During our trip to Sheffield, England, a couple weeks ago, Chelsea and I had the good fortune of having my cousin Baz and my family show us the town. Since Baz is familiar with our obsessively compulsive attraction to all things food, he organized a few field trips that involved food but also be entwined with the culture and history of the region.
Baz not only shows great pride in his city, long-termed the “steel city” because of its former massive steel industry, but is like a walking encyclopedia of regional British knowledge. At our first dinner on our first night in Sheffield we began to dig into the history of the city, connecting some dots between its culture, history, and food. The subjects of this particular connection were Sheffield’s steel-making and silversmith histories, one of the city’s prominent figures, and the table cutlery upon which he built his company.
Baz arranged dinner that evening at Silversmiths, a restaurant made famous by Gordon Ramsey on “Kitchen Nightmares” in the UK. I am happy to report that there were no nightmares at the restaurant, only real-life dreams of pies, pints, and real gravy. Silversmiths, in Sheffield’s city center, is housed in the former silver cutlery workshop of George Ellis. From this point on, we began to learn about Sheffield’s history as a steel manufacturer, more specifically, as a mass producer of silver and stainless steel cutlery.
The next day, we had lunch at The Milestone gastropub near Sheffield’s Kelham Island, the former industrial center for steel production in Sheffield and where the original Bessemer converter is still kept. Kelham Island reminded me of the area around Chicago’s Goose Island. As an aside, a couple of days later we visited Wakefield and Pontefract, where my grandpa was born and lived, and whose family worked in the coal mines–the very mines whose coal must have fed the ovens in Sheffield that smelted the steel. By this time, Chelsea and I had developed a newfound pride in Sheffield and proceeded to flip over silverware at each of our dinners throughout England in search of the made in Sheffield stamp.
A tour of the Metalwork Gallery at The Millennium Gallery Museum in Sheffield showcased some of the greatest examples of the city’s metalwork, much of it cutlery and service ware, from the fourteenth century until today. Browsing through the glass cases at the immense variety of cutlery and implements reminded me of my training in fine dining cuisine, with all of its table service regalia. I dreamed of visiting the nearest place to lunch on a whole-roasted trout while we utilized all of the appropriate silverware and drank from Victorian chalices.
At the Metalwork Gallery we were briefly introduced to the work of David Mellor, a modern silversmith and designer from Sheffield. During a car trip through the Technicolor-green hills of Derbyshire (dar-ba-sure), just outside Sheffield in the National Forest of the Peak District, on our way to the museum and modern-day workshop of David Mellor, I became more acquainted with Mellor’s work, spotting one of his most notable designs shown at his museum: the modern stoplight that can be seen throughout England. Mellor’s workshop “operates on the simple principle that well-designed equipment can improve your life.” The workshop itself is housed in a modern roundhouse designed by Sir Michael Hopkins and will satiate your thirst for award-winning architecture. The museum is also a fully-functioning factory where you can see all of the Mellor cutlery being made.
Mellor may be best known for his modern silverware collections, which he first produced in the 1950s, or for his contributions to everyday designs found in British public spaces. Some of Mellor’s most notable works are the previously mentioned 1966 traffic light as well as the controversial 1966 square pillar box. Mellor also designed an iconic outdoor chair for Abacus; the tubular steel frame and steel wire seat won the Design Council Award in 1975. Mellor designed everything from pruning shears to tea pots to such elaborate one-off designs as fountains and even disposable cutlery, the latter of which didn’t quite live up to its name, as many people washed them and re-used them.
disposable cutlery 1966
Mellor’s tableware designs are striking examples of the food and design worlds intersecting in a way that speaks to the “less is more” philosophy of modern design. The apex of a modern design, to me, is when form and function are alloyed on a level so as not to compromise functionality but to enhance it through its form. The end result of Mellor’s designs are, really, a subconscious appreciation of the tools of everyday tasks like eating, sitting, or even waiting in traffic. That is not to say that I take the same pleasure in waiting at a red light as I would in enjoying a nice meal with Mellor cutlery. Suffice it to say that Mellor achieved his goal of “improving design standards over a broad spectrum, directly affecting very many people’s lives.” Mellor had it covered, whether it be eating, being stuck in traffic, working in the garden, or enjoying a cuppa.
It can be theorized that design has some sort of an effect on everyone who touches it, and Mellor sought to affect as many people directly with his design as possible. Indifference, while not necessarily a desired effect of good design, is an effect nonetheless. Some people are as indifferent to good design as they are to the food they eat. But in Mellor’s designs, objects that are often guilty of eliciting indifference are reworked so as to make an indelible impression on the user. I have to believe that Mellor also intended to enhance the eating experience and encourage good cooking through his designs because his museum store, in addition to selling his own cutlery, also sells high-end cookware and glassware from other manufacturers.
Ever since my first trip to Europe I have been overwhelmed by its traditional architecture and its adornment, and also by its prolific modern design and architecture. I am always impressed by how comfortably the two coincide. Even though modern designers are not recreating St. James Cathedral, the skills of the artisans and craftsmen who built it and fabricated its materials and fixtures have passed that knowledge down over the centuries. That knowledge is kept alive by modern designers and craftsman like Mellor and, I believe, wrapped up in the souls of their modern interpretations.
Photo credits Notcot.org: David Mellor candelabra
Some designs are beacons of what was en vogue at the time of their creation, no matter how exaggerating the style may be. Mellor’s brightly colored “Chinese Ivory” steel and resin cutlery line of the 1970s is indicative of a time when dining started to become a little more informal and light-hearted. While some designs could be called “dated,” they could still be considered good designs. The fact that many British households had brightly colored silverware at the time is a good indicator of that, as well as the fact that these pieces are back in production.
Good design is timeless. Its soul lives on forever, reminding us of its decade, like the “Chinese ivory,” or never showing its ag,e like the utilitarian “Thrift” series stainless steel cutlery, commissioned by the Ministry of Public Building and Works in 1965. Or, my personal favorite, the “Minimal” series, which I suspect 50 years from now will seem as new as it did in 2002. David Mellor, another minimalist in my kitchen.
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