People Having Good Design

Jeremy Lee visits David Mellor’s Hathersage factory, seeing their process up close

Photography ADAM BARCLAY

“We never used to sell to restaurants 20 years ago. Just the odd bit, like the Blueprint Café,” says Corin Mellor, David’s son, who took over from his father in 2006. The Blueprint Café, upstairs at the Design Museum’s original Shad Thames site, was an early home to our guest editor Jeremy Lee’s cooking – he spent 18 years there as head chef. During that time, they used David Mellor’s Odeon tableware. On the way to the David Mellor factory in Hathersage, our cab driver was pleased to hear there’s still a local cutlery industry. A plaque at the station marks Sheffield as the home of stainless steel, but local production has dwindled. After a drive through the Peak District, we’re dropped off right next to the bespoke Round Building that makes the site famous.

Early on in our time there, Corin Mellor tells us it wasn’t initially planned as a public attraction. “What would happen was architects would come along and they would come to look at the Round Building, so we had a little table in the factory. So they could go into the factory, and we had a few knives and forks, occasionally, once a week someone would buy something. So that’s how it all started.”

Now, the site includes the original Round Building as well as two more traditionally shaped ones, redesigned from their old purpose as part of a gasworks. They’re joined by a bespoke central structure. Corin and his wife Helen live above the offices, overlooking the factory. After Corin walks us through historic Mellor designs, he says we should “do the factory… I think that’s the key”.

As we walk into the Round Building – shaped as described, with a central skylight, Jeremy says: “Oh, wow, golly, this is a long-cherished dream.”

There’s a strong smell of something. I ask Corin if it’s steel: “Yeah. Cutting, grinding.” Corin shows us a rotating display, walking visitors through the cutlery production process. “So this, this actually I made for the David Mellor Design Museum exhibition, and then it’s all glued on with our Araldite. And it’s been on ever since!”

Sheets of steel arrive in the factory, and then they’re blanked – cutlery outlines are punched out of them. Factory manager Andrew walks us through it. He started as an apprentice at 16, and now runs the factory. They tend to do a batch every couple of months, but we’ve caught them at a good time. The sheet goes through once and then back again, and once nothing else can be punched out of it, it’s melted back down into new sheets. The blanks fall out of the machine, warm to the touch. The machines have been going since the 70s.

Next is the forming tools – they look like moulds, and they’re used to shape cutlery later in the process. Corin tells us they’re hand-filed by a man called Terry. Those go into a coining press – “actually the most powerful of the three presses we’ve got”, at 180 tonnes per square inch.

Next stop is the rolling pin – Andrew passes fruit spoon blanks between rollers, you hear a hammering noise, and the proto-spoon comes out flatter. Each flattening drags slightly, so as he passes the spoon through, he’s twirling it constantly between his fingers – “If you didn’t, you’d end up with half a spoon.” It’s hard on the steel, so between stages, the steel leaves the factory to be annealed. In a break from the noise of the roller, Jeremy asks, “Each one is individually done? I mean, it’s jaw-dropping.”

They’re changing how they make Odeon’s non-metal parts, with a new injection moulding tool. James Lawless (who manages trade sales and communications) points us towards a pair of knife grinding machines. “They’re twins basically, one side is done with that machine, the other in that machine.” Corin shows us a commission in progress, noting the filing between fork tines hasn’t yet been done. We see rivets going in, and catch up to Andrew, now polishing a silver teaspoon. Once the cutlery has been through the degreasing tank, the last stage is the application of the David Mellor name, currently being rolled onto a knife blade. David designed the machine that does it, and it was made in Sheffield. A little like an old label-maker, it uses physical pressure, from a foot, to press; Corin tells us, “If you get the pressure wrong, you end up with no D or no R. It’s a bit like when something’s burned in the oven.”

The second time Jeremy encountered Mellor cutlery was more recent. He tells us:

“Leila McAlister, who’s got Leila’s Shop in Calvert Avenue, at Arnold Circus – possibly the most beautiful grocery shop in London, and one of my favourites – she’s got a very good eye for good things, and so there’s a whole lovely collection of old bowls and pots and troughs and all sorts of things. I said, ‘That’s a very lovely spoon,’ and she said, ‘Oh, yeah, I thought you might notice that. No, it’s not for sale. It’s Thrift, made for Her Majesty’s Prisoners.’”

Thrift was one of a series of commissions Mellor did for the government – his most famous being the UK’s traffic light system and pedestrian crossing boxes. Corin tells us a bit more: “it was post-war, and these young designers were taken quite seriously by the government, amazingly.” Jeremy notes: “That’s the great thing with your legacy, is it’s all part of the infrastructure of daily life.” Thrift is all swooping curves; the knife is especially distinctive, with no ridge in the middle and a curve that goes out at both the handle and the end. It was used in all sorts of public institutions: prisons, hospitals and also on British Rail. Corin explains – “It didn’t need to be any more expensive, from a production point of view, than a bad design. It doesn’t cost any more.”

There are a few different stories wrapped up into David Mellor – there’s the story of a Britain that made things, one that valued well-trained craftspeople. There’s one of a government that made an effort to foster those things. There’s also the family itself. A lot of businesses start out family owned and artisanal, but eventually bow to milking a name for its brand value and cheapening the way they do things. I put this thought to Corin, and he tells me he’s “not really that interested in profit. We’re a little firm, and we’re a family firm, and we have lots of super-loyal employees, like James. The main thing we’re bothered about is doing good design, and people having good design.”

He goes on: “You can sort of blow something. If you keep quite small, you keep control, and you’ve got control of your market and your customers, and you look after them and do a nice job, you can keep going. Whereas if you expand something, as often happens, you lose the way. The specialness has gone, and then the whole thing’s gone.”

After the factory visit, before we need to leave for the train, we sit down. Jeremy says, “The thing that strikes me, that’s so fascinating, is that at each… the level of detail, I’m now appreciating at long last. Which, of course, I knew, but seeing it…” Corin explains, “Obviously, with some people, all the little bits of work does sort of add up to a whole when you look at something. Obviously, they’re not going, ‘Oh, look at that bit. It’s been perfectly polished.’ But I think as a whole, you know, people do get it, luckily.”

Helen, Corin’s wife, points out one motivation that hasn’t come up yet – Corin’s still doing all of this because he’s “enjoying doing it”. Corin agrees – “I like designing things!”

Hand-forged silver commissions still go to a local firm; they’re done with a hammer rather than dies, so need quite close attention. There are four people who can do the work, and when we’re visiting, one is unwell. Doing things this way is more complicated, and often riskier. It’s not as if you can ramp up production, though Corin doesn’t seem to want to. “I suppose I’m not really interested in having 40 David Mellors around the world. I like to be on the shop floor, and to meet the customers. It’s too personal for that.”

Jeremy says, as we’re getting ready to leave, that with “all these things, they need the heart”. There’s a lot of parallels between cooking and this sort of design, he points out – a lot of work to make something effortless that might go unnoticed at the other end.

David Mellor’s most engaged-with work is almost definitely the UK’s traffic lights, and the legacy Corin’s continuing in cutlery seems focused on detail rather than scale – most things are still made the same way, the slow way. Wherever he can, he’ll design by hand in the factory itself, working from sketches and filing down prototypes.


This article is taken from Port issue 34. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here