The exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum brings together objects of the pop era as well as contemporary designs and smart concepts for waste reduction
Photography: Bakelite leaflet, 1930s; Courtesy of Amsterdam Bakelite Collection
Words by Joe Lloyd
Ask someone to pick out a plastic, and it’s likely they can do so without trouble. Plastics surround us: in packaging, paint, phones, polyester clothes. Their smooth, synthetic appearance can immediately mark them out from rougher, fine-grained organic substances. Ask that same person what plastic is, however, and they might begin to struggle. The word plastic offers little help. In science, it means “easily shaped”. It descends from the French plastique meaning “moulded”; the plastic arts is used in France to describe sculpture and ceramics, traditionally made from organic materials like stone and clay.
The enormous variety of substances we refer to as plastic today are a type of polymer — a material made from long chains of molecules — made by synthetic means. The first semi-synthetic plastic was created in 1869 by the American inventor John Wesley Hyatt, who turned natural cellulose into celluloid, a material that could imitate ivory. Further inventions followed, including Bakelite in 1907, Plexiglass in 1933 and nylon in 1935. But it was in the Second World War and in the decades after that plastics expanded to fill all aspects of our lives. We now live in the age of plastic.
Photography by Peter Stackpole, staged to illustrate an article on Throwaway Living, LIFE magazine, August 1, 1955 © Getty/Photo: Peter Stackpole
A major new exhibition traces the fascinating, era-defining tale of plastic, from post-war optimism to a conflicted present and an alarming future. Plastic: Remaking Our World, at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein takes a comprehensive tour through our era’s defining material, teasing out both its many uses and its terrifying environmental effect.
An installation at the exhibition’s opening captures the latter, contrasting the beauty of unspoiled nature with footage of the automated production processes that have eroded the planet’s resources at a startling rate. Plastics have a complicated relationship with design. One the one hand, it was an extraordinary boon, allowing for affordable mass production and the realisation of forms never seen before. Witness Gio Ponti’s sleekly ovaloid Ducati intercoms, or Egmont Arens’ Bakelite chairs.
Photography: Panasonic Toot-a-Loop R-72S radio, 1969–72 © Vitra Design Museum, Photo: Andreas Sütterlin
The 1960s obsession with space travel and technological utopias led to a focus on plastics as the material of tomorrow. One section at the Vitra Design Museum collects some of the most future-facing of plastic design artifacts, including Gino Sarfatti’s Moon Lamp (1969) and Eero Aarnio’s Ball Chair (1963), which was designed as a private space capsule.
But on the other hand, plastics’ ubiquity, cheapness and inorganic texture led some to label it inauthentic and tacky. With some exceptions like the Eames’ fibreglass chairs, many designers of the midcentury stuck with natural materials like wood. These suspicions were confirmed with the rise of single-use plastics in the 1960s, birthing a throwaway culture which has contributed to the climate crisis.
Photography by Catharina Pavitschitz featuring Shellworks, jars made from Vivomer, a bioplastic produced with the help of microbes, 2021 ©
Today, plastics occupy an ambivalent position. We know that they pollute, lead to dangerous emissions and leave their traces all over us — just this week, doctors found microplastic particles in lungs of surgery patients. But they also offer one of our best hopes for finding truly sustainable material.
From the 1990s, designers have begun to work with recycled plastics. The exhibition’s final section tours through some of these works, as well as projects that seek to prevent the buildup of plastic waste. The age of plastic shows no signs of ending soon – but at least it might be entering a new phase.
Plastic: Remaking Our World is at Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany until 4 September 2022, before traveling to V&A Dundee (29 October 2022 – 5 February 2023) and MAAT, Lisbon (spring 2023).
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