Public Art Research Archive: Sheffield Hallam University

Millennium Canteen Catalogue: Introduction by Dr Helen Clifford
Course Tutor, V&A Museum, History of Design MA Course: V&A and RCA.
"Unity in Variety: Strength in Diversity
Cutlery, Craft and Culture and the
Association of British Designer-Silversmiths"

A canteen of cutlery. What image does this conjure up? A once complete set of matching knives, forks and spoons, boxed and brought out on special occasions, some items now missing, some of long-forgotten function, like the specialist ice-cream spoon, the grandeur of the Victorian dining room, starched tablecloth and napkins, polished silver. Cultural trophies of a past age.

The decline of the canteen as a desirable object is representative of the larger decline of silversmithing in Britain since the Second World War. Silver has been de-throned from its status in the home, by the worries of insurance and maintenance, it is no longer seen as an appropriate indicator of contemporary status. The kitchen has triumphed over the formality of the dining room, and the dish-washer rejects plate in preference for stainless steel. How many of you use a silver tea spoon to stir your mug of tea? People have forgotten the lustre of the material, the craft has been in crisis. The closure of many workshops and independent retail outlets, and the near extinction of the apprenticeship system has meant that the future of the craft lies with a small but growing band of dedicated designer-silversmiths. Survival and success largely depends upon their flexibility, combining teaching with batch-production, design innovation and the creation of one-off commissions, working with industry, acting as consultants. In an exhibition review of 1993 the Independent columnist John Windsor predicted, 'a silver revival led by ... the ... tiny scattered studios turning out individual commissions with the help of a network of craftsmen' and women
1 .

The Association of British Designer-Silversmiths was established in 1996 in order to draw the very best of these makers together. While retaining their individuality, the members of the Association now have a collective presence. The criteria of membership rests upon the highest standards of design and craftsmanship. The Association envisages promotion of their craft through exhibitions and publications, as a means of fostering links between designer-silversmiths and their customers. It offers direct contact with, and between, practising makers, unmediated by specific insitutional preferences and prejudices. It provides a voice for, and window into the very latest developments in the craft. The Millennium Canteen is the Association's first group commission.

The commissioning by Sheffield City Council of a canteen of silver from the ABD-S was a particularly enlightened and appropriate way to celebrate the approaching Millennium. What better opportunity to remember the past by reviving its place in the future, for standing united, but accommodating variety? In its purpose-built case the Canteen stands as a single object, a cabinet of curiosities, a butterfly collection, reflecting through the diversity of its constituent elements not only a 'snapshot' of the best in silver design, but also an interpretation of the world in which we live now. Thirty-seven different makers are represented, revealing an astonishing range of approaches, skills and aesthetic sensibilities, all harmoniously accommodated within the single case. Under the direction of the ABD-S the Canteen commission was designer, rather than patron lead. No unifying design criteria were imposed, apart from guidelines on size, and that the result should be imaginative. Each silversmith was allocated by ballot a group of objects: a fish knife and fork; a pair of salad servers; a dessert setting, and a set fee for the design and manufacture. The silver was donated by Thessco of Sheffield, but with no limit to quantity
2 . Such generosity of patronage and freedom from constraint reaps great rewards.

The commission, in the process of its manufacture, and in its cumulative assemblage, has helped to consolidate the ABD-S as an organisation. Its existence has created a focus for discussion, and an 'awareness amongst the public and the press, of the wealth and breadth of talent' that is available in the Britain today 3 . The Canteen is a realisation of the central aim of the Association to'promote the best of modern British silversmithing'. It is a measure of the successful organisation of the commission that it took less than six month from design submission to private view. Many of the silversmiths involved confessed that the knowledge their work was going to be show together, collectively was a challenge, and a spur to the highest feats of craftsmanship.

