 1953, cutlery was all Georgian-influenced: very heavy and decorative. Then this appeared and it was sleek and elegant and modern. It still looks modern today.”

It still sells in its thousands, across the country. While David Mellor has made other ranges since, it has only very rarely discontinued one. “If you buy something that visually will last for 10 or 20 years and physically will also last for 20 years, then if it needs a replacement you should be able to get it. You shouldn’t have to buy a whole new canteen because you’ve lost a teaspoon.” That’s why their cutlery is sold “like Meccano”, Corin continues, “so you can buy a single teaspoon if you lose one.” Such an approach flies in the face of the prevailing model of consumerism, which seems premised on goods having short life spans or demanding constant upgrading if they are to be functional, relevant or cool.

Consistency
“I hate all this fashionable change of product. We get that with some of our suppliers, who want us to stock their new spring range of glasses, for instance,” says Corin, referring to the complementary stock of glassware, baskets and crockery sold at David Mellor’s Marylebone store. “We refuse to buy trend-led collections. What we buy needs to mirror our longevity. Remember those glasses with the gold stems that were all the rage two or three years ago?” I nod, vaguely, then realise they now strike me as distinctly unfashionable. Point proved. The David Mellor ethos of “design that will outlast the trends, that doesn’t change from season to season” means that these products are sourced according to their quality, history and longevity, not whether they are channelling this season’s millennial pink.

Corin Mellor

The shop sells reed baskets woven by a woman who rows out into the river and to collect the reeds; bowls and vessels from a 250-year-old horn works; hand-thrown Japanese porcelain; cast iron candle holders forged from melted radiators in Poland. All this sits alongside the cutlery ranges that helped David Mellor, a working class Yorkshire lad, to leave an indelible mark on our world.

His is an impressive legacy. Take our traffic lights, for instance, the street furniture to whose will (in theory) we all bend. That’s David Mellor’s doing, after he was commissioned to redesign the existing model by the government in 1966. Next time you’re in hospital or a government canteen, take a look at the cutlery: chances are it resembles David Mellor’s seminal Thrift design, commissioned to be multipurpose, simple and produced en masse for distribution across government institutions.

You won’t find traffic lights on sale in Marylebone, but they are part of David Mellor’s DNA and, as such, inform the company. “History is very important to us. It’s important that we can impart to our customers the story of our products,” says Corin simply. It’s why the cutlery is only sold in the brand’s own shops. “We tried selling as a concession in some places, but the staff there just didn’t have the knowledge.”

Heritage
There aren’t many retailers in Britain with an in-house museum, but David Mellor’s Hathersage store does. The brand also makes videos outlining the lengthy process behind each knife, fork and spoon. You’ll find these in the Marylebone shop, along with other videos showing suppliers blowing glass or throwing clay pots. “I want people to understand how things are made,” says Corin. “I think it’s crucial that customers realise that this horn bowl, say, didn’t come out of a machine.”

Polishing

It’s why we’re here at the factory, near Sheffield, where it all started. David was born in 1930—the son of a metalworker, as so many people in the city then were. He won a scholarship to a regional art school and from there was picked up by the Royal College of Art in London, which offered him another scholarship in silversmithing. “Being from Sheffield, if you are making things out of any kind of metal, silver or otherwise, you are going to be making cutlery. It’s in your blood,” James, a local man himself, states simply. While at the RCA David travelled to Scandinavia, where he found himself profoundly influenced by the sleek, minimal aesthetic, and it was upon his return that he designed Pride, the range that went immediately into mass production and started this whole story, “an achievement unheard of for a student”.

Corin has work to get on with: his studio is upstairs, and his family home is next door so he can work on his designs and potter around the factory any time he likes. “I never design anything without making it. I can’t just rapid prototype and off we go,” he says, looking aghast at the mere thought of it, before making his excuses and retreating upstairs. His father, too, spent much of his time on the factory floor. Both are makers, men whose creativity lies in using their hands. Corin is as likely to be found on a factory roof doing repairs, or fitting out one of the shops, as he is at his desk. His father built most of the building in the first place: “He stopped us doing cutlery for four weeks, and one team did prep and the other assembly. Three quarters of this building has been done by us,” explains Andrew, David Mellor’s longest serving employee.

Hands-on
Andrew shows me around the factory, along with James who describes the process: from steel strips, coiled in large wheels over in one corner, to shelves of neat boxes with handwritten labels on the opposite side. I say corner, but the building is in fact circular, based on the foundations of an old gas works site. “It meant we could build free of restrictions, because it was a brownfield site, and it works really well for the production process. Steel goes in one end and works its way anti-clockwise around the factory.” If there’s a hitch, Andrew interjects, you can go back easily through the process to put it right. “The architecture of the building gives you a really nice space. There are no interior columns, so the entire factory floor is free to use. The skylight,” James points to the self-supported metal ceiling, reminiscent of the London Olympic velodrome, “floods the space with natural light.” It’s a far cry from your bog standard, strip-lit factory. As Corin is at pains to point out “the environment in which you work is important. The environment in which something is sold is important.”

