Design: A whole new case of knives

Sheffield's Millennium Canteen is a celebration of the best of British silver design. So dig in.
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The Independent Culture
AN EXTRAORDINARY civic commission for modern silver cutlery - probably the largest ever - goes on show this week at Mappin & Webb in Regent Street, London. The company is not the manufacturer but the fortunate host of Sheffield City Council's Millennium Canteen, a roll-fronted cabinet containing the work of 37 leading silversmiths.

The brief to the silversmiths was open-ended. The only form of instruction came in picking from two hats the individual makers' names and items of cutlery and matching them together. After preliminary designs and models were reviewed at a meeting in July 1997, each maker received a flat fee of pounds 1,000 and the silver they needed.

The results are spirited; some are advanced, some perilously hard to hold, some ergonomically efficient, some extrovert and others quietly personal in design. They reflect, too, changing international eating habits - the great demand for contemporary silver in the Middle and Far East, along with a world-wide increase in oriental cuisine, has led to the more flexible use of forks.

The Millennium Canteen was the brainchild of Sheffield's public arts officer, Paul Swales. It was co-ordinated by the Association of British Designer Silversmiths (ABDS), and supported by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of England. Apart from being one of the best studio silver design opportunities around, it must be the only millennium project to have been completed two years in advance of the year it is to celebrate.

The idea first came to Swales when working on a studio project to house 60 artists and craftspeople in Sheffield, during which he met six ADBS silversmiths. Aware that Sheffield is the traditional area for silver and metal industries, and wishing to give a boost to the contemporary craft, they devised the idea of a canteen of mixed cutlery. It is dedicated to Robert the Cutler, mention of whom in 1297 is the first documented evidence of the silver industry in Sheffield.

The cost was a modest pounds 60,000, "which paid for the silversmiths, the case, the catalogue and the Web page," says Swales. Expertise was contributed in kind by the city council; Howard Fenn, chairman of the ABDS, the Master Cutler from the Cutler's Company; the Sheffield Assay Master and Assay office; and Thessko, the bullion company that provided the silver.

The most successful pieces fall into two camps: cutlery "pairs" which offer a fresh view of knives and forks, and single utensils. Memorable pairs include the gestural curves of a salad set by Julie Chamberlain, who made the tines in her fork in sharp stainless steel so as to spear slippery, vinegar-dressed leaves; the newcomer David Brimelow shows a more solid, whiplash line, appropriate for a dinner knife and fork.

In contrast, the spiky-handled salad knife and fork by Sheffield's enfant terrible, Chris Knight, is as tantalising as it is prickly. Brian Asquith offers a neat solution for knives by slotting a stainless steel blade into its silver holder lengthwise, although the result is rather heavy.

Then there are single items conceived to stand alone or act as icons of cutlery design in the year 2000. Adrian Hope, from Scotland, has made a carving knife whose embossed silver handle echoes the marbled pattern of its steel blade, hollow-ground and etched; Richard Fox may well have produced the perfect carving fork, with a "stiletto" hollow body made in a new silver alloy.

The most beautiful spoons come from the Islington workshop of Simone ten Hompel, who adds branch-like handles to her endearingly cupped, hand- raised bowls in matt silver. The antithesis is the super-reflective surface favoured by Jeffrey Sofaer, from Gillingham, Kent; his work resembles cuttings from a rose bush. At Mappin & Webb, designs inspired by plants, shells and sea creatures have replaced the formal norms; all evidence that silversmithing is growing in some intriguing directions.

The Millennium Canteen, plus contemporary hollow-ware by the same makers and by Mappin & Webb's head designer Paul Sullivan, is at Mappin & Webb, 170 Regent Street, London W1 (until 29 August); 125 Fenchurch Street, London EC1 (7-11 September); and Guildford (21-26 September). Catalogue pounds 5. Items from the canteen can be commissioned from pounds 300 each. For information call 0171-734 3801 or visit: www.shu.ac.uk/schools/cs/slidecol/pubart.html

The Silver Show, work by ABDS members, will be at Leighton House, 12 Holland Park Road, London W14 (0171-602 3316) 2-14 November

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