We’ve all heard it said that Britain doesn’t make things any more. We’re a service economy apparently, although I’ve never been quite certain what that entails. Does it mean we’re now merely the kind of country that waits at traffic lights to wipe the world’s windscreens, then hustles for a few coins in return?
As for our major cities, it often seems as though we’re supposed to think of them as former manufacturing centres rather than places that still churn out their fair share of stuff. Regarding Sheffield, for instance, the prevailing narrative would have you believe that its industry dropped dead in about 1983 and no one in the city has made anything since.
Of course, things are more complex than that. Undoubtedly there has been decline since the 70s, but the UK remains the world’s 11th largest manufacturing nation and the Made in Sheffield brand still stands for quality across the globe.
That’s one reason why Sheffield’s current Year of Making is so important. This 12-month initiative focuses on the many makers who inhabit the city, not just in industry and manufacturing, but right across the arts, education and business. According to Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of city and cultural engagement at Sheffield University and chair of the Sheffield Cultural Consortium, it’s “a unique opportunity to show that making is in the city’s DNA”.
One of the many projects under the Year of Making banner is an exhibition currently running at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery. Called Made in Sheffield, it serves as a showcase for an eclectic array of city products, from the sharp and pointy things you might expect to see, through to powerful things, tasty things, and boob-shaped things. About which, more later.
For exhibition curator Louisa Briggs, Made in Sheffield is a chance to hammer home the message that the city’s manufacturing story is far from over.
“Our previous exhibition was called In the Making,” she tells me when I take a trip to the gallery. “That was a historical look at craftsmanship going back to John Ruskin, so we wanted this one to really celebrate what’s happening now.”
John Ruskin was a Victorian art critic and social thinker, and his influence in Sheffield runs deep. In his time, he was deeply impressed by the dedication to quality and craftsmanship shown by the city’s artisans, and he wrote about the parallels between this functional beauty and the conventionally revered aesthetic forms seen in nature, art and architecture.
While Made in Sheffield doesn’t make the Ruskin connection explicit, the city’s wonderful Ruskin Collection is permanently housed just down the corridor at the Millennium Gallery, and a visit to both shows is worthwhile. At the very least, it seems certain that the great man would be pleased to know that the city’s commitment to manufacturing excellence lives on.
As we enter the exhibition, Briggs outlines one of the criteria that was used in choosing what to put on display.
“The objects had to have a function,” she says, “so we don’t have design companies or artists in here. We wanted this exhibition just to be about functional objects, an idea that does go back to Ruskin.”
As she speaks, I scan the gallery and spot no end of fearsome looking tools, gleaming engines and hefty stainless steel chunks – the kind of things that the word ‘Sheffield’ has always conjured up. But I can also see many delicate items and downright curiosities, and it’s clear that there’s far more going on in the city than simply bashing away at lumps of metal.
“One of the things we wanted to do was really look at what’s being made now and surprise people,” says Briggs. “There are some well-known brands that people don’t realise are made here, and when people are using things like Facebook, they don’t realise they’re using software that was developed in the city.”
In this latter case, she’s referring to WANDisco, a company based in both Sheffield and Silicon Valley. The firm creates software that allows companies to make use of ‘big data’ and, as Briggs explains, “one of the messages they want to convey is that all the development of their software is done in Sheffield, not Silicon Valley. It isn’t something that people in the city really know about.”
Made in Sheffield is an exhibition in three parts, and though it includes things like food, medical items, clothing and climbing gear, as well as the expected cutting tools and blades, the curators have done a great job in bringing coherence to bear on what could have been a dizzying series of displays.
First up is a section called Making an Impact, which is dedicated to innovative products and companies that are making their presence felt worldwide. The centrepiece is a Gem Aero Rolls-Royce engine, the result of work undertaken by the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre set up by Sheffield University and Boeing.
