In the visual arts the term ‘plastic’ is used for all forms of creation that involves media that can be engraved or formed, but also the term for the type of material that revolutionized the twentieth century.
Plastic discovery was the result of the increasing scarcity of raw materials due to the industrialization process. Market expansion and increased production demanded new solutions. Initially, scientists and inventors looked to imitate existing rare and expensive materials like mother-of-pearl, precious woods, ivory, onyx and natural stones.
A wide range and variety of applications quickly became available and with the background of world war two, governments invested a lot of money in research and development of inexpensive materials that would be suitable for mass production and above all for military equipment. As a result, the focus was placed on functionality and the need to improve material properties such as increased resistance to wear, temperature tolerance and durability.
In the early 1930s cameras, hair dryers and other small devices were produced from plastic such as Catalin, Xylonite and the familiar Bakelite. Plastic was still not considered a cheap substitute but as a glamourous material created by new technical achievement. The products that might have been mass produced were still only available for a minority of the population – those early lifestyle products.
During the post-war period significant changes occurred. Competitive rearmament led to innovations that significantly improved technical capabilities. Plastic was a substitute no more – quite the opposite, completely new items were being imagined and produced thanks to the endless possibilities provided by this new material, and the post-war economic recovery created new opportunities for experimental design. Products were produced to be lighter and more compact, and despite the high initial development costs, in the long run they become more favourable and started to be produced in large quantities.
The course was set for large-scale consumption and the resulting mass production. However, the wastage of raw materials and cheaper products led to a growing disenchantment with the wonder of plastics as the choice for future materials.
However, before things progressed to this point, a number of companies and designers provided us with the golden era of design objects made of plastic. Pioneer plastic furniture designers included Casala, Wilkhahn and Verner Panton.
The latter in particular is often associated with the era of ‘psychedelic design’ that began in the 1960s. Bright colours and organic forms were developed and produced as furniture was adjusting to a new, more democratic and accessible lifestyle. Instead of formal furniture, young people wanted to be represented by bold and casual living room furniture. One classic example that is still popular today is the Panton Chair. Find your replica at https://www.pash-classics.com/dining/chairs/panton-chair
Over the course of time, however, the oil crisis and growing environmental awareness has given plastic a negative image as a cheap material that’s damaging the environment and a bit tacky. However, the future is not so bleak for our favourite plastic furniture.
Conventional plastics are not biodegradable and accumulate in the ecosystem in large volumes – a big problem for the life forms which consume plastics and killed by it. However, with various forms of recyclable plastic, this material is capable of evolving its design and once again be very much in demand. And a new version of the material that is being developed that is no longer based on oil.