David Mellor Cutlery group.jpg

The creative director of David Mellor and son of its eponymous founder on his design process, his love of materials, and the surge in demand for cake forks

Interview: Ellie Costigan
Portrait: Joseph Fox

Have you always been a designer?
I studied a mix of furniture and product design at Kingston University, which I really enjoyed. After that I was lucky enough to go and work for a London architects’ firm—it was the nineties, everybody got a job back then—but I found it a bit frustrating, because I couldn’t actually make anything. I retreated back to the Peak District and got involved in the family business. I worked alongside my father for many years, then took over about 10, 15 years ago.

It would seem design is in the blood…
I suppose it is really. My grandfather used to work for something called the Sheffield Twist Drill Company and he was a toolmaker—a craftsmen, really, but in those days those sorts of craftsmen weren’t as celebrated as they are now. It was just a job. I love materials, I love finding out about processes and how things are made. I love going round workshops and big factories. I think to be a good designer, you really need to know how things are made. That’s actually why my dad set up his own cutlery manufacturer, so he could have that total control: start off with the design and oversee its development and manufacture.

Have you carried on that approach?
I’m involved in everything, yes. I was on the factory floor at six o’ clock last night—I have an amazing factory manager who’s been with us for 40 years, so I liaise with him on production and help him with any issues—and I am totally involved in the design side. The design department is me and my assistant. It’s tiny. I like that: if I had 20 designers, I wouldn’t be able to keep tabs on what’s coming out. I also oversee the direction of the company, manage all our staff, and do all of the display work in the shops. I’m in London a couple of times a week.

David Mellor is known for its timelessness. Is it challenging to maintain that while bringing in new products?
I don’t know if it is a challenge. I think it’s quite simple—you just have to not over-design things and really understand materials. I’m not anti-fashion, but I think you do have to take it with a pinch of salt. I’m not unaware of what is happening, but I’m not defined by it. It’s important not to get caught up in it—if you do, ultimately, you’re going to end up creating a product that will date quite quickly. We’ve always focused on purity of form; making beautiful simple shapes that are not flashy, that’s our trademark. Hopefully you end up with something that still looks good in 10 years’ time.

Corin Mellor

Corin Mellor

Is there a point at which striving for a certain aesthetic can impinge on practicality?
It’s inevitable. I wouldn’t criticise anyone for it, we’ve all fallen for it at different times in our lives—and I think there’s a valid place for it. Without fashion, the economy would stop—but I also think there’s a really good argument for buying something that’s beautifully designed, beautifully made, high quality, and will last a long time. It can work out more economical—you’re not buying rubbish that only lasts a year. It depends on your mindset—some people quite like to change things. On the other hand, if you’ve got something you have an affection for and you’ve bonded with, you want to keep it. And you can only do that if it’s well-made.

You mentioned the importance of knowing how things are made. What did you mean by that?
We were known for making knives and forks, that got our reputation going, but since I took over, I’ve become involved in designing other things, but finding someone else to make them: fine bone china, glassware, woodware, cast iron. If you’re designing an object to be made with hand-blown glass, you need to understand how hand-blown glass is made to be able to design it. I normally do it that way round; make sure I understand the process—if it’s cast iron, how iron is cast—and then design something. Otherwise you might have designed something the makers are not very comfortable with, so won’t do a very good job. You end up not achieving what you want.

Are you able to apply your design skills to any medium? How much is art and how much is science?
As a designer, you follow a process. When you have a process, you can traverse over other areas—I designed a bridge for Sheffield Hallam University, for example. It’s the same thing, but on a different scale, with different considerations. But I couldn’t design a cushion or a dress, because I don’t understand the skills needed to make them. It’s a bit alien to me. Perhaps it’s to do with materials—what you feel comfortable with. 

