Nature at the root of artists' exploration of modern design

Ahead of its opening, Sarah Freeman gets a sneak preview of a new exhibition inspired by the natural world.

At first glance, the link between the pieces in a new exhibition at Sheffield's Millennium Gallery may not be entirely obvious.

Alongside a large shell sculpture by Peter Beard, there's a pair of tables designed by Harry Wells, a vase by Katey Felton and a piece by Susanna Bonometti which looks like it's been almost knitted from wire.

All are contemporary artists at the cutting edge of modern design and it turns out all their work, brought together by curator Rowena Hamilton, has in one way or another been inspired by the natural world.

"Nature has always been a rich source of inspiration for artists and designers," says Rowena, who selected around 50 pieces, from large scale sculptures to delicate jewellery designs.

"But there is a fear that as our lives have become increasingly urbanised and influenced by advances in digital technology, we have lost touch with the forces and elements which once inspired awe and wonder.

"Hopefully, this exhibition will show that far from having outgrown the natural world, it still holds plenty of surprises and continues to influence even the most contemporary of ideas."

Graphic Nature opens at the end of the month and part of the reason for holding it now was the recent closure of the venue's Ruskin Collection, which is currently undergoing major refurbishment. The exhibition will give some of the Ruskin pieces a temporary a new home until the space reopens in March, but in showcasing a wide range of objects it also hopes to demonstrate that nature means many things to many artists.

"Like the Arts and Crafts designers, some of the artists in the exhibition study nature to create decorative and useful objects for living, whether that be vases or tables," says Rowena. "However, for the others it's the underlying complexities of nature which provide the trigger.

"Bethan Wood is a really interesting example. During a residency in Venice she not only became inspired by the marble interiors of many of the buildings, but also the fake marble which had been created by using a paint technique. Her work is about questioning what is fake and what is real and whether either is better or worse than the other. It's a theme shared with a number of other artists, who use technology to create what looks at first glance to be natural materials.

"Other work is inspired by the patterns which exist in nature, like the Golden Ratio which is seen in shells and flowers. These formulae can be incredibly complex, but you don't have to understand the mathematics to be able to appreciate the beauty of the objects we will have on display. Whether it be a beautifully illustrated textile or the simple shape of a vase, I hope everyone will find something to inspire them."

Graphic Nature, Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, from January 29 to July 3. For more details call 0114 278 2600 or visit

The new season of art at Sheffield's galleries

Katerina Seda: Lisen Profile: Exhibition of new work by the contemporary artist, inspired by what links people to the village, town, city or country they call home. Millennium Gallery, March 2 to May 3.

The Triumph of Maximilian I: Prints commissioned in the 16th-century by the Holy Roman Emperor to secure his place in the chronicles of history. Graves Gallery, March 31 to August 14.

John Martin: Exhibition of more than 50 works by one of the greatest artists of the Victorian age from apocalyptic visions to epic panoramas, Millennium Gallery, June 22 to September 4.