Daily life 5 min
Plastics shake up the world of design
Design is an intellectual and creative process that aims to create an object that is halfway between art and technology. It is characterised by its ability to reinvent itself in each era according to changes in society, technology and, of course, materials. The massive influx of polymers has forever changed the game for designers.
Plastics shake up the world of design
Plastics shake up the world of design

Mission impossible without plastics

Hundreds of polymers to respond to the call

For the uninitiated, plastic is plastic... Yet, there are hundreds of varieties of plastic, each with very different properties. Without going into too much detail, you should know that these polymers can be divided into three main families: heat-moulded thermoplastics (thermoplastic polyester, polyphenylene oxide, ABS, polyamide, polyacetal, polycarbonate, etc.), thermosetting plastics that are shaped when cold (melamine, epoxy, unsaturated polyester, etc.) and finally elastomers that are able to undergo significant deformations and return to their original shape (polyurethane, polyisoprene, polybutadiene, etc.). One can easily imagine how difficult it can be for a designer to choose from among the polymers. Halfway between engineers and artists, they usually work on the basis of specifications.

Their work consists of developing a form that summarises the project taking into account technical, economic, ergonomic and functional constraints. In many cases, resolving this complex equation requires the right materials to be chosen.

Packaging as a tool of seduction

First, there was the Coca-Cola bottle designed by Raymond Loewy. It would be several decades before marketing seized upon the design of the containers and turned it into a strategic weapon called "packaging". Until the 1960s, the containers were made from glass and creating them required investments that were deemed too expensive. The packaging industry decided to wait until polymer manufacturers' catalogues were more extensive and until moulding systems had been perfected. It would be the oil producer Lesieur that would commercialise the first PVC bottle in 1962. A world first! The brand innovated again in 1985 by equipping its bottle with a pouring spout. Packaging is currently the industry that uses the most plastics.

The bottle cap: anything but ordinary!

The best technical innovations can be attributed to bottle caps, and to polypropylene more specifically. Some of the caps have a pouring spout and an almost unbreakable hinge. This may seem trivial in our day and age, but designers and engineers have spent countless hours working on designing them. In addition, they found uses in other areas besides liquid food products. The cosmetic industry also made good use of these caps. When the weight of marketing in the latter industry is taken into account, it is easy to imagine that these caps are considered real assets. Finally, what better example is there of a successful marriage between technology and design than safety caps? These stoppers fitted with tamper-proof rings are designed to prevent children from opening toxic and pharmaceutical products. They can only be opened when pressed and turned simultaneously.


The theoretical principle in use is simple: a ring located inside the cap juts against the thread of the bottle or container's neck. Exerting pressure on the cap makes the ring move away from the thread. It is a simple system, but countless studies were needed to find the right amount of pressure to be required. The answer was to be found in adjusting the thickness of the ring. Fortunately, polypropylene is a polymer that can be moulded to create even the smallest and finest parts.

Bic invents disposables

LWhen Marcel Bich introduced the first disposable pen in 1950, he could not have imagined the impact that his invention would have on the world. 60 years later, 100 billion pens have been sold all over the world. This pen would even become the subject of sociological studies conducted by the likes of Umberto Eco, among others, who stated that the Bic Crystal is "the only example of socialism achieved. It voids all right of ownership and all social differentiation." Weighing only 5.8g, the pen has many outstanding qualities. Its transparent body made of polystyrene allows users to check the ink level at a glance. The ink itself is injected into a transparent tube that is made of polypropylene. Its hexagonal shape ensures a good grip on the pen. As for the cap, it is also made of polypropylene, a polymer that is flexible enough to match the shape of the barrel, thus ensuring a perfect seal. Finally, the cap is pierced to minimise the risk of suffocation if swallowed.

