An interview with the industrial designer Jörg Gätjens from Cologne about the ambivalence of design objects made from plastic and about the future of our “plastic culture”.

Personal details: born in Duisburg in 1965; studied at the Hanover University of Applied Sciences (FHH) / Design and Media Faculty from 1990 to 1997; Project Manager at Nils Holger Moormann GmbH in Aschau / Chiemgau from 1997 to 2002; self-employed since 2002, establishment of a design studio in Cologne; winner of the Design Report Award presented by the forum for young designers at the International Furniture Fair in Milan in 2004;

What makes plastic so attractive to designers?
Jörg Gätjens: The fascinating thing about plastic is its mouldability, which has not as yet been bettered by any other material. Plastic’s potential is not obvious from the granulate, which is supplied in sacks as little balls. However, when it is liquefied and processed by the injection moulding process, perfectly designed products can be created that can be reproduced as often as you want too. In the final analysis, however, the potential of the material is only exploited to the full because we designers have such brilliant ideas (he laughs), for the implementation of which computer programs are then used to manufacture appropriately sophisticated tooling, i.e. metal moulds.

Is plastic superior to wood or metal?
Jörg Gätjens: Yes and no – it depends on what you want to do with the material. Some plastics have the advantage that they are resilient and stay flexible, i.e. do not break immediately, when pressure is applied. This makes them suitable, for example, for small and very complex structures – like devices which are supposed to lock into place somewhere, attachments that can be taken off equipment to be cleaned etc. Plastic is unrivalled in this respect, since there is no other material that is able to match it. Economic viability plays a role too: a product that can and is supposed to be sold by the thousand is much more likely to be economic if it is produced from plastic rather than, for example, wood. Although the manufacturers have to invest a great deal of money in the mould – the amounts are often € 50,000 or more in the case of large parts – the unit price is extremely low, because large quantities can be produced quickly, and this promotes sales. It means, on the other hand, that there is no point in manufacturing a product from plastic when fewer than five or ten thousand of them are planned. Or take the plastic chair I am sitting on; the difference from wood can be explained using this example too: the legs of the chair are only four or five millimetres thick. They are stable even so, because the convolutions of the mould make sure they can carry the load – like cardboard that has been folded. If it was made of wood, the leg of the chair would be more solid and the chair as a whole would be considerably heavier. Consumers consider wood to be a more valuable material than plastic, on the other hand. It retains its appeal even when age has left its mark on it. The effects of ageing tend to be seen negatively where plastic is concerned.

So what determines the value that we give plastic?
Jörg Gätjens: At the end of the day, simply what can be or has been made out of it – and whether the material and the product happen to be fashionable or popular at the time or not. And this in turn is determined by thoroughly banal aesthetic or consumer trends, as easy as that. It is certainly the case that plastic no longer has the image of a cheap imitation material; not in upmarket product culture, at least – “Authentics” is one example here – or at the high-end design level, i.e. things that have museum potential. Its image fluctuates even so. It has been claimed: “the matt Authentics finish is high-quality and will stay that way.” Nonsense! How can anyone rule out that this finish will be “out” in ten or fifteen years and people will then prefer to buy something glossy? Product cycles are getting shorter and shorter and this is affecting the furniture industry too. I think that even design icons will not survive for ever, because high-end products also depend entirely on external factors that can change – the reputation of the designer or the manufacturer, for example, the cultural background or quite simply buyer acceptance.

That sounds as if plastic design is per se condemned to have a short life.
Jörg Gätjens: No matter what material they are made from, all design objects are subject to the whims of fashion and we are experiencing how the up- and downtrends are changing increasingly quickly. An additional point with everyday products made from plastic is that very few survive, in dramatic contrast to the longevity of the material, incidentally. There are two time dimensions where plastic design is concerned: the products are used for a foreseeably short period of time, while the material takes an unforeseeably long period of time to degrade. This makes the use of plastics ambivalent. They have increased design potential substantially and their versatility is fascinating, but they give me at least a guilty conscience from the environmental point of view!

