In the 1967 film
Mr. McGuire offers one word of advice to
Dustin Hoffman's character, Benjamin Braddock
ZAHID ZARDAR / SF Chronicle 24mar04
In that tragicomic view of suburban life, a golden future revolves around plastics.
For better or worse, that future is now.
Designers everywhere are experimenting with the wondrous properties of low-cost, lightweight plastic. Its luminescent translucency and malleability - - long camouflaged in cheap or unattractive products such as wood-grain Formica or slate-like exterior siding that only makes use of plastic's impermeability — are now highlighted in new ways. Plastic has moved from a supporting role to being the star.
In homes, utilitarian plastic components — window shades, washable wallpaper, polyurethane mattress foam and paint, vinyl upholstery and PVC pipes — have been popular yet essentially invisible in the background. Now, plastic furniture and accessories appear center stage in the most elegant living spaces.
Furniture, carpets and translucent screens of plastic are as easy to find as Bakelite knobs were in the early 20th century. Now, when an acrylic or polylactic acid (PLA) computer case swivels into a plasma screen or one-piece footwear of lightweight injection-molded material provides a seamless shell and a rubbery sole, you can experience the new enhanced plastics up close.
"Manipulating material qualities is an integral part of any design," says industrial designer Yves Béhar, whose San Francisco firm, Fuseproject, specializes in just such design gymnastics. Plastic is appropriate for most of his work because of its material flexibility. He even admires plastic's infamous longevity: Long-lasting products don't have to be replaced or remade as often — an environmental plus. At an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where more than 25 of his designs will be shown, 20 will be made of plastic.
Once considered just a cheap substitute for other materials, plastic has now become an attractive option for high-end consumer goods. It can be flexible, inert and exceedingly strong — so strong that carbon fiber- reinforced plastic sheathing can hold up bridges. Yet melted plastic can be injected into delicate molds to make precise components as small as Lego toys and ball bearings.
Ever since Ray and Charles Eames launched their experimental furniture, designers have understood the value of plastics. Hardened composite plastics can be cut, machined, turned or tooled as easily as wood — even if it is not forced to look like it. Even mundane polypropylene plastic food containers now have a fancy polypropylene fiber counterpart: outdoor carpets that no longer look like lawns.
Trendy furniture by the likes of Karim Rashid for Umbra or Philippe Starck (who makes quirky designs for Kartell) is made of unadorned polycarbonate (a tough, non-deteriorating plastic) in organic shapes that could not be fashioned easily in wood. These odd shapes can be easily formed and molded using computer technology, and although it is possible to produce similar shapes in metal in much the same way, plastic is far more economical and intrinsically more exciting to look at.
Designer Ron Arad created an experimental chair in 1985 for Vitra that was based on four voluminous sheet-metal loops. He called it the Well Tempered Chair, playing on the concept and the material. The chair's unique shape and structural strategy made it a critical success, but the flexible sheet-metal used was not commercially viable. The experimental design might have died had it not been revived recently as the Bad Tempered chair, made this time of a mixture of glass, carbon and Kevlar fiber laminates steeped in resin. This reinforced plastic membrane is actually better than a mere substitute for sheet steel because it is far lighter and more resilient and is durably flexible. At $7,100 it is costly, but still less so than the steel version.
At Propeller, a Hayes Valley store that sells many pieces of plastic furniture, owner Lorn Dittfeld marvels at the number of clear acrylic coffee tables ($1,000 each) he has sold since he opened just over a year ago. "I've sold more of them than anything else in the store," he says.
A clear acrylic table by William Earle consistently gets great response. It retails for $380 and is made of 3/4-inch acrylic. "I think plastic offers a look and a feel that nothing else can touch. It has a lightness and I think for most buyers there is a sophistication associated with clear plastic that doesn't smack of cheap colorful goods," says Dittfeld.
And, in small urban apartments, the added attraction of a roomful of transparent furniture is obvious. And there are other advantages, such as ease of maintenance.
"Most people think clear acrylic scratches easily," says Dittfeld. "But unlike scratches in wood or glass, those in plastic can be buffed out easily. It costs hundreds of dollars to get a scratch out of wood, and with glass it is nearly impossible."
Says Béhar, alluding to a growing awareness that if unchecked, plastic waste could engulf the world, "At the same time there is a trend toward using less plastic and fusing the plastic that is used with natural materials such as starch, paper and fabric."
Even so, the most environmentally savvy designers like to experiment with plastic. As designers learn more about its drawbacks, they also understand how to use it well. That's why "plastic no longer has a 'dark alley' connotation," says Corey Jones, head of the materials library at the California College of the Arts (CCA). "To say that a material is inherently dangerous is deceiving. When you do not recycle but waste a plastic bottle is when it becomes dangerous."
"There are many ways to approach plastic," says Béhar. "It is very versatile, and yet we always see it used in the same conventional ways." To break from tradition, he will show a hinged tabletop computer of plastic and aluminum that doubles as a plasma TV screen. It capitalizes on the strength and lightness of both materials. A cashmere sweater he designed for Lutz has wool fibers that are dipped in Teflon plastic to make the garment waterproof. For Friend, a new concept store he designed in San Francisco's Hayes Valley, Béhar has used elastomer flooring made of recycled rubber and plastic.
When Zyliss Swiss kitchen products needed revamping, the company went to Palo Alto's IDEO to see what was feasible.
"They wanted to have technical improvements on stain resistance and they also wanted their kitchen tools to be white. I had to find materials that solved that," says Kara Johnson, who is the liaison between designers and engineers at IDEO.
