A flexible friend

A chemist invented the first plastic in 1907 and the material has been in and out of fashion ever since, but Clare Dowdy finds it still very much in demand, for everything from food packaging to recyclable chairs

Mr McGuire/ ‘I just want to say one word to you – just one word.’

Ben: ‘Yes, sir.’

Mr McGuire: ‘Are you listening?’

Ben: ‘Yes, I am.’

Mr McGuire: ‘Plastics.’

This conversation from the opening sequence of the 1967 film The Graduate sums up the confidence people had in this product, a full 60 years after the arrival of the first wholly synthetic material, Bakelite.

This has been matched by the product’s versatility and potential for innovation, and, because pioneering materials need designers with the same spirit, plastic has certainly had its fair share of creative input. From Raymond Loewy to Marcel Wanders, the great and the good have had a crack at it, with some surprisingly stylish results. Bakelite’s formula was discovered in 1907 by Belgian-born, US-based, chemist Leo Baekeland. The company he founded, the General Bakelite Corporation, aligned itself with big hitters such as Henry Dreyfuss (who designed the iconic black Model 300 telephone in Bakelite for the Bell Telephone Corporation), Loewy, Walter Teague and Norman Bel Geddes.

These US-based designers embraced the material’s potential, exploiting the fact that it needed to be compress moulded to create streamlined products, explains Dr Susan Mossman, the curator of London’s Science Museum show Plasticity – 100 Years of Making Plastics. This aesthetic worked well with Art Deco and Modernism. Nor were these designers (or US consumers) put off by plastic’s capacity to be brightly coloured – note Fada’s amber-hued set.

This is in contrast with the UK, where consumers were somewhat underwhelmed. Over here, the Ekco Radio Company brought out vividly hued sets by the likes of Misha Black, Wells Coates and ‹ Serge Chermayeff. ‘Ekco tried Bakelite cases, but the British were resistant, so it went back to imitation wood cases,’ Mossman explains.

Still, that’s not to knock Coates’ 1932 model for Ekco, the much-lauded AD65. It may have been dark brown, but it was daringly circular, to house the round speaker.

By the 1940s, Bakelite was no longer the only plastic material, as competition had come along in the form of nylon, polythene, acrylics and the like. Tupperware, invented by Earl Silas Tupper at DuPont in 1945, was a softer product, which also got plenty of attention.

In some respects, plastics’ reputation took a knocking after World War II, when a glut led to some inappropriate inventions. In particular, Mossman mentions polystyrene toys which broke, colanders which melted over boiling saucepans, and polythene washing-up bowls which also melted, this time in front of open fires.

But despite this and the mass production of items that has followed (think of the Bic biro), it is still a collectable material. And it has certainly proved its usefulness, perhaps most effectively in Pipco’s early rendition of the frisbee in 1948 – the company’s founders, Warren Franscioni and Walter Morrison, discovered that plastic was perfect for a flying disc that could be caught without hurting people’s hands.

Tom Dixon was recently enamoured with polystyrene, creating a giveaway chair with EPS Packaging Group as part of last year’s 100% East show in London. ‘The polystyrene chair was just waiting to be born,’ says Dixon. ‘Cheap and light, it can be made in quantity. What’s more, it’s useful and functional.’

Ross Lovegrove and Ron Arad have also turned to plastic, and at this year’s Milan furniture fair, Wanders exhibited Bella Belinda, supersize plastic replicas of ornamental porcelain bells, while Philippe Starck turned heads with Moore, a goblet-shaped seat of lacquered nylon. And where would Inflate be today without plastic?

As well as products, designers have been known to introduce the material into interiors schemes. Found Associates’ men’s shoe department for Selfridges London in 2005 included a tortoiseshell effect to help conjure up the feel of a gentlemen’s club. The consultancy’s first thought was to go for Bakelite, but that didn’t work. Instead, Found director Michael Girvan says, ‘We used layers and layers of plastic resins to create [an] effect.’

Despite the obvious appeal of working with plastic, it has become something of a dirty word. Fine if you’re inventing life-saving plastic blood, or protective clothing for skiing which changes shape on impact, for example. But less worthy outputs are frowned upon. After all, 4 per cent of the world’s oil production goes into plastic, but only 10 per cent of it is currently recycled.

However, designers themselves are making great strides in achieving environmental respectability. Matthew Hilton’s injection-moulded polypropylene Wait must be one of the most appealing mass- produced stackable chairs and is fully recyclable, and Herman Miller’s ergonomic Mirra office chair by German group Studio 7.5 is made from recyclable materials and is itself 96 per cent recyclable.

‘People now have to think about the life cycle of plastics, and product designers need to think clever,’ says Mossman, pointing to the food industry, in particular, with its out-of-favour multilayered packaging. l

Plasticity – 100 Years of Making Plastics, from 22 May to January 2009, at the Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London SW7

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