The development of cutlery, from knife, to spoon, then fork maps, according to Norbert Elias, the civilising process. The tools we eat with (those most intimate of utensils), and how we use them, are a measure of our cultural evolution. In a series of diverting quotations from historical sources he creates a picture of growing sophistication and complexity over time. In the thirteenth century 'a man of refinement' was advised 'not to slurp with his spoon when in company' 4 . Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1530 chided the 'rustics' who dipped their fingers in the sauce; 'you should take what you want with your knife and fork' 5 . By 1729 the refined diner was required to use 'a serviette, a plate, a knife, a spoon, and a fork. It would be entirely contrary to propriety to be without any of these things while eating' 6 . The author of The Habits of Good Society, published in 1859 thought that 'Forks were undoubtedly a later invention than fingers, but as we are not cannibals I am inclined to think they were a good one' 7 . The use of an increasingly large and complicated array of tools for eating, became a measure of civility, spoons for serving, for soup and dessert; knives for fish, meat and fruit; servers for asparagus and cheese. Cutlery distanced the primal desire for, and physical necessity of food from the cultured man and woman.

Yet, as Elias observed, despite changes in size and shape according to fashion, the elemental forms of cutlery have not dramatically changed since the fifteenth century. Part of the challenge given to the designers of the canteen was to look back at past forms and to project forward - what might our rituals of eating be like in the next Millennium, are there new forms to be created? 'What will you be eating on January 1st, year 2000' asks Diana Greenwood on her design proposal for a dinner knife and fork, 'and where are you going to eat ?'. Howard Fenn hoped that the commission would provide 'an opportunity to design and produce cutlery that is provocative, visually and physically exciting, possibly challenging to use' 8 . What more appropriate way to push Elias's civilising process into the next Millennium than through a re-appraisal of cutlery design?

The Canteen reveals varying responses to the forces of tradition and innovation. For some of the designers moving forward meant looking back. Margaret Jackson 'used the cutlery collection at Sheffield Museum' as her starting point, as she 'was interested in the shape of blades in the early knives and in the simplicity of the earliest fork'. Her re-interpretation of the traditional 'pistol grip' through hand-forging has resulted in 'a knife and fork that are unmistakenly of the 20th Century but which do have some of the qualities of the historical examples shown in the Museum's collection' 9 . Brett Payne's salad fork is at once comfortingly familiar, yet arrestingly different, special. He has taken the evolution of the fork a stage further. First two tines, then three, only developing four tines in the mid eighteenth-century, Payne's fork has five tines, the central rib forming this new addition 10 . Andrew Bray's design stems from a reassessment of his first piece of production cutlery made over forty years ago. His salad knife and fork, created from separate but inter-linked units, predicts new production possibilities. He highlights the constraints of the single forged and stamped unit that has dominated the industry since the 1950s 11 .

For Sheffield in particular the commissioning of a canteen is a particularly appropriate, and Janus-faced symbol. It connects memory of the past with aspirations for the future. The specialist skills of Sheffield manufacturers and the social and cultural mores of the nineteenth century combined to promote the popularity of the canteen. The machines, materials and men united to produce quantities of highly finished cutlery in exactly reproducible patterns. Such skills of manufacture and control helped to create the solid wealth and confidence, that the architecture of the Town Hall represents in brick and stone. Yet Sheffield has seen the prosperity of the cutlery industry wane, due to the combined forces of changes in fashion, shifts in social behaviour and competition from alternative materials. The creative impetus now lies with a handful of determined and independent designer-silversmiths, united in their love of the material, but divided by the almost kaleidascopic range of their design ambitions. It is the products of their thought and work which makes silver relevant to the society in which we live now. Through the ABD-S the redundant canteen has been revived, reflecting present needs, wants and desires, and with a vision of the future. Most importantly it is a collection of desirable objects, not made to be replicated in boxed sets, but as representatives of contemporary practice. The canteen which emerged in the seventeenth century as a portable chest for military officers, has become in 1997 a travelling show-case for the best of modern silver, provoking both interest and it is hoped, future commissions 12 .

The Design Process and First Principles
The modern consumer knows little about the processes through which the commodities he or she purchases have passed. We are distanced from the mind of the designer and maker, objects we buy spring fully-formed and ready-made into the shop. When we enter into the process of commissioning a whole new world opens up, whereby we can be privy to all the creative stages of production. Sheffield City Council have kept all the correspondence, drawings and designs connected with the Canteen, and through this we can gain an intimate glimpse of the mind of the maker. For the design proposal stage of the commission some participants drew quick annotated sketches, others produced detailed pen and ink and watercoloured renderings as beautiful as the finished products. Many stepped from two to three-dimensions through models. Frances Whitelaw 'experimented with models and drawings to get a satisfactory balance of proportions'
13 . Charles Hall explained that little changed after his first design although 'I did many more drawings, and 12 full size models in all. Some of my drawing is a bit like Escher: it functions and fools the eye but is unworkable in reality. Hence the models' 14 .

