The word “plastic,” deriving from plastikos, Ancient Greek for “molded,” has for ages been used to spell out sculptural qualities in artwork. In everyday usage it is usually used as a synonym for artificial materials, its original meaning. And yet it’s the first meaning that describes the very quality of artificial materials that’s of greatest interest in design: moldability.
Synthetically created sub positions were at first replacements for finite and there fore expensive natural materials, but research and technology have made synthetic mother terials more and more multifaceted, a development. As with cars, which have also existed for just about 150 years, it is not easy to visualize a world without artificial materials. Most artificial substances are made from fossil fuels and could be split into three major categories: ther moplastics, thermosets, and elastomers.
Every one of these has its own particular features, which are the result of their molecular structures. Thermo plastics, for example polypropylene and polyethylene, can be reheated and remolded, whereas thermosets, including melamine and Bakelite, can’t be reshaped. Elastomers, including silicone rubber and natural rubber, could be molded using pressure, but revert to their original shape. They all have strong electrical and thermal insulating properties, enormous resistance, the ability to retain their shape in temperatures that are different, as well as a high level of plasticity. Various characteristics and properties may be created via the selection of the generation process the stuff, and the usage of additives.
They are therefore perfect for industrial serial production, and provide designers with a virtually endless spectrum of possibilities. The foundation of the synthetics business as we understand it now was laid by the American Charles Goodyear in 1839, when he managed to develop a procedure for vulcanizing rubber. For the very first time in history it became possible, through the utilization of extreme heat, pressure, as well as the addition of sulfur, to create a type of rubber (thermoplastic) that did not lose its shape in various temperatures.
These first “plastics” from the time before 1850 contained Goodyear’s gum elastic, vulcanite, gutta percha, Florence Compound, and bois durci (a hard com position produced from wood flour blended with cows blood and pressed). They were used to make insu lation, along with golf balls, mourning decorations (because they Custom Made Furniture Fremantle were black, fig. p. 102), hairbrushes, hand mirrors, photograph frames, and other lavishly adorned objects for ornamentation and home fur nishings. In small batches, such things were already created during this early phase. These plastics were used chiefly as replacements for expensive natural materials like tortoise shell, ivory, onyx, and mother of pearl, and in this way introduced a degree of affordable luxury to the lives of working men and girls. The invention of Bakelite was truly groundbreak ing. In 1907 the Belgian Leo Baekeland registered a patent on a procedure that used pressure, alkali, heat, and acid to a combination of aldehydes and phenols.
This led to the first pro duced, artificial thermoset. In contrast to earlier plastics, Bakelite was quite steady, and had insulating properties, was free of bubbles may be made simply and cost effectively. These charac teristics, combined with improvements in electronics, opened up a wealth of formerly nonexistent opportunities to designers. During the 1920 and 1930 plastics were improved as well as their processing procedures made more efficient. Largescale serial production was introduced, for example the manu facture of the DBH 1001 (amount right), the Ericsson phone of 1931, designed by Jean Heiberg. This was the first phone to truly have a Bakelite rather than a metal housing.
The plastic had better and was more hygienic, but, most impor tantly, it could be molded into a flowing, ergonomic shape, true that would inspire all future models, including Henry Dreyfuss’s renowned 1937 Model 302 for Bell. Bakelite caused plastic to be a symbol of mo dernity. It was not accessible clear, clear, in a variety of colours and white, and its use was not confined to truly being a substitute for natural materials. The American Streamline layouts of the 19305 particularly, including the Hoover vacuum cleaner Model 150 by Dreyfuss (1936) as well as the Zenith Radio Nurse baby monitor by Isamu Noguchi (1937, amount p. 185) (see Art in DesignDesign in Art) increased the value of plastics and made them popular. These designs joined this new, modern material with brand new, modern types, creating affordable, well designed lifestyle articles for the middle classes.
The states saw them selves faced using an enormous lack of natural resources, and so authorities provided generous funding for research into the synthet icmaterials sector. The emphasis then was, of course, on the production of military equipment. It was in this context that the first pieces of Plexi glas were used in plastics in radio equipment, and gas masks in rubber, silicone and airplanes.
Devel opment focused on functionality and the improve ment of substance properties, like resilience to wear, temperature change, and aging. This surge in technical advances is especially clearly in the visual appearance of products produced from artificial materials before and after the war. The plastics industry in general benefited from the competitive spirit of innovation in several states. The designers Charles and Ray Eames, for instance, designed their revolutionary plastic shell chair (1950, amount p. 100) from a glassreinforced polyester that had initially been developed by the military for wheel spats and protective helmets.
The result was the first uncushioned seating fur niture made of plastic, with the seat bucket produced in serial production and being made of a single bit. The formal language that developed was entirely new, and pressed the possibilities pro vided by the substance to their limits. The products were more streamlined and lighter, and though the initial cost of development was high, it became lower total as it was divided up between a lot of units. Plastics completed their conquest of everyday life in the 19505.
