It has been a staple of Britain’s streets for more than a century: the humble post box, painted red and shaped round.
But if legendary Sheffield designer David Mellor had got his way, all those pillar boxes would have been square.
The son of a city toolmaker – who famously created the traffic lights, street lamps, bus stops and bollards which have largely decorated Britain’s streets since the Fifties – was commissioned by the Post Office to come up with a new style in 1966.
“But he tried to change the shape,” says son Corin. “And the British public wouldn’t have it. They wanted their post boxes round like they’d always been. His design had an internal mechanism which actually halved collection times. But it didn’t matter. The Post Office shelved the idea pretty quickly. The new design wasn’t scuppered totally. Many thousands were installed and some examples remain in use.”
The revelation is made in a brand new permanent exhibition dedicated to the late designer’s more successful street furniture. Original examples of all his outdoor creations will line up along a specially-built ‘mini road’ at the David Mellor Design Museum (and working factory) in Hathersage
“My dad is best known for his cutlery,” says Corin who took over the family business when his father died, aged 78, in 2009. “He was known as the Cutlery King and his cutlery was used in British embassies.
“But we wanted to show he did more than that. The traffic lights he designed back in the Sixties are still the ones used in Britain today. People are amazed when we tell them. Traffic lights are so ubiquitous they don’t even realise anyone would have actually designed them. We wanted to point out every time you drive through a town or city, you stop at a David Mellor piece.”
Mellor was already a hugely successful designer when, still in his 20s, he visited Rome in 1952 and realised their streets simply looked better than ours.
“He came home, did some sketches of street lamps and took it to a Derby company called Abacus,” explains Corin, 46, who lives on site at the museum and factory. “Back then street lamps were those old cast-iron things. My father’s designs were the steel tubular ones you still see today. Abacus realised their potential. That’s how it started.”
Shortly after that he came up with bollards, bins and benches which were installed by local councils across the country before creating the classic steel and Perspex bus shelter to replace the pre-war wooden huts then still most commonly in use. Some 140,000 of those were built. The traffic lights came in 1965 and 25,000 sets are installed on the UK’s roads today.
“Why were they so successful?” says Corin. “Because they were so simple. They were non-design. They just did their job. It was form inspired by function. It does make me proud – although I wish we had royalties every time a new set was installed – I’d be in Barbados now.”
The exhibition – funded by the David Mellor Memorial Fund – opens on Saturday. Just don’t say you prefer the round post boxes.