October 1996 Issue 21
Plastic, Pop and Mass-produced Design in the V&A's Collections
The earliest use of 'plastic' in furniture represented in the collection would appear to be the decorative inlay of a small smoker's cabinet by C.R. Mackintosh (1868-1928) from 1917 (Museum No. Circ.856-1956), recently conserved by conservation student Shayne Lang. Previously, plastic had been a purely utilitarian material used to imitate expensive ivory for cutlery handles or toilet sets. The translucent yellow material is ErinoidTM
(Erinoid), an early plastic sheet, which Mackintosh used for its decorative rather than structural qualities. The yellow triangles are inlaid into a wooden carcase in a way not dissimilar to conventional wooden veneers.
The inherent qualities of plastic as a structural material were recognised in the 1930s when BakeliteTM (Bakeland), (phenol formaldehyde) became a popular material for such objects as radio cases and cigarette boxes. The AD-65 wireless (Museum No. W.23-1981), a circular form moulded entirely from Bakelite, designed by Wells Coates (1895-1958) in 1932 for Ekco Radio, was amongst the first to be made of plastic not disguised as another material. Moreover, because of its curvilinear profile, the case of this wireless could not have been made in any other material, least of all wood, which plastic rapidly replaced in this particular area of design. From this date, the use of plastic and the design of audio equipment became the preserve of the Modernists. Today, as the Museum collection attests, it is almost impossible to buy a radio which is not plastic.
What were the special characteristics of plastic which appealed to designers and manufacturers? It is amongst the most versatile group of materials known, with different varieties notable for their relative strengths, ranging from total rigidity to complete flexibility, not to mention inertness and stability. Plastics enabled the development of an infinite number of novel shapes and colours which were impossible to achieve using natural materials. The moulding of plastic requires expensive tooling and a high degree of industrialisation, yet the resulting products can be mass-produced cheaply and in great quantity. Versatility, novelty and the potential for replication were the perfect qualities of any material for the manufacturers of new consumer goods. Mr Bulmer's collection of fifty nine boxes, clocks, desk sets, smoking ephemera and souvenirs typifies the cheap, fashionable and eye catching plastic products of the 1930s. Several of the objects were promotional gifts distributed by manufacturers, confirming the ephemeral and commercial nature of much plastic design. The acquisition of the collection in 1983 demonstrates the Museum's confused attitude towards plastics, as the objects were shared arbitrarily between the Metalwork, Ceramics and Furniture and Woodwork collections (Museum Nos. M.49 to 66- 1983, C.41 to 54-1983, W.50 to 75-1983).
Furniture designers, often obsessed with producing onepiece moulded chairs, have explored the structural characteristics of plastics. Experiments with moulded plywood in the 1950s led to the development of fibreglass chairs in organic forms by Charles and Ray Eames and others, several examples of which are in the collection. In Britain, Robin Day (born 1915) designed one of the most successful one-piece moulded chairs ever produced, the 'Polyprop' (Museum No. Circ.15, a&b 1966). Polypropylene was invented in 1954 and its strength and malleability were perfectly exploited in Day's design.
Synthetic foam rubbers, developed after 1945 for upholstery, now present us with grave conservation problems as they decay and calcify. Several chairs in the collection have suffered complete breakdown of the foam upholstery, including Michael Inchbald's 'Mambo Chair', 1955, (Museum No. W.13-1981). The integrity of the object is compromised by collapsed upholstery, as the lines of the original chair disappear and the texture is radically altered. We are presented with the ethical dilemma of replacing an original component of the object in an attempt to preserve it.
A seminal exhibition of Modern Chairs was staged by the Circulation Department and the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1970 and many of the collection's best examples of plastic Pop furniture were acquired at this time (see footnote). These include futuristic and fantastic creations by leading Italian and Danish designers of the 1960s. Much Pop design, not only of furniture but also clothing and accessories, was essentially ephemeral: it was not intended to last but to be the disposable product of consumer fashion. Plastic was the preferred material because of its cheapness, versatility and the wider cultural connotations of a bright future unhindered by past traditions. The future has proved to be less bright for some objects, including the 'Blow Chair' (Musuem No. Circ.100-1970), an inflatable, clear plastic Italian armchair, which has hardened and discoloured with age (see article by Roger Griffith). The anticipated life expectancy of the object has been far exceeded, resulting in the Museum's paradoxical attempts to preserve an essentially ephemeral and transitory object. As materials inexorably degrade and chemical structures alter through environmental conditions, the Museum is presented with a long term display and conservation problem.
Experimental furniture in the 1990s has further explored the structural possibilities of plastic and attempted to extend the life of the material, demonstrated by two recent acquisitions. Ron Arad's 'Bookworm' bookshelf (Museum No. W.2- 1996), made by the leading Italian plastics manufacturer Kartell, exploits the flexibility and strength of extruded plastic strip (thermoplastic technopolymer) to create a versatile and individual wall-mounted shelf which can be articulated by each user to suit any wall space (figure 1). Although the product is a best seller for Kartell, it is not cheap; plastic furniture is no longer perceived as a disposable gimmick or the poor relation of natural materials. Kartell uses virgin materials to produce plastics but there is increasing interest in recycling post-consumer waste to create new products.
Jane Atfield's chair (Museum No. W.4-1996) is made from board comprised entirely of recycled, high-density polyethylene (figure 2). Bottles used for everything from shampoo to milk, detergent and sun oil are collected in community recycling schemes, washed, chipped and pressed into various thicknesses of board using redundant plywood presses. Bearing witness to its origins, it is possible to find traces of printing and labels amongst the coloured flecks of the self-decorated board. Recycling represents a way forward for the plastics industry and for the consumer in an increasingly environmentally-conscious age. The long term durability of recycled plastic remains untested and it could be that the combination of various forms of plastic in one composite proves fugitive and ultimately self-destructive. Yet, for the time being the plastic itself is enjoying a second use. It can be anticipated that our increased understanding of the chemical structures of plastics, combined with the advanced technology of the materials themselves, will mean that in future the Museum will be able to assess and treat plastic products.
Plastics are now used in all areas of design, from consumer electronics to kitchenware, jewellery to cars. As a material it has revolutionised the shape and even the function of objects we use. Its use in furniture and product design, as collected by the Museum, is only a small indicator of the full scope of objects designed for this material, a substance which has significantly defined twentieth century design.
It is interesting to note that contempoary collecting was a speciality of the Circulation Department while the Furniture Department did not focus, at that time, on objects of the present day.