Topic of the month

Plastic design – from imitation to inspiration

Objects made of plastic are constant features of our everyday lives; we are literally surrounded by them. Synthetic materials (polymers) really have proved to be all-round solutions for products from files to toothbrushes and are in the meantime essential elements of our working, living and leisure environments. Their variety is concealed a little by use of the general term “plastic”, whereas what is in actual fact involved when a closer look is taken ranges from a washing basket made of polypropylene, a milk container made of melamine resin or a chair made of acrylic styrene acrylonitrile. And then there is the paradox that plastics are hardly noticed as such any more since we encounter them everywhere – they have become second nature to us. We would only really notice that they exist if they did not exist any longer: we would have to do without many useful things if plastics were not available.

The aesthetically inclined will be right to point out here that there are also plastic objects of which we are aware when they exist rather than if and when they do not exist. However, this is due primarily to their design rather than to the material: design objects made from plastic, furniture in particular, have even found their way into museums, where they can be admired as avant-garde classics (see ”Impressive plastic designs”).

Product designers discovered plastics for their work almost as soon as industrial manufacturing of them began. The product environment started to be revolutionised at the latest in 1907 with the invention by the Belgian chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863 – 1944) of Bakelite, a compound made from phenol and formaldehyde that was the first thermoformable polymer – the foundation was laid for the development of plastic into the material of the 20th century. Until then, plastics had only replaced natural materials that were expensive because they were rare. Celluloid, for example, a biopolymer obtained from wood (nitrocellulose) and camphor, that was patented in the USA in 1868, imitated expensive ivory and was initially used to make billiard balls.

The history of plastic design began with Bakelite too, because product designers accepted the challenge of creating new objects with the innovative new material for which there were no historical models, particularly cameras, telephones (see picture gallery) and radios. Art nouveau and art deco costume jewellery was also made from bakelite, however. By modern-day standards, the variety of different designs at this early stage was strictly limited by the restrictions of technical and economic efficiency. “This did not change until the streamlined form from the USA defined a distinctive formal language for the Bakelite material – and thus for plastic in general – for the first time from 1930 onwards”, as Andrej Kupetz ), the executive director of the German Design Council in Frankfurt am Main, explains in an essay about the “Evolution of design in the course of time”.Although it at first glance seems to be pointless to give a cupboard or an ashtray a streamlined shape, this development proved to be an incredible success in the consumer goods field. Following the economic crisis in 1929, it stood for the start of a new era, full of optimism and with a strong belief in the future.” A real breakthrough was not made in Germany until after 1945. At a time when the country was reluctant to focus on the past, streamlined shaping stood for a new beginning – looking forward rather than back. The “kidney table” became the most well-known design object of this period.

The Bakelite heyday did not last very long. The gloomy colour of the plastic was considered to be a disadvantage and restricted the range of possible uses. Melamine resin, on the other hand, could be given many different colours – even almost pure white – which made it the plastic of choice for tableware, for example.

Since then, plastics have become a symbol of practically unlimited choice where both colour and, above all, shape are concerned. Product styling is sometimes “sober” and sometimes “bizarre”, while the irreconcilable opposites of minimalistic understatement and brash exuberance are encountered depending on the zeitgeist and design concept (see ”Current exhibitions: plastics in museums”). The dominant trend at the moment is reduction – as a design tool, but also where weight and costs are concerned. Plastic remains a lightweight material even where large volumes are involved; the objects can be reproduced as often as is required, particularly by the injection moulding process, while the unit price gets lower and lower the larger the production run. Attractive features that make demand for plastics so strong – something that is not a recent development but was already a convincing argument when industrial mass production was just starting to establish itself – and became the driving force behind this movement. The “all-purpose” material outshines wood, glass and metal in many respects, albeit at the expense of an appearance that takes some getting used to occasionally at the aesthetic level. Quite apart from the fact that some plastics suffer from the effects of oxygen (oxidation), humidity, UV radiation and microorganisms: they are deformed or discoloured, become brittle or tacky, lose their gloss and start to look shabby. In extreme cases, they even disintegrate into their basic components sooner or later, i.e. the polymers (huge molecules) become monomers again.