Simone ten Hompel's spoons seem to represent a return to first principles. The hand forged bowls, proudly bearing the hammer marks of their construction are mounted to rectangular-section tubes. These are not tubes of a machine-ethic, but from nature, they appear to be twigs, disjointed, irregular. Her models for these spoons, seed pods and nut shells tied to bits of branch are as engaging as the finished pieces. Her spoons are reminiscent of the ideal or basic forms which Laugier was searching for in the eighteenth-century 15 . He claimed that the pillared temple, that icon of classical civilisation, and blue-print for centuries of architects, could be traced back to the hut made of twigs. In a related way Simone has taken the spoon back to the first crudely carved wooden scoop. Keith Tyssen's spoon , made from found objects, like a shell for the bowl, and string seem to connect with this search for the everlasting elemental.

Form and Function
The Millennium Canteen project highlights, as Keith Smith has commented 'a variety of philosophies - to decorate or not - to be wholly practical or not, and of course whether to attempt to break new ground in terms of image or the form of the implement - a very difficult thing to do in the case of cutlery'
16 . For him, 'the real designer is the one that can design something that works ... but breaks all conceptions of form and aesthetic'. Howard Fenn hoped that the project might lead designers to a a re-assessment of 'the way we eat, not functional in accepted ways, and maybe not functional at all, contradictory and giving the chance to question the norm' 17 . The articulated handles to his fish knife and fork re-address the whole experience of dining, as the pieces move when picked up, then lock under pressure.

In the end a concern for function appears to be a prime motive for most silversmiths, it is the very challenge of making something that works that attracts. Yvonne Renouf Smith explained that her 'natural inclination is to produce functional silver' 18 . Charles Hall confessed that he as had the words 'Function should be the prime element of beauty' on his workshop wall since the 1970s 19 . Julie Chamberlain explained that 'one of my primary concerns is function', but '... equally important was proportion and clarity of line, relying on form rather than decoration for impact' 20 . The surgical precision of her knife and fork make them truly tools for eating. The handles of Lucian Taylor's knife and fork offer themselves up to the grip, their integral texturing making contact an almost sensual experience. Chris Knight's spiked knife and fork confront function, turning it upside down - we are at once attracted and repelled, suspended in a delightful frisson of tension. As Stella Campion has shown, function can be sidelined so that form can also be fun. She has taken the idea of the dragon with forked tongue quite literally. Her weighty cast reptiles breath flames of ready-made prong and blade.

Image and Identity
Each of the contributions to the Millennium Canteen reflect the maker's identity and assured expertise. The minimal constraints on the creative process were intended to encourage makers to 'create personal work that reflects their own interests and ideas'. For some the commision was an opportunity to sum up and consolidate past practice, for others it was an opportunity to try out new ground. Wally Gilbert approached his brief 'without reference to' his 'previous work'
21 . In the case of Kay Ivanovic , a design idea had been awaiting the suitable time to flower, she 'had been looking for an opportunity to use an arum leaf in a design, that became the starting point for the spoons' 22 . For Yvonne Renouf Smith the end result was 'rather out of character, in that the designs are representative (a plum tomato fork and spring-onion knife)' 23 . in contrast to his usual preference for abstract shapes.

Materials and Methods of Making
The choice of design in many cases stemmed from the silversmith's preference for particular materials and methods of manufacture. For example William Phipps forged his spoonsl 'hot out of a single piece of silver bar, because', he is 'particularly fond of that method of manufacture for cutlery'
24 . Angus McFadyen's 'design was influenced to a large extent by the techniques used, ie. forging and engraving/carving' 25 . Rebecca De Quin appears to have abandoned her preliminary design ideas presented at the first stage of the commission in response to deep thought about potential and compatible materials. She chose to investigate issues centring on re-cycling, and concepts of value in contemporary society. She contrasts recycled plastic with silver ... 'to address ecological concerns of the Millennium ... the plastic used for the handles is recycled from vending machine coffee-cups' 26 . Rebecca has turned rubbish into a desirable commodity, while playing upon the intrinsic value of silver and its own recyclability. Richard Fox used 'germanium alloy, which is a relatively new invention which does not fire stain during annealing or soldering and reduces the natural oxidising of silver' 27 . This, as Fox points out must surely be an added attraction for the consumer worried by the thought of the care and maintenance of silver.