25 years after its first success, the Bic Company once again revolutionised consumer products by redefining the razor. It would be the first disposable razor, simply called the Bic razor. It was not guaranteed to be successful, however, as this was an era in which men used the same razor for several years, only changing razors when the blade became worn. In order to succeed, Bic opted for simplicity: a body made of moulded plastic to which as metal blade was fixed. Once again, polystyrene was used for the body of the razor. Polystyrene is a rigid and easily mouldable polymer which is dry to the touch and very inexpensive. Taking things even further, the next generations of razors were given hollowed-out bodies to improve their lightness and finesse. The Bic razor is currently the most sold razor in the world, and it is certainly the best value for money./p>

A new polymer for Luggage

Innovation enabled luggage manufacturer Samsonite to get back into the black. The Curv® process, first developed in the late 2000s, was responsible for this providential turnaround. The technology consists of stretching polypropylene strips up to fifteen times in order to make them incredibly fine and resistant, enabling them to be woven together at a later stage. This technique served to create a new ultra-light and ultra-resistant material: Curv®. Luggage made from this material is ten times more resistant than traditional polycarbonate luggage and five times more resistant than luggage made from molten polypropylene granules. The new polymer has a very low density and is recyclable to boot. A 55 litre case weighs only 1.8 kg, while a traditional polycarbonate model weighs 3 kg... a record to beat and a call to innovation!

Stefano Giovanni dusts off the broom!

t was daring to tackle the broom, a distressingly banal tool that many believed to be frozen in time. Yet, designer Stefano Giovanni did just that, and he even gave it a name: Mago. He began by extending the length of the handle. The only problem at this point was that the broom would have been too heavy if the handle were made from traditional materials. He therefore decided to use a polypropylene, which, through the technology of gas-assisted injection, enabled the handle to be made hollow. The result was breathtaking as the broom only weighed 1.1 kg. And to drive the point home, the everyday object was given a satin finish that made it beautiful and provided it with an extremely good grip. Finally, the bristles were made of extremely fine polyester, giving it good brushing power and providing enough rigidity for the broom to stand alone. Of course, the broom was available in all imaginable colours.

Car, sweet car

It only took a few years for plastics to become a mainstay inside our cars. Engineers love them for one of their essential qualities: they help reduce weight and therefore fuel consumption. Designers love them as they can be used to create dashboards in infinite numbers of different shapes, with silky, smooth and pleasing textures that will make drivers feel comfortable. In this industry, everything is studied down to the small "click" you hear when pressing a button. But the most extraordinary application can be found in car seats which, from a design standpoint, should inspire confidence, safety and comfort. This role is given to polyurethane foams which are rigid enough to ensure good support and flexible enough to give the impression that you are sitting in your living room. In the very near future, the metal frames that still form the frame of the seats should be replaced with polymers.

A revolution which is made possible thanks to new techniques in plastics and more particularly to composites with continuous fibres and the new methods developed for processing them. These seats should weigh about 20% less than a conventional car seat and should be around 30 mm thinner, a significant reduction in the vehicle's overall weight. As for designers, they will be making full use of their abilities to "work" the feeling of space that motorists so enjoy. As a quick reminder, the cars of the 1960s contained around a dozen kilos of plastics, whereas modern cars contain around 200 kg.

Without plastics, space would have remained a mystery"

Without polymers, the conquest of space and the first steps on the moon would have been a different adventure entirely, if not entirely impossible. From the time of the first spaceflight in the 1960s, space suit manufacturers requested the assistance of plastics manufacturers to design their suits. The specifications became increasingly demanding as the astronauts' very survival was at stake. The constraints are enormous in space: it can get very cold and then very hot, the astronauts are bombarded with micrometeorites and very high-energy-level cosmic rays. In short, life is far from easy up there, and the suits' materials are carefully selected to provide the utmost protection possible and perfect insulation from the outside world, prevent the formation of mould and the growth of potential bacteria. The list of fibres used in the suits is a catalogue in, and of, itself: kevlar, known for being bulletproof, Normex for ensuring good mechanical protection, nylon for flexibility, dacron for its rigidity, and more.

Plastiques and Design

You can find more information on the properties of the polymers and their use in the excellent book by Richard Thommeret, Plastiques et design (Eyrolles)..

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