Problems are encountered primarily with objects made from celluloid, complain the curators of the plastic museum “Plart” in Naples. Seating made from foamed polyurethane can literally disintegrate in the course of time too, however. Fortunately, this is now a thing of the past to a large extent: plastic designers no longer need to worry about the durability of their material. Stabilisers and additives have made plastics much more durable, weather-resistant and scratch-resistant. There has been progress at the aesthetic level too: polypropylene, for example, used to be a milky substance, but polymer research has in the meantime succeeded in producing translucent polypropylene that looks almost like glass, which is processed into objects with a grainy, slightly rough surface. From the mid-90s onwards, style was defined here by the bathroom and kitchen accessories developed by the German company “Authentics”, established by Hansjerg Maier-Aichen, Professor for Product Design at the Design University (HfG) in Karlsruhe. The services of Konstantic Grcic (born in 1965) from Munich, the superstar of the German design community, as a designer were obtained. To enable the characteristic surface structure to be achieved, the metal mould was processed in an etching bath. Grcic: “The method produces not just a new look but also a new feel, the object makes a warmer and, at the same time, higher-quality impression.” What is known as “author design” has a tradition in the plastic field, attracting not only Grcic, who the magazine “art” has called the “greatest living designer”, but also such illustrious names as Eero Aarnio (born in Finland in 1932) with his “Bubble Chair” (1968), Luigi (Lutz) Colani (born in Germany in 1968) with his “Zocker Seat” (1971), Vico Magistretti (1920-2006) from Italy with his standard lamp “Mezzachimera” (1969), Jasper Morrison (born in England in 1959) with his “Basel Chair” (2008), Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007), Italo-Austrian, with his portable typewriter “Valentine” (1968), Philippe Starck (born in France in 1949) with his “Mr. Impossible Chair” (2007) and Wilhelm Wagenfeld (1900-1990) from Germany with aircraft tableware for Lufthansa (1955).

Plastics can be put to more varied uses than ever before nowadays. So it is no surprise that designers are faithful to them and regularly discover new sides to them. The unlimited possibilities have a downside as well, however: they make it difficult to commit oneself. “You can do whatever you want with the material – and that is exactly the problem designers – or I at least – face”, Konstantin Grcic admitted in an interview in 1988. Nine years later, at “K 2007” in Düsseldorf, Grcic’s chair “Myto” “Myto” premiered. A monoblock cantilever chair made from polybutylene terephthalate (“Ultradur High Speed”), developed by BASF; the Italian furniture manufacturer Plank is responsible for producing and selling the chair. On this occasion, the properties of the material determined the scope available for design creativity. In a manner of speaking, the design serves to highlight the potential of the new plastic Ultradur, aiming to exploit its excellent flow properties to the full and to demonstrate them in a complex object that is styled comprehensively, right down to the smallest detail. In the final analysis, this is also what justified presentation of Myto first of all at the Düsseldorf plastics trade fair rather than at the obvious choice of the International Furniture Fair in Milan, where Myto was showcased a year later. Andrej Kupetz identifies a new trend in the development of the material, the properties of which specify the design principle – something that could set a precedent for plastic design in the 21st century. It cannot, however, be expected that designers will submit to this trend in the long term. They are likely to experience problems with their own conception of themselves if they are labelled as mere assistants to industry. Incidentally: since 2006, industrial designers have had the opportunity to obtain advice about plastics at the BASF “design factory” in Ludwigshafen, although no-one expects or demands that product designers turn into polymer experts. “It goes without saying that we have to know about the material, but we do not need to be specialists”, is how Grcic puts it too. “We benefit from our naivety, because an open-minded spirit is able to take advantage of the material in a completely different way. In his initial designs for Kartell, Philippe Starck was completely inexperienced in dealing with plastic. He was able to take a fresh look and come up with entirely new inventions. As a result of this, a seam that was a technical necessity became an ornament, a distinctive feature.”

