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Sheffield's man of steel

Renowned cutler David Mellor, who has always lived and worked in Sheffield, displays unwavering commitment to good design

David Mellor describes himself as 'an instinctive Modernist'. His roots may lie in the Arts and Crafts, but he realised long ago that making things by hand is a hard, slow, costly business. To change the way people live, you have to design for mass production. Since he set up his first workshop in the then-grimy heart of Sheffield in 1954, Mellor's skills have been applied to the design of streetlamps, bus shelters, office equipment and pillar boxes. But he is still best known as a cutler, 'the genius of the knife, spoon and fork', whose work is in daily use in thousands of architects' homes in Britain and abroad.

Mellor was born in Sheffield in 1930. Apart from a few years of study at the RCA, in Scandinavia and in Italy, he has lived and worked in or close to Sheffield all his life. His factory is now at Hathersage, on the edge of the Derbyshire Peak District - the famous Round Building, designed by Michael Hopkins and opened in 1990. Mellor is not only an enlightened patron of architecture - his outlook is profoundly architectural and he sees design and the crafts in the context of the overall human environment.

He has only vague memories of Sheffield in the 1930s. Wartime bombing, he says, robbed the city of most of its best Victorian buildings, including the art college. When Mellor entered the college in 1945, it was camping out in an old warehouse. By the time that he returned to his native city, the post-war rebuilding was beginning.

From his first workshop, where he made his renowned 'Pride' cutlery (still in production today), he could see Park Hill going up. 'It was a great period - the city was dramatically transformed.' Mellor particularly admired Gollins Melvin Ward's buildings for the Technical College (now Hallam University) and for the University of Sheffield, where GMW designed the library and the landmark arts tower. Deciding that the time had come to move out of the city centre, he found a garden site - donated by locals anxious to be rid of it - and got Patric Guest of GMW to design a long, low building (which would have been at home in Southern California) containing both his workshop and his home. When the time came to leave, Mellor sold it on to friends - it is largely unchanged today.

In 1973, Mellor moved his home and his factory 'across the road' to Broom Hall, one of Sheffield's most venerable old buildings, which he restored from near-ruin. By this time, he had married - his wife is the writer and critic Fiona MacCarthy - and started a family. 'I can't imagine not living and working in the same place, ' he says. By 1990, when the Mellors moved once more, in search of space for extended manufacturing, David Mellor was a well-known name - sometime chairman of the Crafts Council and a trustee of the Victoria & Albert Museum. During his five years at the V&A, where he chaired the building committee, he was responsible for commissioning Michael Hopkins to draw up a masterplan for the museum's future development.

'Hopkins seemed a natural choice, ' says Mellor, referring to the design of the Hathersage factory.

'He saw the potential of the site immediately.' The site was an old gasworks, and the Round Building sat on the footings of a demolished gasholder. Last year, Mellor completed a new house for himself next to the factory. He designed it, but insists that it is 'not a statement - just a simple building intended to fit in'.

Michael Hopkins was also responsible for the building commissioned by Mellor at Butlers Wharf in London Docklands, a beautifully crafted one-off containing a new Mellor shop (the first had opened in Sloane Square in 1969), offices and an apartment for the Mellors. The project, completed in 1991, was a labour of love, with all the metalwork, including the external lead cladding, made in-house by Mellor's team, and the fine concrete hand-polished, but it foundered in the recession.

The shop closed after a year and a half and the building was sold on to Sir Terence Conran, who now has his headquarters there.

Mellor is pleased to see new buildings, like Branson Coates' Pop Centre and Pringle/Richards/Sharratt's Winter Garden and V&A Gallery rising in Sheffield, and fine old buildings refurbished, 'but you can't live on the Lottery', he argues. 'Media, information and cultural industries are fine - we have excellent theatre and music here - but you have to make things too.' The city's economy, he says, is still relatively fragile, though rumours that Sheffield's stainless-steel industry is at risk are probably exaggerated.

'There are still cutlers, making excellent products for the top end of the market, but we can't compete in the mass market when Far Eastern suppliers can make a teaspoon for 2p. You have to make your own market - and design plays a part.' A commitment to good design, extending from the look of a teaspoon to that of a building, has characterised David Mellor's career, and his name is synonymous with that of Sheffield as a centre of creativity and excellence.

Mellor at the design museum

The current exhibition of David Mellor's work at the Design Museum traces Mellor's career from his early silversmithing 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 be low.

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 outcr y from a pub l ic determ ined to preserve the trad it iona l design.

Isabel Allen The Real David Mellor - Master Metalworker, is at the Design Museum, London, until the 24 November.

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