Design: Plastic Fantastic

If the 20th century had an icon it would
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ASK ANY SELF-RESPECTING designer to name the material which has shaped this century, and there will only be one answer. Glass and concrete may have played a leading role in the development of modern buildings, from Gropius and Le Corbusier to Lasdun and Ando. Wood may have been bent and glued by the very best furniture designers, from Aalto and Day to Eames and Gehry. But only plastic is truly synonymous with the industrial acceleration, democratic consumerism and mass disposability of the 20th century.

Revered by Roland Barthes as "the first magical matter that consents to be prosaic", plastic has changed our material world to the point at which even the most likely unlikely objects - from fuel tanks in cars to surgical stitching threads in medi-cine - have been remoulded in its image.

Ever since the Belgian chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland invented the world's first plastic material in 1907 - a phenolic resin called Bakelite - designers have taken synthetic substances with scientific names (try acrylonitriole butadiene styrene, better known as ABS, for size) into every home and workplace, every bar and restaurant in the world.

Plastics designers have imitated "real" materials such as marble, wood, jade and silk, and fashioned wonderfully sculptural lights and chairs. They have used the lightness and durability of plastics to interpret the products of our age, from cameras and calculators to the Space Shuttle's cladding, and have adopted their insulating and conductive properties to build the information superhighway of tomorrow.

The story of plastics in 20th-century design is currently being told in one of the largest and most comprehensive exhibitions on the subject ever seen in Europe. And fittingly, given Baekeland's godfather status in the development of plastics this century, it is taking place in Belgium. Until the end of November "Passion Plastiques", organised by the Association of Plastics Manufacturers in Europe, is at Le Grand Hornu in Mons, less than an hour's drive south of Brussels.

On a neo-classical industrial complex built by the mine-owner Henri De Gorge in the early 19th century and refurbished in the 1970s, an elegant span of exhibition rooms has been filled with the chemistry, physics and creativity of plastics. Here you can operate plastic moulding machines, study the molecular composition of various polymers, send the kids off to play in a room full of Lego - in tribute to the world's most famous plastic brick - and generally get to know your PET from your PVC.

The centrepiece of Passion Plastiques is a display which originated in Paris two years ago - a giant synthetic inflated tent filled with every object imaginable. Here you get a sense of the marriage of technical invention and artistic expression that really marks the mould-breakers. From Issey Miyake's pleated clothing to Luigi Colani's organic motorbikes, plastic seems to have sent the design imagination to a new plane. One is left wondering what Charles Rennie Mackintosh or Christopher Dresser might have achieved, had Bakelite been refined from coal tar 20 years earlier.

Aside from the success stories that have achieved genuine innovations with plastics (such as foot-baller Craig Johnson's Predator boot for Adidas, or engineer James Dyson's cyclonic vacuum cleaner), there is a whole mundane world of disposable synthetics - absorbent nappies, throwaway packaging, cheap toys and jewellery. But the plastics industry is so aware of its poor environmental image - a legacy from the fall-out of the 1973 oil crisis - that a corner of Passion Plastiques has been devoted entirely to eco-propoganda purposes: a recycled plastics section shows many products, from Fila branded clothing to Volvo car bumpers, that are second-generation synthetics.

For all the science and ecology of plastics, the most striking pavilion of Passion Plastiques is the one unashamedly devoted to form and colour. Philippe Decelle's Plasticarium collection presents the design classics of 1960-73, on a series of pure white sets designed by Winston Priet and Sylvain Dubuisson. Aside from some laughable kitsch (cacti and Roman columns), the display recalls an era when European designers such as Joe Columbo, Verner Panton and and Vico Magistretti created singular sculptural objects - mainly chairs and lights - in ravishing red and yellow synthetics.

These pieces have a simplicity and authority which has turned them into the modern antiques of the consumer age. At Sotheby's last autumn, for example, an orange Columbo mini-kitchen went for more than pounds 3,000. Panton, who died in September, will be remembered as much for his eminently collectable injection-moulded Herman Miller chair of 1967 as for anything else.

A new generation of designers has taken up the baton in plastics, most notable among them Philippe Starck and Ron Arad, who have teamed up with Kartell, the great Italian manufacturer of the Sixties, the golden era of plastics, to produce exciting new work. The Italian architect Gaetano Pesce, meanwhile, has pursued his own idiosyncratic route with compelling experiments in sculptural and painterly composition.

In their slipstream, young designers, especially in London, have discovered just how versatile and creative plastics can be. The Inflate team, which has developed ways of designing in PVC which suggest the pattern-cutting techniques of dress-making, not only features in Passion Plastiques but also gets its own show at the Victoria & Albert Museum this autumn. The Inflate display in the Twentieth-Century Gallery, to be called Swell, will reflect the fun, functional and affordable side of plastics with a range of eggcups, ashtrays, fruit bowls and lamp shapes.

Even if our museums and auction houses now regularly parade plastics as classics, it is a material which still refers unashamedly to the future. It frees designers, especially in Britain, from their unhealthy fixation on the past; and in that sense, at least, it frees us all.

Passion Plastiques runs until 30 November 1998 at Le Grand Hornu, Rue Sainte-Louise 82, B-7301 Hornu, Belgium. For information, call 00 32 65 770712. Swell runs from 16 October 1998 to 11 April 1999 at the Twentieth-Century Gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum, London. For information, call 0171 938 8349