Whippet Bicycle visits David Mellor

Here at Whippet Bicycle we've been long time admirers of the David Mellor company. Essentially we share the same belief and approach to how creativity, craft, design and manufacture are best combined together to produce objects that are both a joy to own and to use. Well known for their beautiful cutlery, the company is an exemplar of contemporary British design and manufacturing.

We love getting out and about with the bicycle to visit interesting people and places, and after meeting James Lawless and Corin Mellor at the recent opening of the new David Mellor store in London's Marylebone district, an idea for a two-wheeled tour took route - Whippet Bicycle visits David Mellor's Derbyshire HQ.

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The David Mellor visitor center is situated in Hathersage, about 10 miles south west of Sheffield and consists of a range of site-specific contemporary buildings (most being open to the public). It's also conveniently situated on the edge of the England's beautiful Peak National Park, which is well known for some of the country's best cycling terrain. The area offers incredible landscapes for miles and miles, with views that are hard to beat. There are gentle family rides on disused railway lines, or if you prefer challenging climbs and exhilarating descents, then there are plenty of those to choose from too. If you love cycling and design in equal measures, then what better than combining the two with a ride out through the dales to the visitor center? Oh and they have very good cake there as well... as justified reward for your efforts.

Another connection between the company and bicycles is their award winning factory; the Round Building, containing the most magnificent roof structure which is often referred to as a giant bicycle wheel. Its radial spoke roof trusses are linked together via an outer circumferential 'chain' and project inwards to join inner rings that support an equally impressive glass lantern (allowing natural light to flood into the work space below).

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The factory opened in 1990 and is built on an old gasometer base (the site was the village's former gas works). The Round Building essentially forms the heart of the Hathersage site, as it is where the famous cutlery ranges are made. Equally impressive is the fact that David Mellor worked closely with the architect Micheal Hopkins on the whole project and even supervised much of the building's construction. Indeed the roof's spoke trusses were manufactured and installed by David Mellor's workers themselves.

Inside, the space is quite the opposite of a stereotypical bland 'robot-like' workplace, often associated with the isolationist approach of a typical factory. The interior is clearly laid out with the worker's needs and well-being primarily in mind - nuturing both pride and productivity, whilst also maximising the circularity of 'material in' and 'quality product out'. The Round Building's super clean and organised interior contains specialist stamping presses, blanking and grinding tools, a multitude of machine-shop equipment, prototyping benches, polishing machines, finishing areas and packing tables - all clustering around a hub unit where the office and kitchen facilities are located. It is plain to see that the factory workers are (quite rightly) considered as valuable and equal members of the company, which no doubt helps maintain the strong 'family' feel.

Having cycled there as a keen design student soon after it opened, it was also great to see the Round Building looking just as good now as it did back then. Actually the trees have significantly matured after 27 years, so it looks even better in its natural setting now!

After the factory we visited the design studio hidden away upstairs in the old gas works building (where coal was once converted to gas). This area isn't open to the public, as it's where the design team go to get away from the general busyness of the day-to-day... to think, to strategize and of course to create new designs. The first thing that you can't help but notice, besides its relaxed stylish interior, are all the books. Subjects covered include a wide range of topics including art and design history, craft, materials and manufacturing, creative thinking and practice, other specialisms and much, much more. Wow, and we thought we owned a lot of design books! There's definitely a feeling of extensive knowledge being amassed, and passed on through the company. This must surely be one of the best stocked private design-based libraries in the country.

Whilst photographing the bicycle in the studio we also had a rather lovely surprise, as David's wife Fiona MacCarthy arrived to do some work. Suffice to say we ended up talking about design and bicycles, and Fiona told us how she and David knew Alex Moulton very well. After that we couldn't not give her a demonstration of the folding and unfolding of the Whippet Bicycle. Then we slotted the bicycle into potential storage spaces to help illustrate the advantages of its super slimness.

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Next on Whippet Bicycle's tour was a quick look around the Design Museum (designed by Corin Mellor), where the story of David's life and the company is told through a wide range of designed objects - including furniture and street designs. This is one of the great things about design, in that the objects form a tangible manifestation (and log) of the many projects produced during a designer's lifetime. It's a great opportunity for visitors to get up close and personal, to appreciate the creativity, experience, hard work and skill that inevitably goes into the design and realization of such well considered objects.

Oh and not forgetting the all important café, running alongside the length of the museum. Balancing design education with informal dining, and a fabulous view out to the Round Building set in its natural tree-lined surroundings, it's the perfect place to refuel and soak up the ambience of the place. Naturally all food and drink is served using David Mellor tableware - ideal if you want to take the products for a 'test-ride' before exploring the shop next door.

The David Mellor shop contains a carefully considered selection of tableware and kitchen based items, designed by both David and Corin Mellor, as well as by a range of other British and international designers. All share an ethos and approach of designing well considered objects that are a joy to both own and to use. We thought the bicycle looked perfectly at home next to the cutlery display area in the store... design as desirable 'engineered jewellery' (as we sometimes like to think of it).

Finally it was time to get going, but not before a last visit to, and appreciation of, the David Mellor street scene. Not many people realise that David also designed many other familiar items besides his classic cutlery ranges. Britain's traffic lights, bus stops and other well known street furniture are so ubiquitous that it is easy to forget just how successful they have been for so many years.

Of course Whippet Bicycle was back in its natural environment here - streetwise and ready for the journey home. The only question remaining was to ride or to wheel along?


Many thanks to Corin Mellor and the team, and particularly to James Lawless for helping organize the visit.

(images © Whippet Bicycle)

Graham Powell