Dominic Lutyens / Independent UK 7apr01
The 19th century invented it, Fifties housewives adored it; by the Eighties we were too cool even to admit it existed. But now plastic has gone radical, shed its anti-eco image and is making a comeback.
Over the years, we've developed a love-loathe relationship with plastic. The stereotypical synthetic- worshipping consumer was the American-Dream housewife: in countless Fifties ads, she was pictured practically gurning with joy at the sight of her most recently acquired plastic mod con. By contrast, this un-eco, screamingly synthetic material offended the sensibilities of Sixties and Seventies hippies. To them, "plastic" had another damning, metaphorical meaning which still applies: manufactured, phoney.
Historically, plastic has been deemed a lowly material, and no more so than in the status-hungry Eighties when, rather unimaginatively, expensive chrome and leather were thought more sophisticated than cheap plastics. But the Nineties' obsession with irony and kitsch together with the rediscovery of colour has revived our enthusiasm for plastic. Often recycled of late to funky effect, plastic has even shed its age-old, anti-eco image. Take Jane Atfield's gloriously multicoloured, recycled plastic furniture.
Further proof of its recent rehabilitation comes with Radical Plastics, a selling exhibition, at east London's Geffrye Museum, of plastic furniture and homewares by designers based in the same area. The presence of such hip, iconic contemporary objects as Ella Doran's melamine trays confirms that plastics are as chic now as they were in forward-looking homes of the Thirties, with their Bakelite phones and electric sockets. (Tuesday 10 April - Sunday 15 July, 2001)
What's more, Radical Plastics is merely a satellite show to the museum's larger show, At Home With Plastics? a history of plastic homeware from the 19th-century to today which opens on Tuesday. It's co-curated by Sylvia Katz, who's filled the showcases in the Lower Concourse area with her personal collection of plastic paraphernalia. There's cutting-edge tableware, hi-tech office appliances, experimental children's tableware (some of which changes colour to denote a rise in temperature, for safety reasons), inflatable objects and jewellery (such as UV-responsive Perspex, beloved of the rave generation).
Potty about plastic, Katz is the author of two authoritative tomes on the subject: Plastics: Designs and Materials and Classic Plastics, from Bakelite to High Tech. She's been collecting plastics since the late Seventies a time when they enjoyed a brief vogue, thanks to the trash aesthetic embraced by the era's punk bands and graphic designers (anyone remember Day-Glo picture discs?). Even then Katz and the Geffrye Museum were on the same wavelength: in 1977, the latter staged a plastics show, the first UK museum to do so.
Katz's boundless enthusiasm for plastic goes well beyond the museum's very strict remit to demonstrate the evolution "of mainstream, British living rooms". If Katz has been allowed to indulge her passion for plastics in the Lower Concourse, the museum stipulated that the bulk of the exhibition show three living rooms from the Thirties, late Sixties/early Seventies and present day. "The eras are spaced apart to highlight the technological leaps from one to the next," says Katz. That said, the exhibition doesn't explore the wider applications of plastic medical or automotive, say but focuses on its domestic uses.
Plastics pertaining precisely to each period are in the spotlight in these rooms: all non-plastic surfaces are painted white to throw into relief their plastic elements. Despite falling out of favour now and then, plastics have played an increasingly important part in our lives, which explains why the Sixties living room is much sparser than the present-day one (notwithstanding our stereotypical view of the Sixties as plastics-obsessed and the 21st century as ruthlessly minimalist). "People equate the Sixties with plastic, but it only went mainstream in the Seventies," says Katz. Even so, the show demonstrates that plastics have a long history there's an 1870s cutlery set with mottled green plastic handles. Invented in the late 19th-century by Alexander Parkes, the first plastic was made from natural shellac. Scientists then added chemicals to create semi-synthetic plastics and synthetic plastics, Bakelite being an early example.
The Thirties living room boasts an ashtray on a white fake table, a clock above a mock mantelpiece. The Sixties/Seventies pad is furnished with Robin Day's 4000 Recliner chair with polyurethane foam filling, a space-age Videosphere TV in an eye-stinging "Heinz tomato-soup" orange and an egg-yolk yellow ice box by Crayonne. The Nineties room is brought to life by Ron Arad's Bookworm, Inflate's fruit bowl and a red Thomson TV a loud-and-proud antidote to the dull, black-box televisions of the plastics-hating Eighties. Supplementing the room sets are plinths adorned with design classics nearby Jasper Morrison's Air-Chair, a Philippe Starck toothbrush, a Dyson vacuum cleaner, Ettore Sottsass's Tahiti Light for Eighties design group Memphis, clothing made from recycled fizzy drinks bottles by Patagonia and a Body Shop comb bearing the phrase, "When I next recycle, I want to be a soap dish."
Plastic objects have been around so long that, while the earliest examples may have seemed terrifyingly cutting-edge back then, today they look amusingly quaint. "Tupperware, invented by Earl Tupper, had to be demonstrated at Tupperware parties which have been attended by 118 million people worldwide," says Katz. "Housewives had to learn how to fit the lids."
Katz is as tickled by state-of-the-art plastics as their fustier forebears. On show is a favourite piece an ingenious roll-up computer keyboard, whose circuitry is sealed in a rubbery plastic, resistant to grit and food spills. "You can use it on a building site, in a nursery or café," marvels Katz. "You can even wash it and hang it up, like laundry."
Radical Plastics is at the Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road, London E2 (020-7739 9893) until 27 August. At Home with Plastics?, also at the Geffrye Museum, runs from 10 April-15 July
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