Rubber rings the changes

Once the preserve of frogmen and fetishists, rubber is now bouncing back into the consumer mainstream.
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The Independent Culture
Of all materials, rubber is the most human, the most tactile, and friendly, the most biddable; its surface most skin-like, its consistency most flesh-like. In infancy, it bounces; in decline, it decomposes; in odour - which simultaneously compels and repels - it carries a whiff of mortality; and when pressured against tarmac at high speed, it talks in the voice of Julie Burchill though with a firmer grip on the terrain.

And it's never so vicious. It's hard to think of a malign use of rubber, apart from certain Dutch cheeses. Necklace killings are a grotesque misuse of the product. Even in its most aggressive manifestation - the rubber bullet - it represents a humane compromise (given a choice of bullets, which would you rather face, rubber or steel?). More often than not, rubber is looking out for us. It is our point of contact with the hard world, the go-between between the driver and the road, our safe-sex middleman, our insulator, our handle on things, it stops boats banging themselves to destruction against jetties, it soothes our babies and holds our trousers up.

All this and a sense of humour - rubber's pre-eminent human quality. Rubber makes us laugh. No one ever laughed at steel, not even behind its back. Mention rubber and we giggle. "Tell me about it," says Ian Thorp, one of three brothers who own Slough Rubber Company. "I only have to say I work in rubber and everyone's on the floor." Those people are instantly reminded of faux chickens and stand-in penises, of fat men in bedsits basting themselves with latex. They laugh because rubber is so intimate, so human and, in some cases - those lewdly wobbling things in sex shops, the rubber politicians of Spitting Image - more real in essence than the real thing.

Sex and rubber go hand in hand, or however far you want it to go - it's a versatile material. It may not turn you on, but you can't deny its slippery- when-wet approximation. That impossible-not-to-bite rubber nipple on the end of your pencil is not there to erase mistakes. If that were the case, it would be white and not pink. It's there to ease librarian boredom, executive angst, plumber despair. The pencil is communication tool, aide- memoire and mother substitute, all rolled into one. Does your Psion go that far?

So, given that rubber is intrinsically appealing, why aren't Habitat's shelves panting with bright, playful rubber consumer goods? Well, soon they will be, because rubber is being reclaimed from frogmen and fetishists and is bouncing back into the popular consumer mainstream it inhabited 50 years ago. Then Britain led the world in the development of rubber. There were rubber universities. Rubber was the material of the future. But soon plastic came along and distracted everyone with its exotic artificial charms. The concept of fun rubber all but disappeared. There were still rubber products, of course. There were still gaskets and ductings, seals and spacers, bungs, belts, brake pads, door stops and flip-flops, but the development effort in design and manufacture had moved elsewhere. Our space-age Croydex chain-pulls grew old and cracked.

You can't have a proper human relationship with plastic though. It doesn't understand us. It's too immortal. It breaks when you try to bite it. Having something broken and immortal is no fun. Besides, fashion now favours natural products. The conditions are right for rubber, which is organic, sustainable, biodegradable liquid wood, to bounce back into our affections. Some manufacturers, like the French rubber flooring company, Dalsouple, which encourages experimentation by running an annual competition in rubber design, are banking on it.

So is Ian Thorp, of the aforementioned Slough Rubber Company, one of only four small dipping plants left in the country. Ian, whose core product is a rubber safety glove designed for power grid electricians (pause for laughter), has been putting the case for diversification into designer products to fellow rubber barons for years. "They told me I was mad," he says. "Now they're not so sure." Six years ago he started giving young designers the run of his factory to develop prototypes. One of these was Craig Morrison from Wimbledon College of Art, whose spiky rubber rucksacks and pouches have taken off in a big way.

Thorp is currently working with 12 designers on a variety of new products which include a humane jockey's whip, a hairdresser's neck seal called The Robbo and an inflatable bicycle saddle which was designed by a former courier. A textile designer, Clare Goddard, is producing novel fabrics by immersing petals, leaves, flakes of reflective shellac, sand and even used tea bags in latex solutions. Sarah Nunes is developing marble-like dying techniques and clipping tiny holes in latex sheeting to produce a "lace" effect. Isabel Dodd is screen-printing rubber on to fabric. Jozefien Gronheid is developing a futuristic, swirly standard lamp, while Fiona Davidson is coating MDF furniture modules in rubber.

Many of these products benefit from a seamless look, which is one of the joys of dipping, which proves to be a surprisingly simple process. Thorp has dipped almost everything: monster animals for Pinewood film studios, plaster partworks of gorgeous exotic dancers and a secret 13- foot long thing for the Ministry of Defence that is obviously a rubber cruise missile.

If I were to heat my daughter's budgerigar to 40 degrees and dip it in a vat of liquid latex, would I have a rubberigar? Yes I would, and life round here would be a lot quieter and less pecky. A bit kinkier, perhaps, but that would depend mainly on the colour I chose.

Thorp is keen to distance himself from the fetish market and will not make anything for it, though, ironically, fetishism appears to be one of the principle artistic models influencing the work of young designers, particularly those in fashion. Even Morrison's rucksacks look pervy to a mind-set which regards the Croydex chain-pull as daring. This influence is due to the fact that designers of fetish wear and those bordering on it - such as Helen Saffery, who designs slinky evening dresses and cat suits with tailored feet for the mail order company Libidex - have had a monopoly on imagination in rubber clothing for so many years. And then popular artists such as Madonna have made the look more acceptable to the mainstream.

As more couturiers continue experimenting with the material, the fetish associations will decline. Prada and Gaultier have used rubber, and Thierry Mugler recently unveiled a catwalk number that looked like an all-in- one swimming costume, complete with cap, fingerless gloves and long rubber socks worn under platform shoes.

Renewed interest means accelerating technological development. Thorp is producing rubbers which have less smell, withstand higher temperatures, last longer or change colour according to temperature. After four years of development, designer Mark Bond has produced a rubber light which can withstand temperatures of up to 6,000C without its colour deteriorating. And in night clubs, dancers are being sprayed with liquid latex for their partners to pick off at their leisure. Rubber is fun once again.