Exhibition


David Trigg walks us through plastic’s journey, from wonder material to maligned ecological menace.


‘I WANT TO SAY one word to you, just one word: plastics. There’s a great future in plastics; think about it.’ These words, spoken by Mr McGuire in the 1967 fi lm ‘The Graduate’, were offered as career advice to the young Benjamin Braddock – played by Dustin Hoff man – but they fell on deaf ears. There certainly was a great future in plastics, which were in the ascendance in the 1960s and by 1990 had surpassed global steel production. For the film’s aimless 21-year-old hero, however, the industry that was transforming the world with some of the most versatile materials in existence represented all that was fake, artificial and sterile about the older generation – everything Braddock and his peers were railing against. As an early disparagement of plastic in popular culture, the scene encapsulates our ambivalent relationship with this versatile material, perceived variously as high-tech wonder, symbol of modern consumerism, cheap and shoddy substitute, or, worse, ecological menace.

Henry Massonnet, Fauteuil 300 / Monobloc, Polypropylene, 1972 Vitra Design Museum, Photo: Jürgen Hans
Henry Massonnet, Fauteuil 300 / Monobloc, Polypropylene, 1972 Vitra Design Museum, Photo: Jürgen Hans

This winter, the extraordinary story of plastic, from invention to ubiquity and beyond, is told at V&A Dundee in ‘Plastic: Remaking Our World’, an exhibition organised in collaboration with Germany’s Vitra Design Museum and the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology in Lisbon. Through the lens of design, the exhibition charts the remarkable achievements of plastic, its transformative power and environmental challenges. On show are objects ranging from the earliest days of polymer chemistry to today, which demonstrate the many ways in which plastic has inspired generations of designers to push the envelope and fill our world with innovative and iconic products. Classic designs are showcased alongside contemporary concepts, prototypes and the cutting edge substances that are being developed to tackle the pitfalls of an omnipresent material that has utterly revolutionised the way we live.

Bär+Knell, Müll Direkt, 1994 Vitra Design Museum, Photo: Jürgen Hans
Bär+Knell, Müll Direkt, 1994 Vitra Design Museum, Photo: Jürgen Hans

The story begins in the 19th century where, in the well appointed Victorian home, objects made with materials such as ivory, horn and tortoiseshell were once common. But, as demand for animal products grew, scarcity and high prices led pioneering scientists to develop synthetic alternatives. An early breakthrough came when the British inventor Alexander Parkes experimented with cellulose to create a flexible material called Parkesine, which could be carved or moulded when heated, yet due to its high production costs was a commercial failure. A similar product was celluloid, invented in the early 1870s by the Americans John Wesley Hyatt and his brother Isaiah. Again, the cost of solvents required for its production were high and its material properties could not compete with ivory. However, celluloid’s flexibility and transparency made a perfect substitute for the heavy glass plates used by photographers, and when George Eastman coated thin strips of it with photographic emulsion in 1888, he invented the world’s first photographic film, which led to the emergence of motion pictures in the following decade.

Eero Aarnio, Pallo / Ball Chair, Globe Chair, 1963 Vitra Design Museum, Photo: Jürgen Hans
Eero Aarnio, Pallo / Ball Chair, Globe Chair, 1963 Vitra Design Museum, Photo: Jürgen Hans

Although celluloid represented a significant breakthrough, especially in cinematic history, its utility was limited. Far more successful was Bakelite, a strong and durable material named after Leo Baekeland who originally synthesised it from phenol and formaldehyde in 1907 as a cheap replacement for the natural resin shellac. Bakelite’s ability to be moulded and set into stylish, curved forms made it incredibly useful for the mass production of consumer objects. As a thermoset plastic, which never softens once moulded, its heat resistant and nonconductive properties made it ideal for light switches, wall sockets and electrical appliances such as telephones, radios and televisions. For Paul T. Frankl, Bakelite expressed ‘the vernacular of the 20th century...the language of invention and synthesis’. Iconic Bakelite designs on display in Dundee include the Bauhaus Fuld Telephone (1928/29), attributed to Marcel Breuer and Richard Schadewell and which was designed for the ‘New Frankfurt’, a programme of modern, affordable housing in Frankfurt am Main. With its clean, streamline design, the telephone exemplifies the Bauhaus principle of ‘form follows function’, and one was installed in each of the 12,000 glistening new apartments. Also on display is Wells Coates’ A22 Radio (1946) for British manufacturer EKCO, the circular design of which uses compression-moulded Bakelite instead of traditional wood casing. Recalling Coates’ earlier A65 model, it foregoes traditional stylings with a modern pared-back look to emphasise its underlying functionalism.