Several experiments led to fusing flexible transparent plastics to harder plastics to get an efficient stain-proof spatula. But although the Zyliss ABS and silicone spatula is not the best case study for recycling (only the handle is recyclable), other products in the line, such as a pizza cutter, are good examples. "ABS plastic and metal are separable for cleaning purposes in this design, but they are also separable for easy recycling," says Johnson.
Sometimes plastic becomes a good stand-in for materials that are otherwise used wastefully. "You can make plastic share the behaviors of other materials," says Johnson. For instance, a mirrored surface over plastic makes an adequate and unbreakable rearview mirror; plastic eyeglass frames emulate metal but can also replicate the properties of glass, allowing seamless single- material eyewear.
In architecture, plastic may substitute for more conventional materials that are becoming depleted. Extruded plastic has already made an appearance as partition and window material. But imagine structural walls that can be made translucent wherever windows are required for light.
Rem Koolhaas' Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) has taken plastic to new and exciting levels, particularly at the future Prada store in Beverly Hills. Nicole Long of Brand + Allen, a San Francisco design firm, worked closely with OMA.
"We are their local architects. It is a collaborative design, but it is not the first time Koolhaas' office has used plastic," says Long. But it is its most ambitious use yet. It has developed a sponge for Prada made of a cast polyurethane resin material that will be formed into economical but hardworking wall panels. The "sponge'' is actually firm, 4 inches thick, and supports the ceiling. The 8-foot-high panels lap together, and display niches are cut into the material. It will be used as a display wall, and because it is translucent, it can be back-lit with a series of fluorescent lights in several colors. No other material would have been as lightweight, structurally strong and yet so ephemerally luminous as plastic.
An extensive use of extruded polycarbonate sheathing on a building can be seen in San Francisco at the award-winning new graduate studios for CCA students, designed by Jensen & Macy architects.
According to architect Mark Jensen, a principal at the firm, it is the first large-scale building in the United States to extensively use this plastic paneling made by Gallina in Italy. "A lot of people have used these for interior partitions, but this corrugated stuff which is used in industrial buildings in Europe is not common here," he says.
The building, a former windowless warehouse, was stripped to studs and re- clad. "Since the exterior siding had to be replaced, it made sense to get light from the sides instead of from the roof," says Jensen.
On the lower half, an 8-foot-high band of corrugated concrete fiber panels over the framing provides visual privacy for artists who work inside. On the top, corrugated twin-wall polycarbonate panels form translucent, windowless walls that allow more even, diffused illumination inside than even the largest windows could provide. The corrugated plastic panels proved to be strong enough to span wider distances with fewer supports and were easy to drill through and install. "The twin walls allow insulation value, and we could cover almost half of the building with this glazing," says Jensen.
The sheathing is better than glass because it's not breakable, and unlike some plastics, it does not yellow or fade. "Glass would not only have been harder to maintain, it would have been substantially more expensive and would not have offered as nice a light quality. The inside and outside become more evocative and interesting than glass, and the plastic gives light and depth in the building," says Jensen. And what was the cost to restructure and brace the building with such materials? "Just $71 a square foot," he says.
Weighing in on the ethical uses of plastic is Steven Holt, a design instructor at CCA:
"I don't think about plastic in particular as I do about appropriate materials. Sometimes a sustainable design may not be a pure eco design."
The better discussion, according to Holt, is how American companies might follow European models for recycling plastic.
"Corporations should own up to the products created," he says. "The consumer pays for the right to use it for as long as necessary, but the responsibility of recycling has to go back to manufacturers, as it does in some parts of Europe." The European laws are based on the argument that auto manufacturers, for instance, know how they made their product and they can disassemble its plastic parts.
Simple applications and design solutions are sometimes the best weapons against plastic pollution. For instance, most consumers who are not aware that the green polypropylene mesh baskets for strawberries are recyclable will soon know because someone figured out how to fuse the recycling logo onto the mesh.
"There are a good number of groups who conduct workshops and seminars to lead the next generation forward. Architect Bill McDonough has had a separate product division to disseminate information to students and other people who can control specifications when they design," says Holt.
He suggests that even if the chemistry of plastics is unnatural, designers can think of more natural applications for the material. "Bio- mimicry is one way. The classic example is Velcro, which was invented by a guy who walked through fields picking off burrs stuck to his socks," he says.
Looking at such natural phenomena might lead to discoveries in the realm of compostable plastic as well.
"In design school we are positioning nature as the great teacher," says Holt. "That's because eventually nature solves problems without polluting."
'Fuseproject/Design Series 2' Industrial designer Yves Béhar's exhibition is on view from Saturday through Oct. 3 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art during the second annual design series in the Architecture & Design galleries. It features more than 30 objects, many of which are of plastic.
Béhar's San Francisco firm, Fuseproject, produces designs for consumer product packages, computers, and fashion, graphics and store environments.
The six thematic sections in the exhibition - Move, Step, Touch, Hold, Connect and Expand - include shoes, automobile accessories, Teflon-coated wind- breakers, computers, perfume bottles and shampoo bottles.
Information: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco. (415) 357-4000; www.sfmoma.org.
Hours: Open daily (except Wednesdays) 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; open late Thursdays until 9 p.m.
Admission: Adults $10; seniors $7; students with ID $6. SFMOMA members and children 12 and younger admitted free. The first Tuesday of each month admission is free. Thursday evenings, 6 to 9 p.m., admission is half price.