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Über dieses Buch

Plastics have now been our most used materials for over fifty years. This book adopts a new approach, exploring plastics’ contribution from two perspectives: as a medium for making and their value in societal use. The first approach examines the multivalent nature of plastics materiality and their impact on creativity through the work of artists, designers and manufacturers. The second perspective explores attitudes to plastics and the different value systems applied to them through current research undertaken by design, materials and socio-cultural historians. The book addresses the environmental impact of plastics and elucidates the ways in which they can and must be part of the solution. The individual viewpoints are provocative and controversial but together they present a balanced and scholarly un-picking of the debate that surrounds this ubiquitous group of materials. The book is essential reading for a wide academic readership interested in the Arts and Humanities, especially Design and Design History; Anthropology; and Cultural, Material and Social Histories.



Chapter 1. Introduction

Plastics have been the most used materials for over fifty years but remain provocative. This chapter provides a contextual review of their contribution focused on their value, through their impact on the professional practice of artists, designers and manufacturers, and in relation to their reception in societal use. It locates the polyvocal chapters of the contributing authors within their individual frames of reference and sets them in a wider narrative that explores how plastics have changed our lives for better and for worse. It concludes that it is only if we succeed in developing a circular plastics economy, where they never become waste, will this extraordinary, paradoxical, manmade family of materials live up to the expectations of their inventors and fully realise their innate value.
Susan Lambert

Plastics in Professional Practice


Chapter 2. The Material Consciousness of Plastics

Ovid’s concept of Metamorphosis, the transformations that epitomise the tension between art and nature, is central to Sennett’s idea of ‘material consciousness’. He suggests that it is only through transformation that we invest material form with human values and qualities (Richard Sennett. The Craftsman. London: Penguin, 2009). This chapter asks can we be conscious of plastics in the same way when the material is the result of chemical and manufacturing processes? Or is the artificial world of plastics materials in fact responding to an ancient view of material in its endless recombination? Through a careful examination of form, colour, texture and process, this chapter argues that the contemporary craftsman does engage with metamorphism, presence and anthropomorphism and that plastics can, indeed, exemplify a material consciousness.
Russell Gagg

Chapter 3. Plastics’ Value as a Sculptural Medium

This chapter examines plastics’ capacity to extend sculptural vocabulary, especially their potential for translucence and the impact on sculptural form of the relatively recently developed processes of computer aided design and manufacture (CAD/CAM), for which plastics are frequently the material of choice. This provides a frame of reference for an analysis of the author’s investigation of the physical properties and semantic connotations of transparent acrylic in association with CAM/CAD processes in conceptualising in physical form the Christian notion of a tripartite deity. It is argued that the relatively recent availability of digital manufacturing methodologies has enabled the exploration of precise geometries in cast acrylic expanding the realisation of formalist conceptions.
Richard Hooper

Chapter 4. Can Plastics Be a Muse for Future Feminist Innovation?

This chapter presents the personal reflections of a leading milliner for whom plastics is a chosen material, and one that represents a rejection of traditional materials and techniques in millinery practice. It explores an emancipatory role for plastics through references to art, film and fashion, including her own practice. It also draws on interviews with individuals who employ plastics not just as tools or as vehicles of self-expression but ingrain it into their personhood, using plastics not only to augment their physical selves but also to define for themselves a new mode of being. It proposes that plastics have not only the power to transform women but also to enable them to find their own, individual routes to power and self-actualisation.
Flora McLean

Chapter 5. Deplastification?

Design is the legacy of thought but what is the legacy of design when plastics materials are specified? This chapter explores plastics in design through the experience of a leading British designer who has worked in the industry for over 40 years. From analysis of his designs, it considers plastics prejudice in designing and manufacturing circles, reasons for this prejudice, and ways of combining plastics with other materials to create high-end products that will ultimately appeal to the consumer. The chapter evidences the importance of analysing material choices thoroughly at the early design stages and of using plastics only when they are the best, rather than cheapest, design solution to fabrication. It concludes that plastics appropriately used can make better use of the world’s resources than traditional materials.
Sebastian Conran

Chapter 6. The Imperfect Aesthetic

The history of plastics in product design is divided into four sections, based on key changes in manufacturer perception of the aesthetic strengths of the material. These are discussed through a review of the literature. Noting that the perceived imperfect aesthetic associated with 3D-printing technology has not stalled the advance of additive manufacturing, the chapter combines Hekkert’s human-product aesthetic interaction and Norman’s reflective-level human processing theory, to expand aesthetics in relation to material understanding. It concludes that the instrumental aesthetic interaction qualities of plastics, combined with the increased reflective-level human processing afforded by 3D printing, places more value on free manipulation of the material than on the quality of resulting surface texture.
Stefan Lie, Berto Pandolfo, Roderick Walden

Chapter 7. Witches’ Knickers and Carrier Bag Theories: Thinking Through Plastics

Plastics are frequently characterised either as beautiful and adaptive or as unauthentic and destructive: this chapter considers how creative approaches to such everyday materials can sustain more complex investigations and can produce affective and multivalent readings. Developing from work for Witches’ Knickers, an independent artist’s publication, it explores a series of creative encounters with plastic bags and takes such bags as both material and metaphor for artistic research. Through an attention to the feminist scholarship of Elizabeth Fisher and the ‘carrier bag theory of fiction’ proposed by Ursula le Guin, it suggests a way of bringing together apparently disparate material, and of holding in tension differently valued and potentially contradictory ideas about plastics.
Joanne Lee

