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May 1998

The (R)Evolution of Plastic

The history of plastic and how became one of the most valuable materials of the 20th century.

Plastic has always insulted our aesthetics. It is a material that, throughout its more than 100-year history, has been regarded as a cheap and artificial surrogate. "Jute statt Plastik" (jute instead of plastic) was the battle-cry of the ecology-conscious following the oil crisis of 1973, when plastic had to battle its condemnation as an unnatural, resource-consuming substance. The exhibition "Plastics and Design" at the Neue Sammlung covers the exciting history of plastic from its bashful beginnings in the second half of the 19th century to its self-confident return aided by young plastic designers in the 1990s. Originally, the purpose of plastic was indeed that of a substitute, imitating expensive materials, such as ivory, mother-of-pearl, horn and ebony. The first formula for plastic consisted of nitrocellulose, softened by vegetable oils and camphor. An American printer, John W. Hyatt patented the formula in 1870. Since then plastic has evolved into many forms such as celluloid, vinyl, acrylics and nylon, all derivatives of plastic. According to Florian Hufnagel, director of the Neue Sammlung, plastic has shaped the world of the 20th century probably more than any other material. Narrowing the exhibit down to 120 pieces must have been one of the curators' most difficult tasks, but the result is a small show full of color and rhythm that invites the visitor to take a second look, to be amazed, to smile and to remember. In 1916 the Deutscher Werkbund still rebuked synthetic materials not only as unaesthetic, but as immoral and counter to truthfulness. But in the golden twenties the advance of plastics could no longer be stopped. What changed the situation so radically was the development of a synthetic resin that became known under its trade name - Bakelite. "The material of a thousand uses," as the American Bakelite corporation advertised it in the 20s. It was used for art deco jewelry, and proved to be a good insulator, making it the ideal casing for everything from radios and gramophones to telephones. Plastic no longer eked out an existence as a second class surrogate, but gained recognition as an original material, offering a range of possibilities in form and function that no other material had. Even artists discovered celluloid and acrylic for sculpting. The 30s and 40s were characterized by streamlined design. Aerodynamic forms, curves and long, flowing lines gave objects a futuristic appearance. Following World War II, plastic finally started to conquer the world. War-related research had produced new synthetic materials, that were put to new uses in fashion and design. For millions of women, nylon stockings revolutionized the world, while fiber-reinforced plastics did the same for furniture design. But it was the swinging sixties, that finally established plastic as the fetish of the young and hip, associated with progressiveness and future. The bright colors and seemingly endless possibilities of its use corresponded with the optimism of the decade. Suddenly trendy plastic furniture was affordable and people couldn't get enough of it. Looking back on the plastic euphoria, designer Anna Castelli Ferrieri said, "We thought that these objects were going to change the world because everybody was able to buy them." Anything seemed to be possible: the legendary television "Nivico," shaped like an astronaut's helmet, love chairs that looked like bumper cars or ejector seats tell stories of an unshakable faith in the future. But like every kind of euphoria this one too, came to an eventual end with the oil crisis of 1973. Plastic was once again frowned upon and regarded as a disposable article. Designers retreated and left the field to mass production. In recent years with the discovery of recycling, the revival of the sixties and the advent of a new generation of designers, plastic has resurfaced. Its return, as well as the exhibition, show that plastic, whether or not you like it, remains a dominant force of the 20th century.

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