Creating Designed to Shine

Feb 20 2013

Museums Sheffield’s Curator of Decorative Art, Clare Starkie on creating the Designed to Shine: 100 Years of Stainless Steel exhibition at the Millennium Gallery.

We'd been planning the content of our Designed to Shine exhibition for over a year prior to opening and putting the object list together was actually quite a tricky process. Looking through the stainless steel objects in our collections, we initially found that while we had a fair amount of cutlery from the 1930s to the 1990s, we didn't have very much else! This is perhaps testament to the fact that stainless steel hasn't really been held in as high regard as other metals such as silver in the past. Having explored the incredible ways stainless steel has been used over the years, we hope this show will change people's opinions – Harry Brearley’s discovery was truly revolutionary and over the last century this remarkable material has been employed in a massive variety of different ways all around the globe.  

Thanks to the generous support of the Designation Development Fund we’ve been able to purchase several objects to broaden the range of stainless steel works in the city’s Metalwork collection. We’re also hugely grateful to the people of Sheffield who have kindly loaned or donated objects to the exhibition; they’ve brought some wonderful personal insights into what is obviously a very important part of the city's heritage. 

stainless steel wedding dress For the themes of the exhibition, we decided we wanted to look at the different ways in which stainless steel has been used over the past 100 years. As part of the city-wide celebrations, both Kelham Island Museum and the Hawley Collection which is based there are creating fantastic exhibitions focussing on the industrial and metallurgical aspects of Brearley’s discovery; as such, we wanted to make sure that we told a different, but parallel story which complemented theirs.

In Designed to Shine we’ve concentrated on how this revolutionary material changed people's home lives, showcasing Sheffield as a leading centre for manufacture and exploring how stainless steel has been used in ways that our visitors perhaps wouldn't expect. Stainless steel is often seen as a very British product and it’s perhaps generally perceived as being more popular and fashionable in the 1970s than it is now. However, leading designers have used this material since the 1950s, and as the exhibition shows, many continue to do so today, in increasingly innovative ways.

As such, Designed to Shine brings together a broad range of objects, including examples of the very first knives to utilise Harry Brearley’s discovery as well as some classic 20th century stainless steel designs. But it also celebrates the fact that stainless steel still widely used today and is in fact increasing in popularity amongst designer-makers, both in Sheffield and further afield. Works like Kyoko Kumai's Hope and Lesley Campbell’s stunning wedding dress show that, 100 years after the breakthrough in his Attercliffe laboratory a century ago, Harry Brearley’s discovery is still inspiring designers and artists to use stainless steel in creative and exciting ways.

Designed to Shine: 100 Years of Stainless Steel continues at the Millennium Gallery until 13 October 2013 – entry to the exhibition is free.

For more information of the 100 Years of Stainless Steel celebrations taking place throughout 2013 visit


Top: Kyoko Kumai, Hope, 2009. Photo © Museums Sheffield
Right: Curator of Metalwork, Lucy Cooper installing Lesley Campbell's stainless steel wedding dress. Photo © Museums Sheffield


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