Corin Mellor On The Quiet Virtues Of Good

We recently listed a modernist home in Sheffield designed by the great post-debate British designer and metalworker David Mellor in the early 1960s. 2 of the Modern House Magazine? The site, a former gasworks in the Peak District National Park, has been home to the company’s world-class cutlery production since the 1990s, and houses the David Mellor Museum, where his contributions to public design – from post boxes to traffic lights – are on show.

In May of last year, our editor Charlie Monaghan called in on Corin Mellor, who took over the business in 2006, shortly before his father’s pass away in 2009, and found an intergenerational pursuit for good, everyday design.

On the main road through the picturesque Peak District town of Hathersage is a sign for Grindleford and Bakewell (via the B6001), the station, parking facilities and a Cutlery Factory, with a museum symbol underneath. The only thing on that line-up that might tempt the uninitiated day-tripper to flick the indicator is the sweet allure of a Bakewell tart (or pudding?) in his spiritual home. What could be more wearisome than an afternoon at a cutlery museum?

“What an undersell, ” I say to myself as we make the turn. But how appropriate that a museum dedicated to one of Britain’s best post-debate designers, immensely prolific but always understated, is signposted in this way.

Born in Sheffield in 1930, the son of a toolmaker, David Mellor designed the traffic light system as we know it today, bus shelters, street lighting, public bins, the disputable square postbox in 1966, silverware for British embassies, and so on. It’s not just spoons!

David’s son, Corin, is well acquainted with his father’s accomplishments. “I don’t stop at a set of traffic lights and think ‘Dad did those’, if I’m honest,” he says. But then the anonymity of our traffic lights is surely part of what makes them successful – have you ever felt the need to find out who designed them? David Mellor would have been pleased to hear you say no.

“The Mellor way isn’t about being flash or in-your-face,” says Corin. “It’s about not trying too hard when it comes to design. The philosophy has always been the same: to give people good design that will last, and to make things to a high standard.”It’s a mission the Mellors have been pursuing for decades, both through David’s public commissions in the mid-20th century and the retail business, synonymous with cutlery, that began with a shop in Sloane Square in 1969.

The first cutlery line was Pride, designed in 1953 while David was still a student at the Royal College of Art. It has been in continuous production ever since, an accolade all Mellor designs strive for. New lines have always managed to appear timeless, while also capturing something of their age – from Provençal, designed in 1975 during Britain’s first embrace of continental cooking under Elizabeth David, to the 2002 Minimal set that speaks of the movement’s millennial revival.

Corin took over as creative director in 2006, three years before David passed away. He lives on the site – a former gasworks – with his wife, Helen, and their two sons, Hector and Morris. Corin walks us around the cutlery factory, a round building designed by family friend Michael Hopkins in 1989 on the foundations of a gas cylinder; the building’s circular form, we are informed, is conductive to the progressive nature of making cutlery. We are introduced to staff at the various stations, including the wonderfully named Ginny Messenger, who has been adding hand-written calligraphy to packed-up boxes since the 1970s. Peak District.

Of course, this is part of what the David Mellor name trades off, both here and internationally. “California gets what we do; Europe does, for the most part; and so do the Japanese,” explains Corin.“And we can’t keep up with demand from South Korea. An influencer there recently got a David Mellor tattoo and posted it on Instagram, and now everyone there wants the Provencal set… it’s mad!”

We make our way to one of two original gritstone buildings, now split into the shop, design museum, café and offices on one side, and the Mellors’ home on the other. David moved production here in 1990 from Broom Hall, a manor house in Sheffield that was part factory, part home. In reality, there has never been much division between the two. “Work and life have always happened in the same space for my family,” explains Corin. Helen, who works as a photographer and art director in an on-site studio, goes on to explain that the family life is strictly synced to factory time: “Fifteen minutes for tea at half 10, 45 minutes at lunch – as it’s always been.”

If you’ve ever flicked through a David Mellor catalog and thought ” Who lives with this much good design?”, it turns out the Mellors do. In a voluminous main living space with kitchen, dining and living areas is a choice selection of Alvar Aalto furniture, an Achille Castiglioni Arco lamp, English rush seating, British studio pottery and, of course, draftsmen filled with the very best kitchen and tableware.

Next door, in a room of equal size, reached via a glass link, Corin’s study and library is filled with Eileen Gray sofas, an Eames chair and more rush seating. There are bespoke pieces made by David and Corin, like the spiral staircase, pendant lighting and monumental dining table, which should almost certainly enter production – they are exquisite.

It’s all the embodiment of the Mellor way, at one with Britain’s craft and design heritage on one hand and modernist functionality on the other. What’s celebrated here is not design for design’s sake, but the well-made, beautiful and long-lasting. Much of the furniture has been with the family for decades, but Corin and Helen have left their mark, lightly remodeling the space and adding their own pieces. Those Eileen grey sofas were one of Helen’s buys. “Corin groans about them not being comfortable, “she says,” but I pledged them for so long and love the colour of the orange – maybe it goes back to being a teenager in the 1980s. ”

It might seem that Corin and Helen are fastidious about every last detail, but the two are far from being design nerds. ” You can go too far and get a bit Braun about things, a bit boring, ” says Corin. A simple lunch appears without fanfare and, as we eat, the two relate stories of ill-fated attempts by previous cooks to revolutionise the menu at their on-site café. We come close to tears of laughter as we hear about an attempt at urbane gastronomy that included the conceptual-sounding “pork three ways” – one of which turned out to be a sausage roll. There’s an ease and informality about the Mellors that transcends everything else. Well-made, beautiful things are the set, not the starring cast, of their lives.

Corin’s insights into the design of cutlery are fascinating. “You use cutlery three times a day at least, and it’s an incredibly devoted piece of design – you literally put it in your mouth,” he says. “You probably spend more time with your cutlery than you do in your car, so think, in relative terms, how much you can improve your daily life without spending very much money.” It strikes me that this is a message of particular contemporary relevance. With all of us spending more time at home, the lesson of the Mellors is that the necessary celebration of domestic life can be elevated by investing in the paraphernalia of the everyday. Forget fast cars, buy some spoons.

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