Fast Forward
The unveiling of the Sheffield Millennium Canteen at the Mappin Art Gallery on November 22, 1997 was not the end of the project, but the beginning of something new. For some of the makers the opportunity to design with such freedom has opened new pathways to be investigated through future work. Charles Hall described how 'there were exciting moments' during the making of his salad servers, 'where different directions could have been taken and these directions might well get explored at a later date'
28 . Anton Pruden had 'wanted to design a canteen for many years and the knife commission started the ball rolling' 29 . The commission provided the opportunity to 'develop new ideas', and will possibly influence future developments. Frances Whitelaw drew on techniques that she has used on a smaller scale for jewellery, 'to make horn structures from coiled strips of hammered silver with a gold wire edge'. She confessed that 'it proved harder to make than I had expected, but I learnt a great deal from it' 30] . Each commission therefore, has the potential to lead the maker in a new direction.

Just as Jeffrey Sofaer's '9ct red gold inlay representing a rising sun', on his spoons 'symbolises the dawn of a new age', so the Millennium Canteen is a symbol of what can be achieved through patronage and self-advertisement 31] . For the ABD-S, the success of the Canteen commission will be measured by its growing profile, and further commissions and sponsorship. Its existence is proof that designer-silversmiths now have an independent voice 32] . Through its newsletter, and future plans for a journal, workshops, seminars and eventually permanent outlets for members' work, the Association has made its own commitment to the next Millennium. What is yours?

1. John Windsor, 'Every silver lining has a cloud', The Independent, September 18, 1993, p.36.
2. All other precious metal or material such as wood, stones &c. was provided by participating makers.
3. Letter from Richard Fox, December 12, 1997.
4. Norbert Elias, The History of Manners, (1939), originally published as Uber den Prozess der Zivilisation as two separate volumes in 1939, reprinted as The Civilising Process, (Blackwell, 1997), p.68 quoting from Tannhauser's poem of courtly good manners.
5. Elias (1994), p.73
6. Elias (1994), p.77, quoting La Salle, Les Rˇgles de la biensˇance et de las civilitˇ chrˇtienne (Rouen 1729).
7. Elias (1994), p.81, from The Habits of Good Society, (London, 1859, 2nd ed. 1889), p.257.
8. Fax from Howard Fenn, December 29, 1997.
9. Fax from Margaret Constance Jackson, December 19, 1997.
10. G.B. Hughes, 'Evolution of the silver table-fork', Country Life, September 24, 1959.
11. Letter from Andrew Bray, December 15, 1997.
12. Harold Newman, A Dictionary of Silver, (Thames & Hudson 1989), p.62.
13. Letter from Frances Julie Whitelaw, December 19, 1997.
14. Letter from Charles Hall, December 13, 1997.
15. Elias (1994), p.73
16. Letter from Keith Smith, December 14, 1997.
17. Fax from Howard Fenn, December 29, 1997.
18. Fax from Yvonne Renouf-Smith, December 27, 1997.
19. Letter from Charles Hall, December 13, 1997.
20. Letter from Julie Chamberlain, December 18, 1997.
21. Letter from Walter Gilbert, December 1997.
22. Letter fron Kay Ivanovic, December 19, 1997.
23. Fax from Yvonne Renouf-Smith, December 27, 1997.
24. Letter from William Phipps, December 12, 1997.
25. Letter from Angus McFadyen, December 23, 1997.
26. Fax from Rebecca de Quin, December 19, 1997.
27. Letter from Richard Fox, December 12, 1997.
28. Letter from Charles Hall, December 13, 1997.
29. Fax from Anton Pruden, December 13, 1997
30. Letter from Frances Julie Whitelaw, December 19, 1997.
31. Letter from Jeffrey Sofaer, December 15, 1997.
32. Letter from Richard Fox, December 12, 1997.

Return to canteen homepage

This page maintained by Simon Quinn
Slide Collection, Learning and IT Services,
Sheffield Hallam University.
Last altered on 25 February, 2009