Can your conscience perhaps be eased by plastic recycling?
Jörg Gätjens:
Recycling is better than not recycling, there is no doubt about that. The concept is problematic all the same, for several different reasons. First of all – and this aspect is as relevant to designers as the environmental issue: even though work is being done on the problem, the quality of the original plastic still deteriorates when it is recycled at the present time, even if sorting is done very efficiently. The flow properties deteriorate, the material becomes more porous etc. In other words: once they have been remelted, products of inferior quality are all that can be made from most commodity plastics, like park benches, crash barriers etc. This is downgrading, so that the word decycling is also used in this context.
And there is another thing: although recycling is considered to be environmentally friendly and therefore has a positive image, all it really is in the end is a loophole to leave things the way they are. Waste volume is not reduced, landfill sites and the gigantic floating islands of waste in the sea are talked up to represent valuable raw material reservoirs – all of this is right in line with our growth-based economy. To this extent, recycling is an inherent part of the system. To my way of thinking, resource minimisation has priority: the production of yoghurt tubs, fruit packaging and other products we need day in, day out and then throw away immediately from plastic cannot be justified, because valuable mineral oil is wasted to make them. It is an unfortunate fact that we have not yet made much progress in the biological field, e.g. with plastics produced by bacteria. While the biologically degradable plastics that are said to be “green” still have huge disadvantages. They are not, for example, dimensionally stable in the presence of moisture and can only be put to sensible use indoors. In my opinion, the cradle-to-cradle concept is a trendsetting development that is not, however, mature enough for practical application yet either. What are involved here are closed loops without any waste, i.e. reuse on a one-to-one basis without downgrading.

You said earlier on that the image of plastic is determined to a large extent by fashion and consumer trends, i.e. ultimately by social factors. So what are in your opinion the social preconditions for a pro-plastic environment?
Jörg Gätjens:
Take the “anti-plastic” period in the 80s with the slogan “jute not plastic”: this was largely a period when established patterns of behaviour like the whole of our consumer society were questioned. Plastic, on the other hand, stands not for reflection but for industrial and social feasibility, for absolute formability – of people too! Plastic is excess, the exact opposite of sacrifice. Plastic experienced a comeback as well when parties were trendy again in the 90s. As I see it, the link can be summarised by the sentence: “I can do anything I want to” – with plastic and with individuals. Both of them have multiple identities; at any rate, there was and still is this philosophy of “who am I and, if so, how many of us are there?”. This can be accompanied by uncertainty - or a feeling of tremendous freedom, which is fuelled by consumption too. There are so many different products nowadays that there is something for everyone; we can buy products that flatter our own ego and confirm our own conception of ourselves. There can be very little talk of freedom in this context, however, because marketing dominates everything: the identification features that marketing associates with products have an impact on individual desires and influence our identity management.

What future do you think our “plastic culture” has?
Jörg Gätjens:
We are living in turbulent times, when fundamental changes are being made. 2009 and 2010 stood for the global financial and economic crisis, while 2011 stands for Fukushima – as well as for the abandonment of nuclear power, in Germany at least. The revival of the environmental movement will also lead at some stage to the abandonment of fossil energy sources and thus of mineral oil-based plastics. Maintaining the status quo must not be – and in my opinion will not be – a conceivable option. Plastic is likely to remain significant in high-tech fields – for environmental reasons too, incidentally: cars that contain a large proportion of plastic are lighter and consume less fuel. Plastic will probably lose a huge amount of ground in product design, however, - at least as a fashion trend as well as in the case of run-of-the-mill commodity products. In spite of this, there is unlikely to be any need to be really worried about the future of plastic in my business too, if BASF, Bayer and co. succeed in producing large quantities of biological plastic in good time. I am certain that a revolution on the material side will lead to another boom.