We start our tour at the very beginning. “There are about 35 processes, of which the machine work is relatively simple,” says James. The strip of metal—stainless steel, or the nickel-silver used for silver plated cutlery—is punched out into blanks by a machine that looks like a miniature army tank. “It takes the tension out of the coiled steel before cutting it,” explains Andrew. “You don’t want knives coming out like bananas.” The knives are made from high carbon steel, to ensure the edge is hard and sharp enough; the forks and spoons are cut from the same material, though the steel varies from range to range. “At this point,” says Andrew, holding up a fresh blank, “this could either be a fork or a spoon.” I point to a large bin, filled with a mounting pile of steel ends, from the blanking process. “They’ll be recycled,” says James, “sent to the scrap dealers and melted down for reuse. The only reason steel can’t be recycled is if it’s been tempered or heat treated”, as is the case with certain knives.

We move onto the ‘rumbler’: a rotating trench filled with ceramic pebbles and water, which takes the sharp edges off the blanks so they are safe to handle. The forks are ‘bumped’—a machine squishes the neck to make it rounder and stronger—then it’s time for the cross roller, which consists of two large, spinning metal wheels that take the head of the blank down to the required width. “You have to do it in stages,” says Andrew. It takes time to flatten stainless steel—and patience. “One of Corin and David’s great stipulations,” says James, “is that if a job is done properly at each stage, it always makes the next stage easier.” This means concentrating on the task in hand, even when it’s repetitive. “You roll a thousand pieces to one thickness, then change the setting and roll them even thinner,” says Andrew, “but you have to concentrate on it. You can’t just think about what you’re having for tea.”

This sounds pretty tedious, but if the first David Mellor stipulation is rigour, the second is diversification: no one should be assigned the same job indefinitely. “All our staff are trained to move between stations, which is almost the opposite to the traditional factory system. If you have someone doing the same thing over and over again, they will be very good at it—but they will also be extremely bored.” One key advantage of this variation is lifestyle; the other, James continues, is to do with feeling invested in the product. “If they know the tiny things that can make it easier for the next person down the line, that’s better for everyone—and they are invested in the whole process. It may be less efficient than an assembly line approach, but the result is a higher quality piece.”

Tools

Perhaps the most interesting process is the forming stage, in which the flat blank (prongs stamped out, if it’s a fork) takes on a recognisable cutlery shape as a result of a die press. Hand-sculpted in Sheffield by a “famous” (presumably in industrial terms) die sinker, each die is unique to the range of cutlery it creates: one for a Pride fork, one for a Minimal fork, another for a Chelsea, and so on. They are strangely beautiful: thick, heavy (twice the density of steel) and smooth to the touch, the fine imprint of a fork, knife or spoon carefully carved into the surface. They are also, when placed in the forming press, brutally strong.

Heavy metal
“The press exerts 180 tons per square inch, to give you the shape,” James continues, raising his voice over the rising noise of the press as Andrew ramps up the pressure to show it in action. “Incidentally these same presses are used by the Royal Mint to make our coins.” He inserts the head of a flat ‘fork’, slams his foot down on the pedal, there’s a short, sharp slam, then he’s twirling a curved, fully formed three-dimensional fork in his hands. Henceforth the work will become far more hands on as each prong is filed, the edges are sanded, and the metal polished repeatedly using wheels known as ‘polishing mops’. “That is where the real skilled work happens. There are so many different types of polish and mop, depending on whether you want a mirror finish, like the Pride range, or a satin one, like the Chelsea.”

Over near a counter where a woman is polishing meticulously, a water bath is emitting an extraordinarily high pitched squeak. “That’s the ultrasonic water bath,” smiles James when he spots me wincing. “The soundwaves vibrate and all the particles of grease and dirt fall away.” It’s one of three detergent-filled water baths the polished cutlery will swim in before being polished one last time, inspected thoroughly and stamped with the David Mellor seal.

As we exit the factory, we pass a long workbench, covered in tools and what looks like assembly instructions for a Dalek. “That’s where Corin fiddles with new ideas and materials, and where David used to play before him.” I wander closer, intrigued, and point to the Dalek. “Oh, that must be something Hector is working on.”

Hector is Corin’s eight-year-old son. It looks like those dreading the loss of their David Mellor teaspoon can rest easy for another few decades at least.