Plastic passion

Cayte Williams salutes the renaissance of the most democratic design material of all - plastic
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's not just politics that's seeing in a new era. Modern design is having its own revolution. Fusty old wooden furniture (think Michael Heseltine) and over-polished Eighties chrome (think Michael Portillo) have been ousted by that most modern and democratic of mediums, plastic (think of all those new wash'n'go Labour MPs).

Shops all over the country are welcoming plastic merchandise from kitchenware to furniture, and plastic collectables from the Forties onwards are the latest desirables. The main reason is that there are now a good five decades to choose from when picking out "plastic antiques". Classics of our time include moulded plastic chairs from Charles Eames (1948, US) and Verner Panton (1960, Germany) to Ron Arad's Transformer Seat (1983, UK).

The standard bearers for plastics in these exciting times are design stalwart Tom Dixon and the precocious young company, Inflate. Dixon's back on track with his much-acclaimed polypropylene Jack light (pounds 150), which he launched last year, and should cause a similar stir with his Star Wars-style Blob lamp (pounds 90) and the conical-shaped Tub chair (pounds 200), which will be hot off the production line next week.

Design company Inflate intends not to blow up the Houses of Parliament, but a series of Dadaesque fruit-bowls, bottle-holders, egg-cups and chairs. All are set to become collector's items of the future. The east London studio flat of Inflate's co-founder and designer, Nick Crosbie, is home to plastic design classics, including a Tom Dixon Jack light and a Charles Eames chair, all pointing in homage towards a rare Philippe Starck mahogany and plastic TV. It's the embryo collection of one of Britain's most successful young designers and comes with a strong philosophy.

"In the Eighties and early Nineties, there was an emphasis on expensive design in metal and stainless steel," he explains. "But because plastics are mass produced, we can think about everybody and not just wealthy people. It's about affecting lots of lives, it's a focus on the ordinary person, a kind of socialism. People are getting good design for decent money - hopefully we've left the expensive design of the Eighties behind. In fact, I would not even call it design. What we do are household products."

It's this integrity that has stopped Inflate becoming one of the great gimmicks of our time. It is very careful about what it produces and has turned down lucrative offers from department stores in an attempt to stay credible, preferring to sell through selected design outlets. Prices range from pounds 12 for an egg-cup to pounds 340 for an inflatable sofa.

At London shop Twentieth Century Design, you can pick up some vintage plastic classics, from an Inflate chair for pounds 299 to a vintage Ericsson telephone for pounds 95. "Plastic is seen as a modern material that is cheap and cheerful, but that's not always the case," explains owner Simon Alderson. "People expect plastic furniture to be cheaper just because of the material. The European market accepts it more readily than the British market. There, people will pay pounds 500 for a simple trolley by the big Italian names like Antonio Citterio and Cartel."

A real curiosity shop for the vintage collector is TomTom in Covent Garden, which sells post-war furniture and design. Here you can buy your 1976 Piretti vertebrae chair (pounds 220) and a huge, bubble-shaped, plastic TV by British firm Kera Colour from 1965 (pounds 780).

For more contemporary tastes, Purves & Purves in London has been open for five years and has always been at the forefront of selling plastics. "New technology means that colours are better and the actual plastic itself is much tougher," explains co-owner Andrew Purves. "In the Sixties, when plastic was last so popular, it was very brittle and the colours were much duller." Among the robust gems to be found in this haven of good taste are Philippe Starck's stools-cum-storage units (pounds 37.50), Judd Morrison Perspex cone lights (pounds 62), Bombo adjustable chrome/ plastic stools (pounds 311) and Maui stacking chairs (pounds 99.50). They come in designer shades of pistachio, blue, navy and lilac.

"I think there's a revival of the Sixties and Seventies," says Lucy Brentall at Ground Zero, a design shop in Camden which includes Supergrass, Julian Clary, Sadie Frost and a window-shopping Noel Gallagher among its customers. "People tend to be turning away from the natural fibres like wood and metal. There's also an element of recycling post-industrial waste and the stuff we sell can fit into any home."

Across the country, stores are stocking up on plastic novelties, such as circular draining boards in primary colours, beaded curtains (for the incurably kitsch) and frosted-plastic laundry baskets. Habitat is launching a new kitchenware range called Plastics (pounds 1.50 to pounds 16) and even Tupperware has produced a wince-free "Classics" range in fashionable frosted colours, from pounds 2.95 to pounds 11.50.

And, just to confirm that plastics are really taking off, Moss, the terribly hip New York design store, is holding a Tupperware party on 19 May. "Tupperware follows the lines of our store. It is a 20th-century designed object with specific cultural importance," says events organiser, Greg Krum. "The company turns over something like $1.4 billion a year, but whether it's in pop culture's eye, I can't say. But it will be a new experience for a whole new group of people who have never been to a Tupperware party before."

Who knows, it could set off a whole new trend.

For information on Tom Dixon, call Eurolounge, 0171 792 5477. Inflate products are available nationwide, including at American Retro, Ground Zero and Aria in London and Atomic in Nottingham. Shopping for plastic: Twentieth Century Design (0171 288 1996); Ground Zero (0171 482 3003); Tom Tom (0171 240 7909). For information about Tupperware parties, call 01895 826400.

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