The current exhibition of David Mellor's work at the Design Museum traces Mellor's career from his early silver-smithing to the present day. The earliest exhibit is an exquisite sweet-dish, which looks like the work of a master craftsman, and was in fact produced by Mellor, aged eleven, for a school metalwork assignment. Conversely, many of his greatest triumphs, such as the seat designed in 1956 for Abacus, look as though they could be knocked up by a DIY enthusiast. Compared with the undeniable elegance of his cutlery, and the splendour of his church silver - including a silver cross and candlesticks designed with Elizabeth Frink for Liverpool's Roman Catholic Cathedral - Mellor's outdoor seating looks decidedly pedestrian, especially after the pizzazz of the Eames exhibition also on show at the Design Museum one floor below.
Its very simplicity reflects Mellor's growing interest in objects which are not just beautifully designed, but are economic to manufacture and practical to use, and it is perhaps the greatest tribute to Mellor's influence that many of his designs are now such commonplace objects that it seems a little cheeky to be exhibiting them at all. The aluminium-roofed tubular steel bus shelter designed in 1959, also for Abacus, is used by at least 80 per cent of local authorities in England and Wales, with some 140,000 in existence; finding it in a gallery setting is much like stumbling across one of Duchamp's readymades.
Mellor who, along with his son Corin, designed the exhibition, chooses to present himself not only as a designer but as a patron, and clearly views his role in commissioning successful buildings as a major achievement in its own right. Interestingly, his criteria for judging a building's success are still very much rooted in popular appeal; despite the many awards won by Michael Hopkins' celebrated Round Building, Mellor professes to have been most gratified by its victory in a television phone-in poll.
The public has not always proved receptive to Mellor's moves to improve the public realm, and it is indicative of public conservatism that the designs which are a little 'homespun' in appearance have proved the most popular. One of the highlights of the exhibition is Mellor's square postbox. Designed in response to postmen's complaints about the impracticalities of the cylinder, the new design reduced collection time by 50 per cent, but prompted an outcry from a public determined to preserve the traditional design.
The Real David Mellor - Master Metalworker, is at the Design Museum, London, until the 24 November.