Formica tables, melamine crockery, Tupperware (fig. p. 105), telephones and radios colorful, cheap, and hygienic plastic objects were soon to be found in every household. In Swe den Bjorn & the designers Bernadotte created the mixing bowl Margarethe, an aesthetically satisfying and, most of all, extremely robust and prac tical home utensil. It was named after Bernad otte’s niece, the presentday Queen of Denmark, con tinues to be produced, and is still a fixture in many kitchens. Demand aroused. This had a deleterious effect on quality, nonetheless, which eventually had a negative impact on the image of artificial substances.
Plastic had become, above all else, disposable and inexpensive. Other highquality plastics, polycarbonate, polyethylene and polypropylene became obtainable in the 19603. They could be processed in a wide variety of ways, could be modeled into almost any shape, and were quite resistant to stress. Social change, the pluralization of lifestyles, along with the demand for greater personal freedom were also represented in layout, which became increasingly experimental.
These new materials were just the thing. Italian makers such as Artemide, Kartell, Poltrono va, and Zanotta in particular supported the devel opment of new, nontraditional layouts, ushering in the golden age of plastic. An unprecedented range of designs, colors, and kinds was created. For the first time progressive, futuristic designs were affordable for the overall public thanks to the inex pensive material from which they were made. One of the most powerful seat designs of all times dates to this period: the Danish designer Verner Panton’s Panton seat of 1967 (fig. pp. 106/107).
In cooperation with Vitra, he managed to create the very first chair to be made from one bit of poured plastic. With its hot, smooth, and revolutionary appearance, the Panton became the iconic chair of its genera tion. It’s at once a plastic chair along with a plastic sculpture. The inflatable furniture created from heat fused polyvinyl chloride (PVC) by Bernard Quentin, Nguyen Manh Khanh, and Jonathan de Pas were also products of this time. The oil crisis of 1973 put a stop to the lowcost, cheerful, and colorful Pop era. Plastic was no lon ger an affordable stuff, criticism of overcon sumption and waste and environ mental comprehension was growing.
This led, among other things, to designs that were logical. A resurrection of natural materials started, and the picture of plastics deteriorated. As a result, manmade stuff became, once more, substitutes which were designed to mirror nature, the usage of laminates and imitation leather became widespread. The designers of the early 198os played on exact ly this paradox, and rebelled against oldfashioned fauXnatural designs. They knowingly chose to use affordable, artificial materials for example lami nates, and embellished them with loud, brilliant patterns.
The Italian design group Memphis was at the cutting edge, not only enhancing the image of synthetic substances, but also paving the way in the 19803 and 199os for a renaissance of plastics in de hint (see Postmodernism). Designers made plastic their stuff of choice and thought again about its exceptional characteristics. Manufacturers like Alessi jumped aboard the bright colored plastics band wagon, having understood that they were ideal for supplying the mass market, which was in search of designs that were new, modern, brilliant, and in expensive. It was in this context that designs such as the Bookworm bookcase by Ron Arad for Kartell (1994, fig. preceding) and the multicolored housewares by Stefano Giovannoni for Alessi were created.
The renaissance of plastics in design was accompanied by fantastic technical developments. In 1998 Philippe Starck created another landmark of chair design with his Ghost show (fig. right). These were the first completely transparent chairs, made from just one piece of polycarbonate in a completely automated production process. This postmodern design combines historic kinds with the most modern of technologies and substances, once again giving plas tics an aura of lightness and sophistication. The most recent styles in the use of plastic include com puterbased designs and ecologically sound designs (see H ighTech Design and Ecological Design).
Many manmade substances are already recyclable, and new kinds that are made without additives that are toxic and mineral oils are constantly being developed. Biopoly mers, for instance, are made from renewable re sources like starch, cellulose, and lactic acid. For the business FluidSolids, the Swiss designer Beat Karrer developed a biopolymer from industrial waste products that can be processed in a wide selection of manners and renewable substances; it is cost efficient, stable, extremely adaptable, and itself recyclable. It can also be utilized in a wide selection of ways as it can be independently programmed for specific design jobs. In the same way that plastics have in the past contribut ed to the democratization of design, these new kinds of plastic could help to make design sustainable.
Complex computer programs that can gener ate threedimensional models open up new worlds of possibility for designers using plastics. Kinds are becoming increasingly more complicated, and details can be made with increasing precision. De signs by Ross Lovegrovelike the Cosmic Leaf light (2009, fig. above right) and the Ty Nant water bottle (19992001)push back the boundaries of the ma terials and of the techniques with which they are made. Other famed designers whose designs make full utilization of the technical possibilities available are Zaha Hadid, who is known for her flowing, futur istic forms, Karim Rashid, with his amazing, colorful designs, and Tom Dixon, who creates groundbreak ing, top quality, usually recyclable products. These modern, futuristic designs are often more redolent of sculpture and art than they are of things for everyday use, which is what they truly are.
Lovegrove himself describes industrial design as the “art form of the twentyfirst century” (see Art in DesignDesign in Art). And that brings us back to the first significance of plastic: the sculptural and the moldable.