Daily life 6 min
Design: polymers are always up to something!
The love affair between plastics and design is nothing new. From their first appearance, designers started playing with them, happy to have found new materials that could keep up with all their creative fancies. That love affair shows no signs of fading, and eco-designers are now creating a new story for plastics
Design: polymers are always up to something!
© Vondom
Design: polymers are always up to something!

In terms of style, polymers take the cake

While many designers are turning their attention to recycled plastics and even bioplastics, they are not abandoning virgin polymers. This is especially true in industries that have to produce parts in very large quantities.

This is sometimes for cost reasons but mainly because it is always easier to obtain virgin resin than recycled resin. In some high-tech fields, only virgin resins can meet the very high level of performance expected. However, things are changing fast, especially thanks to the chemical recycling of polymers, which is opening up new avenues for research, since in some cases it is necessary to return to the original monomer. (see our article).


Chemical recycling could enable recycled polymers to achieve performance levels equivalent to those of virgin resins.

Cars: polymers for the chrome effect

The automotive industry remains a heavy user of both virgin and recycled polymers. For the time being, no better material has been found to lighten vehicles and thus reduce their CO2 emissions while providing an excellent level of safety. The mass production of electric vehicles will not change anything in this regard because the lighter they are, the better their range. However, polymers have many other functions in this sector, particularly in the field of design, which is essential to make the cars more attractive. All the more so because engine power is no longer a decisive selling point; above all, vehicle owners are demanding models that they like, that they find beautiful and that can show their status. The current trend in car design is to add chrome or copper parts. Exhaust pipes, radiator grilles, rims, air vents, and more, this return to the glitz of a 1950s Cadillac is delighting designers everywhere. However, this effect is achieved without using any metals, only polyester or metallised polyamide. These materials are ultra-light and easy to mould. Without them, it would be almost impossible to mass-produce grilles that sparkle like jewels. There is a reason for which manufacturers talk about the diamond effect. As for the customers, the vast majority of them love these sparkling parts.

© DS Automobiles / DS Style

The automotive industry is a major user of plastics and knows how to enhance their value by giving them the appearance of metals such as chrome or aluminium

 The same goes for the shape of the headlights, which give a vehicle its distinctive “gaze”. Polycarbonate has made it possible to bring all kinds of fancies to life without affecting the essential purpose of a headlight: seeing and being seen. LEDs, the light units made up of small polymer bulbs, are also becoming more widespread because they do not heat up, require very little energy, have the same lifespan as the vehicle and improve the quality of the light emitted – all of these are nice features, of course, but their thinness also allows them to be easily incorporated into the bodywork. The current trend, at least on premium vehicles, is to install them across the entire rear of the car. According to manufacturers, this is not just a matter of design but a way of 'helping' self-driving cars that cannot always differentiate the taillights of two motorbikes riding side by side from those of a car. In short, it's a way of combining practicality and attractiveness.

Composites put on their flight suits

Who could have seriously predicted that the fantasy of the self-driving car would become a reality even just 10 years ago? Today, flying cars are the stuff of dreams and, at the speed at which technology is moving forward, few would dare to consider them a mere designer's fantasy. There are many manufacturers in the running, starting with the very serious Airbus. However, designing such a vehicle means solving an incalculable number of problems, starting with weight. This requires finding materials that are resistant, lightweight and above all affordable. At the beginning of this year, the Belgian chemicals group Solvay entered into a partnership with the British company Vertical Aerospace to help it produce flying taxis.


When will we see flying taxis? Maybe in this very decade! The only certainty for the moment is that composite materials will be used

 The aim is to unveil an initial prototype before the end of the year and to see it flying over our cities by 2025. Solvay's fibre- and resin-based composite materials are already widely used in the aeronautical sector and by entering into this partnership, the Belgian company is committing itself to continuing its research into composite materials and showing just how much it believes in the development of this type of vehicle. The VA-1X, the future flying taxi, will be electric, will be able to carry four people and should look like a cross between a drone and a helicopter. The design remains a mystery, but it is quite likely that the designers will draw on all their talents to give it a particularly futuristic look.

A great look for garden furniture

There is no doubt that plastic furniture had its heyday in the three decades following the Second World War. It was designers' favourite and some pieces can now be found in modern art museums.


Many iconic objects, such as the famous Panton chair designed in the early 1960s, are still produced in very large numbers.