What is your process?
It might sound mad, but I design things in my head first. Then I’ll go to the sketch pad—I’m really old fashioned, I do it by hand. It helps me think, and I can adjust as I go. The next step changes depending on what it is I’m designing. If it’s a knife, normally I would go into the workshop and make a very rough prototype—’knock it up’, as I call it, with bits of stainless steel: weld them together, file them and shape them and polish them to get what I’ve sketched in rough 3D. Then my design assistant James will transfer what I’ve mocked up into the computer. From that we’ll do a 3D printed prototype, then move on to tooling. It’s a similar process with the hand-blown glass, but we’ll go straight to the workshop and they’ll do the mould and prototype.

David Mellor has been around 60 years. How much has changed?
The way we manufacture hasn’t changed at all—bar the odd machine, it’s pretty much the same as it would’ve been 100 years ago. You could mechanise it more, but because we do such small volumes of so many different designs, it’s not feasible. We’re absolutely people-led, which has its advantages: if a customer comes in and says, “I’d like that range of cutlery but shinier,” we can do that. If they want a certain knife but they want different serration, we can do that. It gives us that flexibility.

How much have changes in lifestyle affected what you do?
If you went back 150, 200 years, the place set was enormous: now some people really only need a spoon and a fork. Other people love the showiness of the dinner party, where they’ll likely be doing quite a few courses and therefore need quite a few different tools. Our oldest range is Pride from 1953, and we’ve realised it’s not big enough. There are, more recently, customers who want a cake fork—that’s been a bit of a ‘thing’—and a butter knife. We’ve never sold one in that range.

I think part of that’s because people are taking food more seriously. If you’d asked me the same question five years ago, I’d say people are paring back, but now there are people who like to have these special tools. To accommodate that, we’ve always sold our cutlery in individual pieces. You can, in effect, buy the tools to do the job you need—if you only eat cereal all day, you can just buy a spoon.

Tell us about the rest of the range—how do you go about finding products and ensuring they fit?
There are three types of product in the shop: those we design and make; those we’ve designed and found someone else to make; and things we’ve selected from elsewhere. Everything is very carefully vetted to make sure they fill a gap and fit in visually with the rest of the shop. Some of them go back 30 years, like the John Leach pottery, or they might be things we just think are a really good design.

We’ve always supported British craftspeople—wood turners, potters, basket makers. People who have their own little studio workshop. But then we do have things from abroad. Frankfurt is where we do most of our buying. We found some fantastic Japanese pottery. It’s really what’s well-made and what fits, which comes from 30 years of trying products.

You only sell through David Mellor shops. Is that deliberate?
We once sold to many independents, but we decided we didn’t want to be in a shop where they didn’t know the product. I know all our staff well, I’ve trained them all. They know where every wood turner is from, and everything about them. I think the story is almost as important as the product, and we need to tell it. It means you get that personal touch—proper service. We are a family company, we are small scale, and I want to keep it like that.

Marylebone is your second London outpost, of three shops in total. What drew you here?
I think The Howard de Walden Estate genuinely does like to have a mix of independent shops, which is what drew us really. And there’s no one else doing what we’re doing. We’re lucky with the space, too—like many of the buildings here, it’s architecturally spectacular. Marylebone also has such a lovely feel. As soon as we arrived, people were coming in the door saying, “Oh gosh, this is just what we wanted,” which is great. People love the shop. Other than perhaps having a visual awareness, I wouldn’t say there’s much that defines the ‘David Mellor customer’—they can be students, they can be stars—but most of them are the same customers who are carrying around Daunt Books or Conran Shop bags. We fit in here.

What with the shops, your workshop and factory, it’d seem you live and breathe David Mellor…
My work and home life have always overlapped, which has advantages and disadvantages. I live on site, which is great, because at night when everyone’s gone I can go into the factory and make something—fiddle on the lathe, play with the wheels. The disadvantage is when something goes wrong, there’s someone knocking at my door at six o’ clock. My father started that, on a much smaller scale, so I just took it for granted. I’ve been making things since I was a little boy and I love doing it. My life and my work merge into one, really.

David Mellor

LifeMark Riddaway