Chapter 8. Plastics Manufacture and Sustainability: Start Thinking in Cycles

Plastics are an unusually versatile materials group which is found in almost all areas of everyday life, yet products made of plastics are seen by many as resource-consuming, throwaway articles that are not sustainable. Can these very different positions be reconciled? Is it possible to have sustainable plastics at all? This chapter examines this dichotomy from a global manufacturing perspective. It considers all three dimensions of sustainability, people, planet and profit and examines the entire lifecycle of plastics products from production, processing and consumption to collection and recycling. New approaches outlined in this chapter can make an important contribution to a more resource-efficient and circular economy.
Eric Bischof

Plastics in Societal Use


Chapter 9. ‘Plastic Fantastic Lover’: Plastics and Popular Culture … 1945 to the Present

Cultural studies tend to consider plastics in relation to other contexts and arguments. This chapter examines rather how plastics have been popularly perceived and the part they have played in shaping and enabling popular culture. The development of plastics after World War II was defined by misunderstanding, derision, limited acceptance, deviance and qualified acceptance that has been both mirrored and shaped by the popular culture that accompanied their rise. With a focus on the United States and Britain as the countries that dominated world culture for much of the period under discussion, this relationship is unpicked through reference to music, comics, film, literature, architecture and museums.
Mark Suggitt

Chapter 10. But They’re Only Imitation…? Plastic Flowers That Can Disgust and Delight

This chapter examines the value of plastics through consideration and celebration of ubiquitous examples of artificial flowers: designs that are habitually dismissed as dated, useless, cheap and tawdry yet continue to endure and endear in both private and public places. In particular, the plastic flower has been plucked for specific scrutiny as the historic and contemporary use and appeal of fake flowers is considered. The chapter’s findings indicate that people’s perceptions of key plastics designs vary dramatically: tastes are volatile and certain designs made of plastics can be particularly provocative. The chapter concludes that tensions surround the use and evaluation of plastic flowers, which are influenced by their charged connotations and reputations, shaped in part by the fact that they are made of plastics.
Kirsten Hardie

Chapter 11. Ambiguous Artificiality: The Presentation and Perception of Viscose Fibres and Fabrics in Norway in the 1930s

Viscose was a novelty in the 1930s. The textile industry quickly adopted the fibres, and viscose clothing and interior textiles became the highest fashion. This happened at the same time throughout the industrialised world, even in small countries like Norway, which depended on transnational imports of both raw materials and fashion trends. This chapter explores how the Norwegian textile industry put the new fibres into use and how they were received by consumers. It is based on the comprehensive archives of one of Norway’s most important textile factories and relies also on a close reading of weekly magazines and newspapers to provide an understanding of how the new fibres were presented and received.
Tone Rasch

Chapter 12. Plastics’ Canonisation: Aspects of Value in the Camberwell Inner London Education Authority Collection

The chapter discusses notions of value, focusing on the plastics found in the Camberwell Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) Collection, an educational collection of objects circulating in London schools from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. Making reference to prominent design platforms such as the Council of Industrial Design and the 1951 Festival of Britain, the discussion explains how the implementation of the tenets of ‘good design’ aligned plastics in the Collection with modernism, and aimed at cultivating taste in post-war school children. Using the case study of the EKCO Nova range of products, the chapter questions the design of high-end products in plastic, and makes the case of how the aesthetic canon lost its relevance outside the guarded spaces of modernist influence.
Maria Georgaki

Chapter 13. The Changing Fortunes of Plastics in Museums and Galleries

Focused on the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT), this chapter explores a path to acceptance of objects made of plastics or with plastics parts in museums and art galleries. It discusses why formerly staff at the V&A were in denial of plastics in their collections and how, although now they are collected for their contribution to design, they are treated differently from other materials groups. A particular focus is an analysis of the acquisition process experienced by a contemporary artwork at BMT that includes 711 discarded plastics objects. The suggestion is that its plastics content has led to it being treated with less respect than is usual with artworks by both museum staff and the public.
Deborah Cane, Brenda Keneghan

Chapter 14. Materiality and Perception: Plastics as Precious Materials

This chapter introduces research cross-relating human perception, with all its subjectivity, with quantitative assessments of material properties. Its aim is to understand better the widely varying perceived values of plastics materials in the form of finished products. Central to this understanding is awareness of the qualitative differences among the many materials in the plastics group. Materiality is a fundamental aspect for the analysis of material culture and plays an especially important role in the existence of plastics goods. With a focus on cast phenolic, the chapter explores their use to make objects types that have since become collectable, specifically radios and bracelets. Given plastics’ ubiquity, relatively recent history and the not always positive perceptions they engender, it provocatively presents plastics as precious.
Gerson Lessa

Chapter 15. Plastics and Social Responsibility

Plastics are now the most widely used materials group in the world. Global production of plastics has increased twentyfold since the 1960s, reaching 360 million tonnes in 2018. By 2050, these figures are expected to quadruple. This chapter specifies the scale of production and its environmental consequences, as in increasing ocean litter. The extent to which plastics materials are used, combined with the fact that many of the products are intended for single use, has given plastics a bad name but the fault lies with us rather than with the material itself. How governments, large organisations and individuals have addressed sustainable manufacture, use and disposal of plastics, what impact their actions have had and what more might be done, are at the heart of this chapter.
Susan Mossman


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