IF Sheffield’s worldwide reputation for stainless steel is commonly associated with cutlery, an exhibition opening at the Millennium Gallery is a reminder of the wide range of uses to which ‘rustless’ steel has been put since its discovery 100 years ago.
Designed to Shine: 100 Years of Stainless Steel, a celebration of a century of design and innovation, features more than 100 pieces from the city’s renowned metalwork collection, along with loans other museums and the people of Sheffield. Also on display are contemporary products made in the city today, as well examples of how artists and designers continue to explore the unique properties of the material.
More unusual items on display include a set of cross swords used by the Handsworth sword dancers, the Shiny Sheff sign from HMS Sheffield, a Bishop’s Crosier presented to Sheffield’s the Rev Edward Wickham in 1959 and modern ice skates made by John Watts.
Nevertheless it is holloware which is the mainstay of the exhibition.
“Over the past two years with help from the Designation Development Fund (run by Arts Council England to support collections of national importance) we have bought 50 new pieces with this exhibition in mind,” says Lucy Cooper, Museums Sheffield metalwork curator. “One of the benefits of stainless steel is that it is affordable.
“We’ve also had things donated or loaned by Sheffield people as they have heard of the centenary.”
Central to the story is Staybrite, the trade name given to 18/8 stainless steel (18% chromium, 8% nickel) in 1924 by Firth Brown when they began to exploit the material that had been discovered by their metallurgist Harry Brearley in 1913
“There is not much early Staybrite in the collection,” admits Cooper. “The story is well documented through photographs and written records but not in terms of objects. That’s because they were low value items which people didn’t think of at the time as collectable.”
A 1930s bread knife which is on view was saved because it commemorated Sheffield Wednesday winning the League title but was nevertheless put to practical use judging by how worn it is.
“The story of stainless steel began as something functional and scientific and it evolves from the focus on the practical and hygienic to its attractive qualities,” continues the curator. “It is seen as stylish though this became less so during the war years and then it picked up again in the Fifties when companies employed designers to push it as something stylish and modern. It made cutlery trendy.”
Classic stainless steel tableware by designers including David Mellor, Robert Welch and Studio William bear testimony to this.
“We follow that through to the Seventies and then in the Eighties and Nineties production in Sheffield went back to its roots in the face of foreign imports and looked to be functional and practical of a high grade although there is still a lot of creativity.”
Despite huge changes to the industry and loss of jobs, the city remains an important centre for specialist steel production which exhibits from Taylor’s Eye Witness who manufacture kitchen knives, scissors and pocket knives, Ernest Wright the scissor maker and Swann Morton the medical instrument specialists attest.
There are pieces by contemporary artists in Sheffield including jewellery designer Jessica Glynn, metalsmith Alison Counsell and the stainless steel dress designed by Lesley Campbell, Course Leader for Fashion at Sheffield Hallam University, for her daughter’s wedding last year.
“It’s made with stainless steel mesh used in cafetiere filters. It’s cleverly made so that a silk underdress fits under the metal bodice and top,” observes Cooper.
Other unusual items include Well Tempered Chair, innovative stainless steel seating by acclaimed contemporary designer Ron Arad.and Hope, a triptych of woven stainless steel sculptures by Japanese textile artist Kyoko Kumai.
“We also show some things made elsewhere from Sheffield, particularly the European designs which influenced Sheffield designers like David Mellor, Robert Welch and Gerald Benney who worked for Viners. Arne Jacobson from Sweden is an example.”
There will also be films showing on a loop,including an early promotional film from Firth Vickers and a profile of Robert Welch, and storyteller Andy Messer’s costumed interpretation of Harry Brearley.
Designed to Shine: 100 Years of Stainless Steel opens at the Millennium Gallery on Saturday and runs to October 13