There is no doubt that more than the design quality of the material used is expressed in objects of everyday culture. First and foremost, the objects are reflections of our needs and desires (or of what we as consumers are supposed to consider they are). In view of this, plastic design has, historically, gone through a process of ups and downs, which is determined by political, social, economic and environmental influences. During the ‘economic miracle’ in the 50s, when the focus was on consumption, an atmosphere developed that encouraged plastics.
Avant-garde designers spearheaded the functionalism movement (“less design is more design”). The stronghold of industrial design was the Design University in Ulm, the concepts of which were implemented by the Braun company with its head designer Dieter Rams (born in 1932). The record player “SK4”, better known as “Snow White’s coffin”, had a lid made from Plexiglas (polymethyl methacrylate) – something that had never been seen before – and received a triumphant reception at the Internationale Funkaustellung in 1955.
The wild 60s broke with functionalism, but plastic boomed even more than before. The material was considered to be progressive and encouraged designers to experiment off the mainstream track. Using plastic stood for a lifestyle that combined social protest with a belief in progress, an obsession with freedom and enthusiasm for technology. Designers wanted to push the envelope: the Italian Cesare “Joe” Colombo (1930-1971) designed entire kitchens and bathrooms from plastic, while Verner Panton presented his synthetic living environment “Visiona 2“ at the Cologne Furniture Fair in 1970, staged by Bayer AG.
The plastics trend stopped suddenly when the oil crisis hit in 1973. The obvious waste of raw materials in modern-day consumer society, growing volumes of rubbish and increasing environmental pollution led to a slump in the popularity of plastics. Plastics were then marginalised to a very large extent in the 80s as the environmental movement gained momentum. Stable economic growth, social hedonism and the start of the digital era helped plastic design to achieve a tremendous comeback in the 90s.
Designers upgraded the material, the Authentics products mentioned above being one example of this. The “iMac” from Apple caused a sensation in 1998 as the aesthetic symbol of digitisation – with its all-in-one housing made from semi-translucent polycarbonate in the colour “Bondi Blue”.
Plastics designers have recently started to reflect on the historical origins of their profession in the 19th century, the biopolymer era, again. At the Milan Furniture Fair this year, the German designer Werner Aisslinger (born in 1964) presented his “Hemp Chair” (2011), a structure made from an environmentally sound composite material (the natural fibres hemp and kenaf plus Acrodur as the bonding agent) that is both elastic and tough. It seems to be the case that design and society are at a crossroads again. Our Interview discusses the conditions under which plastic will succeed in maintaining its position in the 21st century too.