Photo by Peter Stackpole, staged to illustrate an article on ‘Throwaway Living’, LIFE magazine, August 1, 1955 Getty/Photo: Peter Stackpole
Photo by Peter Stackpole, staged to illustrate an article on ‘Throwaway Living’, LIFE magazine, August 1, 1955 Getty/Photo: Peter Stackpole

Central to the development of modern plastics are synthetic polymers: chemical compounds with large molecules bonded together in long chains of repeating subunits. As industrial scientists grew in their understanding of polymer chemistry in the 1920s and 1930s, new substances with unique properties were invented at a lightning rate. The innovative chemists at IG Farben’s German lab averaged a new polymer a day, including polystyrene, polyacrylic, and polyvinyl chloride, the latter being better known as the material from which vinyl records are made. Other polymers were invented at DuPont in America, including neoprene, nylon and Teflon, while in England, the accidental invention of polyethylene after a failed experiment at Imperial Chemical Industries in 1933 proved instrumental in the Second World War, when it was used to insulate underwater cable and radar systems. Other plastics that played an important wartime role included nylon, which was essential for parachutes, shoelaces and hammocks, and polyacrylic, which was used in aircraft manufacture.

Panasonic Toot-a-Loop R-72S radio, 1969–72 Vitra Design Museum Photo: Andreas Sütterlin
Panasonic Toot-a-Loop R-72S radio, 1969–72 Vitra Design Museum Photo: Andreas Sütterlin

With the new plastic technology channelled into the war effort, it would be some time before the materials found their way into daily life. This didn’t stop British chemists Victor Yarsley and Edward Couzens dreaming of the ‘Plastic Age’ that they believed would materialise when the hostilities were over. Their 1941 book ‘Plastics’ describes ‘Plastic Man’, who would be born ‘into a world of colour and bright, shining surfaces’ and be surrounded by unbreakable toys and scuff-proof walls. He would grow up to travel in lightweight plastic cars, boats and planes, be entertained by shows on plastic film, listen to plastic-encased radios and wear dirt-repellant plastic clothing. In old age he would wear plastic glasses and plastic dentures, and when death finally came he would be buried in a hygienically sealed coffin, made, of course, from plastic. This, they suggested, would be a brighter and cleaner world, ‘in which man, like a magician, makes what he wants for almost every need.’

The Ocean Cleanup, system 002 deployed for testing in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 2021 The Ocean Cleanup
The Ocean Cleanup, system 002 deployed for testing in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 2021 The Ocean Cleanup

Yarsley and Couzens’s utopian vision was shared by many designers and manufacturers who were keen to exploit the world of endless shapes and colours offered by thermoplastics, which become pliable under heat and solid upon cooling. After the war, the first National Plastics Exposition was held in New York City in 1946, promoting the many benefits of plastic, such as its affordability, durability, portability and easy-cleanability. Soon, the market was flooded with plastic products, from homeware, furniture, textiles and clothing, to electronic appliances, toys and cars. In 1957, Monsanto installed its all-plastic ‘House of the Future’ at Disneyland to showcase the versatility of plastics for the needs of a modern society. The house, which appeared to have fallen straight from a sci-fi film, featured four rounded symmetric wings cantilevered off a central core and was fabricated entirely with glass-reinforced plastics. Everything inside was made from plastic too, including the futuristic microwave and dishwasher, which would eventually become commonplace appliances. The plastic age had begun, and by the end of the 20th century, it had reached every corner of the globe.

Among the many items of iconic plastic furniture on display in Dundee is the Pallo Chair (1963) by Finnish designer Eero Aarnio. Made from white fibreglass-reinforced polyester and upholstered in red leather, the spherical, swivelling lounge chair was an immediate success at the 1965 International Furniture Fair in Cologne and quickly appeared in films, fashion shoots and on magazine covers, with celebrities, models and politicians all photographed sitting in the cosy ball. In Britain, Robin Day transformed post-war furniture design with his modern approach to mass production, experimenting with injection moulding to create brightly coloured, affordable designs, such as his iconic 1963 Polyprop chair, the first chair to be made of polypropylene. Found in halls and auditoriums the world over, the strong and versatile chair, which is still in production, stirred up the market, displacing products such as the Eames Fibreglass Chair (1950) as the seating of choice for the masses.

