Plastics and design: a closely-linked history
Design, as a concept, is not a modern invention; the word "style" is usually evoked for the pre-industrial revolution centuries. Starting in the Middle Ages, nobles, and subsequently the bourgeoisie, liked to surround themselves with personalised objects to set themselves apart from their contemporaries. These objects were unique, usually made by craftsmen, and more often, than not, consisted of furniture and dishes. This was all long before mass-production. For art historians, the first truly "designed" object was the revolver invented by Samuel Colt in 1836. Although Colt revolutionised the functioning of guns by perfecting the barrel, he also attached great importance to its appearance and ergonomics. The gun was mass-produced and quickly became a best-seller in the still-nascent America.
Bakelite, the undisputed star of the early twentieth century
The first record manufactured by Thomas Edison was also made from this material. The luxury industry instantly jumped onto the bandwagon. The bodies of Montblanc brand pens were moulded from this polymer, as is still the case today, and watchmaker Rolex used it for the bezels for some of its models. All these objects have now become collectors' items.
The paradox of the Great Depression
In the 1930s, consumption stopped in the major developed countries. It was the period of the Great Depression. The famous American designer Raymond Loewy wrote that “ugliness does not sell.” In order to boost sales, and therefore the economy, he proposed to give an aesthetic value to manufactured objects. And so, modern design was born! Plastics emerged as the big winners of his theory. Manufacturers were quick to capitalise on the use of plastics because they not only helped to increase their margins, they could also be used to create beautiful and modern objects. The first objects made from plastics were electrical devices that took full advantage of the polymers' insulating properties. Issues of safety were quickly brought up...but changes in moulding techniques now made it possible to give any shape to these objects in order to differentiate them from the competition.
1950: plastics become a boon to interior decoration
Western Europe was busy rebuilding thanks to large contributions in dollars; people wanted to forget the years of sacrifices during the war. This was the heyday of the American dream! The United States played a key role in creating a new colourful style with smooth curves that appeared in a significant number of objects. The 50s were marked by revolutions of style and shape in furniture design and decoration, but also, and especially, by the new industrial techniques that allowed plastics to take over. This era also saw the advent of industrialisation and the mass-production of furniture. The star of the show was melamine, better known by its trade name of Formica. It was considered the apex of modernity and was mostly used in kitchens and bathrooms. What were the reasons behind its success? Its bright colours, its resistance to heat, chemical attack and light, and especially the ease with which it could be cleaned.
Plastics were in fashion. Designers like Charles and Ray Eames, an American couple, created the famous "Plastic Chair" at the beginning of the decade. An iconic chair whose seat and back were made of a single piece of fibreglass or ABS, depending on the manufacturer. The chair could be modulated through the addition of armrests and which, most importantly, came in a range of unique colours for the time. Another big name was Arne Jacobsen, a Danish designer who "dared" to design a chair with a fibreglass structure, filled with polyurethane foam and leather for comfort, for a prestigious hotel chain.
1960s and 1970s: pop plastics
A new society emerged between dissent and utopia, and with it: pop culture. These were the decades of daring and "beauty for all". Young people called for more modular, brighter, more democratic housing, simply to live differently than before. Designers were ecstatic: everything was allowed, everything was possible...They took full advantage of the new opportunities offered by injection-moulded plastics. What better illustration of this could there have been than the polypropylene Tam Tam stool created by Frenchman Henry Massonnet? In the late 1960s, when it was first commercialised, it was sold at a price of 1.5 Euros... the price of two movie tickets at the time.
Verner Panton, a Danish designer achieved global success by creating the first brightly-coloured chair made from a single piece of moulded plastic. At the time, he said "Thanks to technical advances and the new plastic materials, designers can now create objects which hitherto could only have existed in their dreams." Early models were made from fibreglass-reinforced polyester. Since the 80s, it is the polyurethane foam moulding process which is used. Current plastics technologies, however, have evolved so much that the Panton Chair can also be produced through a process of injection using fully recyclable polypropylene.
Sitting on a pear
Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini and Franco Teodoro were three Italian designers who rocked the world of armchairs by creating the Sacco, the world's most famous pouffe. In those years marked by hippies and unconventionality, they primarily wanted to break the sleek and pure lines of contemporary furniture and create the most perfectly comfortable armchair. Taking their inspiration from the straw-filled mattresses used in the countryside, they strove to design an armchair made from a transparent envelope filled with an inert material that would mould itself to the body, regardless of its position. After various tests, they created a "non-seat". After filling it with water, which made it too heavy, and then small ping-pong balls, they finally opted for a dozen million polystyrene beads whose total weight did not exceed 3.5 kg.
The pear-shaped envelope, when sat upon, allowed the beads to spread to the upper part of the seat, which could then be used as a backrest and headrest. The Sacco could also be used as a pouffe, and even as a sort of lounge chair. The prototype's clear PVC envelope not being particularly strong, the Zanotta company that sold it, covered it in leather or Telafitta, a PVC coated fabric, available in ten bright colours. A fad that became the symbol of a generation in search of a new, free and nomadic life, the Sacco immediately became a best-seller.
PMMA shines bright
Different times, different mores... Although the 1980s made stars of designers such as Philippe Starck and Ron Arad, polymers did not shine so brightly, although they had their fans among certain circles of designers. The era's insouciance was quickly eroded by the economic crisis. Consumers were keen to seek out natural materials that were considered more reassuring and nobler. Better known by its trade name of Plexiglas®, PMMA was sublimated by Shiro Kuramata and Philippe Starck thanks to their chairs and lighting fixtures that made playful use of transparency.
Creators discover textile fibres
Polymers subsequently found many uses, mostly in the textiles industry. Although polyamides and polyesters had long been used in clothing, other fibres such as elastane became extremely popular and were branded as decidedly high-tech. The first applications were intended for athletes, but creators saw it as a new way of working the material to better showcase their customers' bodies. One of these creators was Issey Miyake, who actively participated in the creation of a PET-based textile that gave a rigid look to the clothes without sacrificing comfort.
The high-tech industry seizes on the idea of design...and plastics
Out with beige or grey cases, in with transparency and colour for the Imac and pristine and shiny white for the EMAC. The computers were made from various polymers, including ABS for its smooth and shiny texture and its fine results when moulded.