From Chrome to Stainless Steel: How to engage with Chromium
by Purva Chawla
You are unlikely to have encountered Chromium in its isolated, pure state. More likely, for this steely grey and lustrous metal, would have been your encounter with its prominent alloy–Stainless Steel– and Chrome (or Chrome-plated) objects, where a mirror-like coating of the metal has been applied to a surface through electroplating. There are also readily available chrome paints today, which can be sourced by the canister. Together, these two applications of Chromium–Stainless steel and chrome plating– comprise 85% of the commercial use of this material.
To better understand why artists, designers, engineers, and manufacturers of products–from cars to furniture– are so fascinated with this material and use it in the alloyed or plated state, it is useful to understand its properties.
The metal, which has a high melting point, resists tarnishing and corrosion, mainly due to the formation of a protective, insoluble oxide coating when exposed to oxygen. It can be highly polished and achieves a mirror-like finish, with polished Chromium reflecting almost 70% of the visible spectrum and nearly 90% of infrared light.
The metal is essential to the discovery and production of Stainless steel–where the addition of 10 to 30% of Chromium (typically a minimum of 10.5%) makes the steel highly lustrous, and resistant to both corrosion and discoloration. Many artists and designers rely heavily on stainless steel to achieve the desired longevity and finessed appearance of their products. Among them is the artist Jeff Koons, who uses inflated stainless steel to create his ‘balloon animal’ sculptures, two of which hold the record for the highest auction price of a work by a living artist. Koons’ USP is the reproduction of banal objects (such as toys, and balloon animals) in stainless steel with a mirror-finish, imbuing them with value and a highly luxurious quality via material and craftsmanship.
From the monumental to the delicate–in parallel to Koons’ use of stainless steel to create awe-inspiring and large public works, is the work of designers who achieve delicate, and dynamic forms with this hard and strong material. The iconic Italian designer Mario Trimarchi used a special variety of mirror-finish stainless steel–known as 18/10 Stainless Steel–to create his collection of tableware, lamps, and necklace for Italian brand Alessi. Named ‘La Stanza Dello Scirocco’, this is a collection of geometrically irregular items made of small splinters of stainless steel of various sizes, interlaced together in an unstable balance. Unlike the cold, and rigid perception that we typically have of stainless steel, here, it appears airy, flowing, warm and inviting to touch. This makes Trimarchi’s use of his technique to create a necklace–Collana Fiato sul collo–even more fitting. Stainless steel becomes innately approachable and human here somehow, thanks to Trimarchi's way of turning freehand drawings into free-flowing three-dimensional forms, and his understanding of materials.
How does this link back to our material of focus, Chromium, you ask?
Trimarchi uses a variety of steel which is very high in Chromium content, in fact, the number 18 in 18/10 denotes the percentage of Chromium in this alloy–18%, where the minimum is 10.5%. 18/10 Stainless steel indicates a very high-quality, durable material that will be highly resistant to stains, rust, and corrosion while maintaining a bright, attractive shine, something that is evident in Trimarchi's wafer-thin, yet robust and long-lasting products.
On the other hand, creatives like Danish artist Jeppe Hein, capitalize on Chromium in its plated or coated state. With Chromium or Chrome plating, a layer of Chromium is electroplated on the outside of a plastic or metal object. It is used for both decorative and industrial purposes. With decorative applications, chrome-plating is used to create the desired, mirror-finish aesthetic, as well as to strengthen the object to which the Chromium is electroplated.
The most significant differences between Chrome plating and using an alloy such as stainless steel are the composition (plating uses only Chromium), the weight–Chrome plated objects are much lighter–and the expense, where chrome plating is much cheaper than sourcing stainless steel. Chrome-plated objects are, however, more lustrous and less durable.
Think of these qualities and differences when looking at Jeppe Hein’s project ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ seen here–an installation of 6 balloons made of glass fiber-reinforced plastic, coated with mirror-like Chrome, and united with a birch stem. 'Fly Me to the Moon' is part of a more extensive body of works–all mirrored balloons–created by Hein for exhibitions and even a metro station globally, where the balloons hug the bottom of ceilings, gently moving, or appear to be tied down with string and ready to fly away. Due to their shape and reflective surface, the balloons produce a distorted perspective of the surrounding space, similar to a fish-eye view. This creates a pleasurable moment of engagement for visitors–with the artwork, with the space, and with each other when they catch each others' eye on the surfaces of the ballons.
Hein capitalizes on two qualities of Chrome plating–the glossy mirror-like finish, which produces highly interactive reflections, and its extremely lightweight nature, which allows the balloons to float airily below ceilings or suspend lightly from ties. The balloons have a dense metallic appearance while being incredibly lightweight, a contradiction and feat that is only possible by plating with Chromium.
Curious about the various formats Chromium is available in, or how you can source it? Click here to learn more about Chromium on the Goodfellow Materials Hub–a resource on technical materials that we highly recommend and rely on.