From hip to skip

Despite issues with recycling, plastic’s super-low cost and its infinite flexibility have long made it a favourite with designers. Liz Farrelly visits two exhibitions dedicated to the man-made material and is reminded of its enduring appeal

Plastic has spawned so many design classics that it’s difficult to list them all: the Swatch watch, Ray-Ban’s Wayfarers, Vernon Panton’s Panton chair, Lego’s bricks, Dyson’s vacuum cleaners and Zaha Hadid’s shoes for Brazilian manufacturer Melissa. Despite, or perhaps because of, its ubiquity, plastic’s cheap and nasty reputation lingers – even the iconic iPod, initially loved for its seamless, tactile plastic casing, is to be remade in metal.

Inappropriately specified and misused, plastic will fail – through scratching, cracking, melting or shattering. And while modern plastics offer a wide range of properties, including heat resistance and elasticity, new fears about toxicity and disposability mean plastic is in need of a makeover.

Dr Susan Mossman, of the Science Museum, provides some mind-boggling statistics in her book Fantastic Plastic: Product Design and Consumer Culture. In 2007, 230 million tonnes of plastic were produced globally. Americans use 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour; until a few months ago China used three billion plastic bags daily, until the government banned the ultra-thin variety and put a price on the rest. Last year, the UK created three million tonnes of plastic waste, and recycled just 7 per cent.

Mossman points out that short- and long-service plastics present us with different problems. While short-service plastics (packaging) should be engineered to decompose, long-service plastics (consumer goods) must be made more stable, to ensure long-term usability. ‘Some iconic plastic designs are fast degrading,’ adds Mossman, becoming too brittle for even museum curators to handle. So, how can designers improve the reputation of plastic and reduce the proliferation of plastic waste? ‘By selecting the right plastic for the relevant application,’ suggests Mossman, ‘and working with industry from an early stage, so design is not just bolted on. Form shouldn’t triumph over function, but should be seamlessly woven together. Designers and scientists need to integrate the whole life-cycle process into the product design, from cradle to cradle.’

In cradle-to-cradle production, all materials are regarded as technical or biological nutrients, to be recycled or reused, composted or consumed, rather than discarded to a landfill grave.

With the price of plastic’s main ingredient – oil – skyrocketing, the curating team at Arts Co, Isabella Macpherson and Sigrid Wilkinson, decided to go beyond consumer durables, asking nine experimental design teams to change our perception of plastic. Tapping into the art world trend for collecting design, they created limited-edition objects (in a series of eight) which feature in From Now to Eternity, an exhibition coinciding with the Frieze Art Fair.

Arts Co briefed the designers on the entire history of plastic, giving them free rein to respond. ‘Plastic has offered designers new ways to express the zeitgeist formally, but it is also synonymous with the excesses of consumer culture and its role in despoiling the environment’, explain Macpherson and Wilkinson. ‘These days designers are required to balance aesthetic response with technological and ecological developments.’

Each team created an object that highlights a uniquely plastic issue, be it waste, nostalgia, preservation, or in the case of Fat’s stool (incorporating a classical bust moulded from ‘stress ball’ material), its ability to deform. ‘We explored how things that are familiar and certain become less familiar and strange,’ explains Fat’s Sam Jacob.

Tom Price has been working with plastics for a year, creating his Meltdown series of chairs. ‘I spent months trying to source large quantities of discarded plastics to make my chairs. There’s so much bureaucracy with the recycling industry that for a small company to try to siphon off a quantity of materials before they get shipped to China or Eastern Europe is almost impossible,’ explains Price.

But he got lucky, sourcing great piles of discarded fleece jumpers. ‘The simple application of heat transforms a soft, tactile fabric into a hard, shiny, colourful surface, a metamorphosis that I find utterly captivating,’ he says.

Meanwhile, Raw-Edges evoke childhood nostalgia, incorporating Fisher-Price toys into desirable furniture; Rolf Sachs preserves a scarred leather armchair with translucent vacuum packing, and Hiroko Shiratori creates a bin bag chair stuffed with compressed waste that she calls ‘a future fossil’.

Experimental though these objects are, the results clearly demonstrate that plastics offer a wider range of attributes than simply high-volume, low-cost production. ‘Use the world’s creative thinkers to solve problems,’ suggests Arts Co, ‘because they think differently.’

From Now to Eternity: Plastic in Design, Biscuit Building, 10 Redchurch Street, London E2, until 19 October Plasticity: 100 Years of Making Plastics, Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London SW7, until 1 January 2009

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