“This section focuses on heavy engineering,” says Briggs, “which is something Sheffield is really known for. But looking at this engine, you don’t necessarily know that when you go on holiday, the components of the plane you’re on are made in Sheffield as well.”
The second section, called Making an Impression, focuses on specialist skills. An impressive ‘explosion’ of tools hangs from the ceiling, all exquisitely fashioned and formed. Speaking as a DIY ignoramus, I can’t begin to imagine what most of them are actually for. Maybe I’m staring at 50 different implements for getting stones out of horses’ hooves.
“I think this includes most of the tool manufacturers who are still making in Sheffield today,” says Briggs. “It includes firms like Robert Sorby, who make woodworking tools. They can trace their history back to the first Master Cutler, Robert Soresby, in 1624.
“Alongside things that are manufactured on a mass scale, we’ve also introduced a lot of individual makers,” continues Briggs, “so we’ve got a case that shows the range and richness of jewellery making in the city, and an amazing bike from Field Cycles. They are three individuals – an artist, a graphic designer and an engineer – who came together to create objects that are very beautiful but are precision engineered at the same time.”
The bike itself is certainly a beauty, handmade from steel that looks so smooth and seductive it’s all I can do to stop myself hopping on and disappearing down Arundel Gate. The last time I was on a bike was probably during the age of the Chopper, and while this fine specimen lacks mid-70s essentials such as hi-rise handlebars and a fertility-threatening gear shift, it would complement any schoolkid’s paper round very nicely indeed.
The third section is called Making a Difference. This is where the curators have collected precision instruments and other delicately made items dedicated to transforming lives, particularly in the fields of sport and health. There’s a beast of a toboggan designed especially for the speed-demon Guy Martin – together, man and machine broke the world speed record for the fastest gravity-powered sled – and a case filled with what appear to be bits of someone’s body. These include, rather unsettlingly, a very realistic nose, ear and female breast.
“These prosthetics are made by Fripp Design and Research,” explains Briggs. “Whereas traditional prosthetics are hand-painted and hand-cast, these are 3D printed. There’s no invasive casting, so you can have the prosthetic made in a couple of days, and they even tan when you go on holiday.”
This is life-changing stuff and, in common with many of the pieces in the exhibition, the prosthetics are the result of a collaborative process. Both Sheffield and Hallam universities play major roles throughout the show, having established research departments and spin-off companies that continue to drive Sheffield’s economic engine.
And then there are the films that play on a loop in the centre of the gallery. These are elegant short-form slices of industrial life that expand on the processes used to create this embarrassment of riches. Focusing on the hypnotic repetitions of conveyor belts and production lines, they remind me of the old ‘through the window’ films on Play School. This is manufacturing as visual poetry, a reminder that industry can sparkle, seduce and captivate as effectively as any artist at work.
If steel products retain a reassuring presence throughout the exhibition – evidence that The Full Monty really wasn’t the last word on Sheffield’s traditional industry – I’m equally enthused by the output from the city’s flourishing craft breweries. In the light of a recent report that named Sheffield as Britain’s brewing capital, if not the world’s, this magnificent line-up of assorted bitters, stouts and IPAs represents the spirit of today’s city in liquid form.
“We’ve represented all the breweries that produce bottled beer in Sheffield,” says Briggs. “There are currently 57 breweries in the city, though not all of them bottle.”
This is a staggering number, ranging from craft giants like Thornbridge with its global reputation, to tiny outfits like the wonderfully named Lost Industry, not yet one-year-old. And it’s this latter brewery that stays in my mind as I say goodbye to Briggs and this fascinating exhibition.
With its “progressive beers from Sheffield” and gently ironic spirit – named for the city’s lost heritage, yet representing a newly-thriving industry with a different way of doing things – it neatly encapsulates everything that’s good about making in this city today.
The past remains as both inspiration and warning. But it’s what we do next that really matters.
What: Made in Sheffield
Where: Millennium Gallery, Sheffield
When: until January 8, 2017