Richard John Seymour, From the Series ‘Yiwu Commodity City’, 2015 Richard John Seymour
Richard John Seymour, From the Series ‘Yiwu Commodity City’, 2015 Richard John Seymour

The first chair to be manufactured entirely of plastic was Helmut Bätzner’s brightly coloured Bofinger Chair (1964), made from fibreglass-reinforced polyester and produced in a single pressing over a steel mould. This was followed by Joe Colombo’s versatile Universale stacking side chair (1967) made from polypropylene, and Vico Magistretti’s compact Selene (1968), similarly moulded as a single piece. Another classic all-plastic design was Verner Panton’s curvaceous Panton chair (1967), an innovative piece of seating, the curves of which follow the form of the sitter’s body. Its ergonomic shape and slight flexibility make for a surprisingly comfortable sitting experience. An important development in the 1970s was the Monobloc, a cheap white polypropylene chair produced from a single mould that can be credited to the French designer Henry Massonnet. Taking less than two minutes to produce, Massonnet’s Fauteuil 300 (1972) was light, stackable, cheap, and copied by multiple plastic manufacturers, making the Monobloc one of the most widely used pieces of furniture in the world. The chair’s global ubiquity embodies the best and worst of our consumer society: democratic and affordable yet environmentally unsustainable. With the Monobloc being impossible to repair, the majority inevitably end their life in landfill.

Ineke Hans, REX chair, 2021 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021/ Vitra Design Museum Photo: Andreas Sütterlin
Ineke Hans, REX chair, 2021 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021/ Vitra Design Museum Photo: Andreas Sütterlin

It is estimated that, once discarded, around 80 percent of all plastic is dumped in landfills or elsewhere in the environment where, as a non biodegradable material, it will remain for thousands of years. The ecological challenge posed by plastic waste and pollution is a major theme of ‘Plastic: Remaking Our World’, which shines a spotlight on our disposable culture. An innovative product now frowned upon is Jean Pierre Vitrac’s Plack picnic ware (c.1977), a convenient polystyrene, injection-moulded platter comprising plate, cup and cutlery that was designed to be snapped apart for use and then thrown away. The bright red, stackable place setting is a neat design yet, as a piece of disposable plastic, dreadful for the environment. A more recent culprit is the familiar polypropylene three-ply face mask, which since the Covid-19 pandemic has become an everyday object. Produced and worn in the billions, these medical-grade masks reduce transmission of the virus, but must be disposed of after one use, a fact that has forced the medical sector to re-evaluate its dependence on disposable plastics. Because of the environmental threat posed by waste plastics, many countries are moving towards outlawing single-use items. In 2021, the European Union banned ten plastic products, including disposable tableware, while in India – the world’s third-largest producer of plastic waste after the United States and China – numerous items have been prohibited in a bid to stem the flow of plastic debris blocking waterways and piling up on roadsides.

Edward Hack, Pineapple syrup bottle, c. 1958; Courtesy of Museum of Design in Plastics, Arts University Bournemouth
Edward Hack, Pineapple syrup bottle, c. 1958; Courtesy of Museum of Design in Plastics, Arts University Bournemouth

Around 14 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the world’s oceans every year, where it breaks down into smaller pieces that are often ingested by sea creatures. One innovative solution to this problem is seen in The Ocean Cleanup project, a non-profit initiative that is developing technologies to tackle marine plastic such as the mass accumulation in the North Pacific Ocean known as the Great Garbage Patch. With the aid of advanced computer modelling and enormous floating nets pulled by trawlers, the team scoop up tons of plastic waste for recycling. Of course, the reduction of such waste would ideally begin long before objects are discarded into the environment. A sustainable approach is demonstrated by Ineke Hans’ REX chair (2021), which is designed to have as little environmental impact as possible. Made from recycled plastic, it can be returned to the manufacturer for repairs or recycling after use. Alongside the development of sustainable solutions for existing plastics, many scientists and designers have started experimenting with bioplastics derived from renewable materials instead of oil and gas. Included in the exhibition is a new version of Peter Ghyczy’s iconic polyurethane Garden Egg (1967), made from 3D printed algae-based plastics by Eric Klarenbeek and Maartje Dros. ‘We want to create change and take responsibility for our environment,’ say the Dutch designers, who spent seven years developing their biopolymers, which they believe could completely replace traditional plastics over time. The result is impressive, though the chair is accompanied by an aroma of seaweed.

Precious Plastic, shredded plastic; Courtesy of Precious Plastic
Precious Plastic, shredded plastic; Courtesy of Precious Plastic

Despite shaping our daily lives for more than a century, plastic receives bad press like no other material. But, as ‘Plastic: Remaking Our World’ reveals, it isn’t necessarily plastic that is the problem than the way we use and dispose of it. When designers first began using thermoplastics, they were forerunners of a new era and the world was their oyster. Today, as our planet is increasingly feeling the strain, designers again find themselves at a similar crossroads between old and new approaches. The exhibition shows what has been achieved with plastic and just how remarkable this substance really is, but it also encourages us to rethink our relationship to it. For better or worse, plastic has remade our world. The challenge now is how to start making it afresh.








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