David Mellor, c.1960, photo David Mellor Design
By Colin Pill
Stainless steel: A material for modern cutlery
Believe it or not, the most ‘modern’ of materials, stainless steel, recently celebrated its centenary. Here we pay homage to two British designer-manufacturers, Robert Welch and David Mellor, who helped make stainless steel truly cutting edge and the material of choice for the design-conscious home in mid-century Britain.
Developed in Sheffield in 1913, it has to be said that stainless steel took a long time to catch on. It was initially almost exclusively used for industrial and engineering purposes (for which its hard wearing ‘rustless’ properties were perfectly suited), and although it featured in the 1934 Ideal Home Exhibition, it would take a further 20 years and the creative input of some of Britain’s best new designers and manufacturers to ‘tame’ this cold hard metal for domestic use.
Image courtesy Colin Pill
Stainless steel: a search for new designs in the 1950s
The 1950s was a decade of great change; the country was looking forwards after the war years and there was a real hunger for all things modern. This quest for the ‘new’ was borne out in all areas of design and manufacturing. The post-war generation no longer wanted to use the old family silver, but instead craved lower maintenance products in their homes that did not tarnish, corrode or need polishing. Stainless steel was seen as a ‘space age’ material, which suited contemporary needs perfectly. It was the Swedes who led the way and perfected the design and manufacture of stainless steel hollowware for use in the home. However Britain was not to be left behind and thanks to the vision and ambition of a group of young talented designers and some forward-thinking manufacturers, these products were finally delivered to the public.
David Mellor, ‘Campden’ 1956, photo David Mellor Design
Robert Welch and David Mellor: pioneers of cutlery design
Two of the biggest names in British mid-century stainless steel design, Robert Welch and David Mellor, graduated as silversmiths from the Royal College of Art in 1954. The course focussed on industrial design and this explains why stainless steel appealed to the students as a medium. The College had the foresight to introduce the students to established manufacturers and on graduation, Robert Welch went to work for Old Hall and David Mellor for Walker and Hall. a lucrative move that gave them almost instant recognitio, and exposure to a wider audience. The manufacturers promoted the names of these new designers in their advertising campaigns, a highly unusual move for the time, and one that helped enable them to establish their own design studios.
Robert Welch for Old Hall, catalogue cover, 1963, courtesy Old Hall Club
Robert Welch and stainless steel design
Robert Welch was the master of simple form and subtle detailing. He made a number of trips to Scandinavia over the course of his career. Impressed by the work of Swedish designer Sigurd Persson in particular, it is clear that Welch was influenced by what he had seen abroad. In 1955 he was appointed Artist Designer for Stainless Steel by J & J Wiggin for their Old Hall brand. His design output was considerable and extensive, covering all kinds of table and domestic ware from the extremely plain to the strikingly bold. His first cutlery design for Old Hall in 1956 was called ‘Campden’. It had been designed in collaboration with his friend David Mellor and was made to counter the invasion of Swedish company Gense, who had found success in Britain with its ‘Facette’ range. Other ranges included ‘Alveston’, dating from 1962, which includes the iconic ‘Aladdin’ tea set that won a Design Centre Award in 1965, and ‘Oriana’, a major commission for the luxury liner in 1962.
David Mellor, ‘Mercury’ 1965, photo David Mellor Design
David Mellor and stainless steel design
David Mellor was an all-round industrial designer who could put his hand to all kinds of design challenges. In 1954 he set up a small workshop in his hometown of Sheffield and was appointed Design Consultant to Walker and Hall. It is for his cutlery that he is perhaps best known. In 1953, while still a student at the RCA, he designed the cutlery set ‘Pride’ for Walker and Hall, which won a Design Award in 1957. Other designs followed, among them ‘Symbol’ in 1961, and ‘Canteen’, commissioned by the Government for offices, hospitals and British Rail restaurants. The breadth and range of his work is exceptional; he went on to design much of the street furniture that is familiar to us in Britain today, including a galvanised bus shelter in 1959, the traffic light system for the Ministry of Transport, and a square pillar box for the Post Office in 1966.
Robert Welch for Old Hall, catalogue cover, 1965, courtesy Old Hall Club
Robert Welch and David Mellor: design today
These designers have had a continued influence over the cutlery and utensils produced in Britain over the last 60 years and brands like David Mellor and Robert Welch are still going strong. Their striking lines and sleek forms ensure that these pieces still create a shining statement on the contemporary dining table.
Robert Welch for Old Hall, 1963, courtesy Old Hall Club
Find information on other designers and a full set of archive images in Still Cutting It: 100 Years of Stainless Steel in Britain, was published in MidCentury Issue 05.
Read our interview with Corin Mellor, Creative Director at David Mellor Design.
Check out the Old Hall Club – a fabulous resource for collectors of Robert Welch.