We live in a time of landscaping. New developments must be landscaped to within an inch of their lives, literally, before they can escape from the planning office and onto the street. Basically, this is a good thing, in principle anyway and, certainly, it has forced a broader aesthetic responsibility upon the shoulders of architects and planners. The result is the proliferation of heavily designed redevelopments of urban space that we now see across our cities.
The current vogue, which has been building in popularity since the millennium, is for natural materials to be at the forefront of this urban design so we see wooden benches reproducing themselves faster than woodlands, usually complimented by some serious and architectural brushed steel components. The results are slick to look at, clean, Scandinavian somehow (although not really). Who can doubt that this is an improvement upon their plastic predecessors, especially those awful hulking, ugly ones made from recycled bin bags, or whatever it was?
But spend too long in the company of these bold new benches and the planters full of dogwood and other low-maintenance flora, and sometimes a little thought begins to nag and whisper: ‘isn’t this just a little over-designed?’
Sometimes that little thought has been inspired by a recent look at some old photos, not images of the cluttered streets of Victorian times, but of the sparse pavements of the Fifties and Sixties. The street furniture, as we call our benches, bins, traffic lights and lampposts, of the post-War era offered up some of the most wonderful and enduring designs. Like all great design, it was spare, functional and modest.
While that ash and steel multi-level bench outside the new bank is, for a while, quite refreshing it lacks the simplistic functionality of the bench designed by David Mellor for Abacus in 1956: a basic, five planked design, familiar to us all, which sat so comfortably within the landscape. A human scaled construction that would not dominate its environment or demand too much attention, this was simple, practical design.
Mellor’s designs for Abacus redefined our urban spaces and became as familiar to us as Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s system of road signs. Mellor, who died in 2009, and is also famous for his superior cutlery designs, had a fruitful partnership with Abacus, resulting in the production of the best selling ‘152 series’ of bus shelters, as well as lampposts, bins, benches and bollards.
Scarcely an area of our streets was left untouched by the Mellor vision, including our pedestrian crossings. That signal box below the lights, the ‘PEDESTRIANS Push button and wait for signal opposite’ one, was designed by Mellor for the Department of the Environment, along with the lights themselves.
The signal box is important in several ways. It is a fine piece of functional design, a system which, working in tandem with the green man/red man, is simple to operate and understand, even for the illiterate. Is there a child in the country who has not been thrilled by the opportunity to press the button and waited, with excitement, for the green man to make his appearance? For most children, this experience is a formative one and something that drives home the message of road safety which making the act of waiting to cross the road really quite fun.
The signal box works for the grown ups too, especially those of us with an eye for design. Like the transport sign system, which it accords with visually in its solidity and rounded edges, the signal box is ageless. Who would guess that this simple concept celebrates its fiftieth birthday this year? The same applies to Mellor’s traffic light system, which is so clear, so faultless, that it has never required any significant alteration.
Another Mellor design was to prove less popular, despite its functional benefits. Charged with the task of redesigning the GPO’s red pillar boxes, Mellor created a minimal, squared off version. The design incorporated a hinged chute which allowed postmen to collect the mail in half the time, but the public’s devotion to the round 1879 design meant that the new look never fully took over. The Victorian design is the one that remains most prominent on our streets.
Given that almost everything else on the streets has been dominated by David Mellor’s designs for half a century, perhaps we can let this one go. Look up instead at the elegant street lighting he designed for Abacus in 1954, a lean streak of tubular steel with an unexpectedly playful and charming neck, curving down like a snowdrop to throw its light upon the street below, or the more angular variety with its long, tapering neck set at a round-cornered right angle to the post.
Mellor’s designs brought an understated aesthetic identity to Britain’s streets though their pared-back minimalism and functionality. These are designs that don’t shout at passers-by, designs that are indeed just passed by, blending so easily into our daily existence that we have taken them entirely for granted.
Sometimes however, this is the ultimate testament to great design. So next time you push the button at the pedestrian crossing, use your waiting time to ruminate on the quiet genius of David Mellor.
- Guest blogger, Claudia Massie, Artist working from Scotland.