Genius of the knife, fork and spoon

David Mellor Factory, Hathersage, Derbyshire

David Mellor Factory, Hathersage, Derbyshire

My friends Doug and Marion, who share my appetite for life-enhancing experiences, took me to the David Mellor Factory  [ Hathersage, in Derbyshire, recently.

David Mellor (1930-2009) is a fascinating figure.  A Sheffield lad, the son of a toolmaker, he was the beneficiary of an education system that allowed him to begin training at art school in metalwork, pottery, woodwork, painting and decorating at the age of eleven.

As a teenage student at the Royal College of Art he designed his first cutlery, ‘Pride’, which was manufactured by the Sheffield company, Walker & Hall, in 1953, and remains David Mellor Designs’ best-selling range.  Later cutlery designs include ‘Symbol’ (1963), the first stainless-steel mass-produced cutlery, for Walker & Hall, ‘Embassy’ (1963) for use in UK embassies across the world, and ‘Thrift’ (1965), a further Government commission which combined economy with good design by reducing the number of items in a place-setting from eleven to five for bulk institutional orders ranging from prisons to railway buffets.

He made Sheffield his base, and became famous not only for cutlery, but also for Eclipse saws for James Neil, garden shears for Burgon & Ball, and much, much else.  Working with the Abacus company, he redesigned the standard British traffic-light and pedestrian crossing (1965-70).  He devised a bus shelter that ran to 140,000 units and, at the request of the Postmaster General, Tony Benn, rethought the traditional post-box:  his square design was intended to be easier to empty, but encountered much public resistance because it wasn’t round.  A letter-writer to the Scotsman newspaper complained that it would endanger passing drunks.

His first customised workshop building in Park Lane, Sheffield, was designed by Patric Guest in the early 1960s and is now a listed building.  He then took over the derelict Broom Hall, once the home of the Jessop family and dating back to the late fifteenth century, and turned it into a integrated living space and workshop, described in his Guardian obituary as “a rare example of a family house containing a 55-ton blanking press, a 180-ton coining press and two grinding machines”.

Then, in 1990, he moved his business out to the Peak District National Park, taking over the site of the former Hathersage gasworks:  here the factory, the famous Round Building, was built on the base of the demolished gasholder with a roof derived from the principle of the bicycle wheel, upending the Sheffield tradition of fragmented cutlery manufacture so that the processes were integrated within a single space.

The architect was David Mellor’s friend, Sir Michael Hopkins (1935-2023), whose other work includes Portcullis House opposite the Houses of Parliament, the Mound Stand at Lord’s, and the Inland Revenue building and the initial phase of the University Jubilee Campus in Nottingham.

Hopkins returned to Hathersage to convert the retort house and other ancillary buildings on the site into a shop, a restaurant and the David Mellor Design Museum, opened in 2006.

David Mellor married Fiona MacCarthy (1940-2020), the biographer:  their son Corin Mellor (b 1966) is now Creative Director of David Mellor Design, while their daughter Clare (b 1970) is a graphic designer.

David Mellor’s Sheffield-born near-contemporary, Roy Hattersley, added this comment to the Guardian obituary:  “William Morris urged his followers:  ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’  Mellor extended that precept to Britain’s streets.  In the argot of Mellor’s home town, ‘he did all right’.”

The David Mellor Factory is on the B6001 south of Hathersage, just beyond the railway station.  The café is excellent and the design museum fascinating;  factory tours are held at the weekend.

The David Mellor Factory opened a new Street Scene exhibition in September 2013:

The most comprehensive account of David Mellor’s life and work is Fiona MacCarthy’s David Mellor Master Metalworker (David Mellor Design 2013).

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2016 The Derbyshire Derwent Valley tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

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