The polypropylene Tam-Tam stool, the Panton Chair initially made from fibreglass-reinforced polyester and then from polyurethane foam, and the PVC Sacco bean bag chair are perfect illustrations of the trend.


(see the Plasticarium interview to find out more about the golden age of plastics)

 Today, this taste for polymers lives on unabated. The only difference is that furniture and accessories are gradually moving out of living rooms and onto terraces. This is a real trend because the terrace or garden, for those who are lucky enough to have one, has become a living space in its own right that people want to enjoy all year round. This means that the furniture must be able to remain outside whatever the season. This is what initially allowed polymers to impose themselves because they are often weather-resistant materials. Designers, always on the lookout for new fashion trends, soon took a keen interest in outdoor furniture, relying on another great property of polymers: their plasticity and ease of moulding.

Many major design houses of course followed the trend and there is no shortage of examples of particularly successful products which include, in our very subjective opinion, Cinna's Ottoman armchair made of ABS, PVC and polyurethane foam, which is a little reminiscent of the Sacco or Kartell bean bag chair. The resemblance is not entirely surprising; how could it be when one has turned to polymers to find success?


Outdoor furniture owes part of its success to its design but also to the polymers of which it is made, materials that are perfectly waterproof and fairly resistant to UV rays.

Others, such as the Spaniard Vondom, have even made a speciality of it by calling on the most sought-after designers of the moment. It is no coincidence that some of their creations, such as the Tablet collection designed by Ramon Esteve, are a worldwide success. This modular sofa set with its clean lines, ideal for outdoor use, is made of polyurethane foam on a metal frame and covered with polypropylene fabric.

Accessories are garnering the same attention, and the major trend is for portable objects such as rechargeable lamps, connected speakers, etc. This is another area that greatly inspires designers who surpass themselves in creating ever more surprising shapes. Among the most famous creations that are on the way to becoming iconic is Fatboy's Edison LED lamp, made of a deliciously translucent polypropylene, which is of course unbreakable and affordable enough to bring design within everyone's reach.

© Fatboy

Fatboy's already iconic Edison lamp is made of polypropylene, a lightweight and unbreakable polymer that allows the lamp to be carried around safely

Toys: plastics show their hand

Few renowned designers design toys. However, they must be designed in a way as to stand out from the competition because it is most often the children themselves who choose them and they are generally more attracted to a game or toy’s shape and colour than its intrinsic functions. Here again, few materials can rival plastics and polymers as they are capable of a great deal, and in particular of taking on countless textures to awaken the sense of touch among the young.

One iconic toy is the timeless Barbie doll, which recently celebrated its 60th anniversary. Initially made of PVC, her designers have drawn on the wide catalogue of polymers to improve her over time. Today her arms are made of EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate), her body of ABS and her joints of polypropylene. All of these are polymers that can be shaped as desired and that meet all standards, allowing the famous doll’s designers to change her body (and even the colour of her skin) in line with the beauty standards of the moment.


An almost unexpected success! Thousands of POP figures are produced to the delight of children and teenagers

Another famous line is that of the Pop figures, offering stylised reproductions of pop culture characters from films, cartoons, TV series and even video games. This line was a real stroke of genius on the part of its designers who have succeeded in selling figurines, which parents often consider ugly, to children and teenagers alike. They are distributed extremely widely and some models (among more than 250) have had runs of more than 100,000 copies.

 Thanks for this feat go in part to the PVC from which they are made, as it is one of the easiest polymers to mould. Everyone is familiar with Lego, of course, whose small ABS bricks underwent many years of development before finding success. The brand has often been imitated but never equalled thanks to the secret of its mould design. Today, the Danish company, which is also trying to reduce its carbon footprint, is looking for a new bio-based polymer. Replacing ABS is a quite the task, which is why it has given itself ten years to do so.

Its great rival, Germany's Playmobil, is on the same path, although the company has stated that toy safety standards are so draconian that it does not see how plant-based plastic could replace the ABS in its figures.


Replacing ABS with bio-based polymers? Not an easy task considering the stringent standards for toys

In order to navigate the gauntlet of European legislation, the materials used in toys must be unbreakable, non-flammable, not contain lead or arsenic, etc. It is therefore easy to understand why toy manufacturers do not consider polymers to be low-quality materials.

More information:
Christmas: plastic toys in vogue
The rise of a star: Barbie©
Playmobil®: 7.5 cm of plastic that made history
Lego: the small brick that became an icon

If you enjoyed this article, you'll love the next!