Myto is not, of course, the first cantilever chair and is not the first one made of plastic either. The prototype was created in 1960 by the Danish designer Verner Panton (1926-1998) with his “Panton Chair”, a chair that is moulded completely in one piece and that fills space like a single curved line. The material, styrene acrylonitrile copolymers (Luran S) modified with acrylic rubber to provide impact resistance, also comes from the BASF laboratories. Its aesthetic shape made it a sensation at the time and it is now an icon of plastic design, although it is far less well-known and is in far less widespread use than the monoblock that graced or – as we think nowadays - disfigured terraces and gardens by the million until recently. What we are talking about here is the first stackable chair made of plastic (polyethylene, polypropylene), which is or was extremely popular, because it is practical and not at all expensive while being recyclable too. The monoblock has more critics than friends in the meantime. In Freiburg im Breisgau, it has been banned completely from outdoor catering outlets – in an attempt to reduce visual pollution of the environment. “The main advantages of the monoblock were its low price and its functional efficiency. At the aesthetic level, it reflected mass taste, not dissimilar to Gelsenkirchen baroque”, says the industrial designer Jörg Gätjens (see also Interview) from Cologne. “To be honest, most designers always considered the chair to be terrible, but it was a successful product for a long time anyway. Once they have been taken out of service, you come across the chairs again in Africa and Asia”. For Gätjens, the abandonment of the monoblock in Germany is an excellent example of how fragile an image plastic has even in the design field: “Visual fatigue is generally high, because perception is determined by fashion trends, which are changing faster and faster. This is particularly true of plastic objects, because the material itself is associated with a short life, in contrast to wood. I fear that Myto will prove to be no exception here either, even if I as a designer can only admire this chair.”

There is no doubt that more than the design quality of the material used is expressed in objects of everyday culture. First and foremost, the objects are reflections of our needs and desires (or of what we as consumers are supposed to consider they are). In view of this, plastic design has, historically, gone through a process of ups and downs, which is determined by political, social, economic and environmental influences. During the ‘economic miracle’ in the 50s, when the focus was on consumption, an atmosphere developed that encouraged plastics. Avant-garde designers spearheaded the functionalism movement (“less design is more design”). The stronghold of industrial design was the Design University in Ulm, the concepts of which were implemented by the Braun company with its head designer Dieter Rams (born in 1932). The record player “SK4”, better known as “Snow White’s coffin”, had a lid made from Plexiglas (polymethyl methacrylate) – something that had never been seen before – and received a triumphant reception at the Internationale Funkaustellung in 1955.

The wild 60s broke with functionalism, but plastic boomed even more than before. The material was considered to be progressive and encouraged designers to experiment off the mainstream track. Using plastic stood for a lifestyle that combined social protest with a belief in progress, an obsession with freedom and enthusiasm for technology. Designers wanted to push the envelope: the Italian Cesare “Joe” Colombo (1930-1971) designed entire kitchens and bathrooms from plastic, while Verner Panton presented his synthetic living environment “Visiona 2“ at the Cologne Furniture Fair in 1970, staged by Bayer AG.

The plastics trend stopped suddenly when the oil crisis hit in 1973. The obvious waste of raw materials in modern-day consumer society, growing volumes of rubbish and increasing environmental pollution led to a slump in the popularity of plastics. Plastics were then marginalised to a very large extent in the 80s as the environmental movement gained momentum. Stable economic growth, social hedonism and the start of the digital era helped plastic design to achieve a tremendous comeback in the 90s. Designers upgraded the material, the Authentics products mentioned above being one example of this. The “iMac” from Apple caused a sensation in 1998 as the aesthetic symbol of digitisation – with its all-in-one housing made from semi-translucent polycarbonate in the colour “Bondi Blue”.

Plastics designers have recently started to reflect on the historical origins of their profession in the 19th century, the biopolymer era, again. At the Milan Furniture Fair this year, the German designer Werner Aisslinger (born in 1964) presented his “Hemp Chair” (2011), a structure made from an environmentally sound composite material (the natural fibres hemp and kenaf plus Acrodur as the bonding agent) that is both elastic and tough. It seems to be the case that design and society are at a crossroads again. Our Interview discusses the conditions under which plastic will succeed in maintaining its position in the 21st century too.