Plastic fantastic: Clearly inspired design

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Plastic is a symbol of our throwaway culture. But it has also transformed the world of design, a new book argues

Plastic has a bad reputation. It is cheap. It is disposable. It is ugly. When it comes to our homes, most of us long for the earthly sturdiness of solid wood, the warm pleasures of plush woollens, silks and linens and the traditional comforts of leather – all materials which introduce elements of the natural world into our living environments and suggest quality and longevity.

Plastic, on the other hand, is the stuff used to make our morning coffee cups. It is the packaging around dreary lunchtime sandwiches. We sling supermarket shopping into plastic bags and drink out of plastic bottles.

In terms of interiors, save for the enduring popularity of Philippe Starck's Louis Ghost chair for Kartell, which first went on sale in 2002, plastic is widely considered the preserve of high chairs and of unattractive desk lamps; of temporary furniture stand-ins until that dream piece becomes affordable.

Amid all the negativity surrounding plastic – the raging against plastic bags and the campaigning against plastic water bottles – its place in design and design history as a thing of beauty and durability, which is constantly evolving, has been overlooked.

"The way it's shaped our modern world is incredible," points out Charlotte Fiell, who, along with her husband, Peter, has written Plastic Dreams, a sort of ode to plastic celebrating timeless examples of innovation in plastic design and exploring its origins. "We use it daily, but it is thought of as throwaway and invaluable, when in fact it is very valuable and can be used to do so much. From all of the materials available today, plastic is the most extraordinary."

Plastic Dreams has been something of a pet project for the Fiells, decades in gestation. The couple, both experts on 20th- and 21st-century design, have produced more than 30 books while waiting for the right moment to publish on plastic.

"It is constantly evolving," explains Charlotte, "which wood or aluminium can never do. Design is always materials-led and plastics are so important because they never stand still. Scientists create new plastics with new attributes and the designer gives new form to it."

This potential for innovation, and the challenge it sets designers, helped Starck's range create such a splash. Before the Louis Ghost chair came La Marie in 1998, the first completely transparent chair formed from a single moulding of polycarbonate and a breakthrough in plastic chair manufacturing. "Since the era of Bauhaus it has been a Modernist fantasy to create a completely dematerialised chair – in effect, a column of air that could be used as a seat," write the Fiells. "La Marie was a knowing Post-Modern attempt to capture this vision."

The design critic Stephen Bayley is less impressed. "Exactly how long would it take you to become exhausted by the witty one-liner that is a Louis Ghost chair?" he asked, while taking a chainsaw to one for a magazine article in 2006. "It is to design what passing celebrity is to lasting reputation."

It is difficult to deny the disposability of plastic, even where top-class design is concerned. "The thing with plastic and with collecting plastic," says Charlotte, "is that you want it to be in perfect condition, gleaming and without any scratches."

Yet plastic does scratch fairly easily, and it cracks and splinters and marks. Bayley is annoyed by the "brainless consumerism" that producing in plastic inevitably promulgates. "Starck has dumped more vainglorious, meretricious crapola on markets than anyone apart from Walt Disney," he rails.

Perhaps, but Charlotte Fiell reiterates the point of caring for your plastic and being conscious about reducing waste. The inclusion of a plastic water bottle in Plastic Dreams might be controversial, but she says the Ty Nant bottle is special because the plastic is sculpted to mimic the way water flows.

She is confident we have entered a new era in plastics. During the 1980s and 1990s, plastics were sold as seasonal fashion items, so you could revamp your home every time you bought a new handbag. Yet it was also during this time that one of the most popular plastic pieces ever appeared, Jonathan Ive's iMac in 1998, kick-starting a global obsession with Apple products.

Every year, we produce 200 million tons of plastic – half as disposable items – and recycle just 3.5 per cent of this. Plastic has always been political. In the 1960s, particularly, it was the ideal material to revolt against tradition with, being so very new, so synthetic, so loud, garish and contrary to everything which had gone before. The 1973 Opec oil crisis made plastic less available and forced the first genuine appraisal of the ethics of disposable consumption. Today, it is proving a struggle to drag plastic back from its consumerist temple and respect its possibilities. "Previous books on plastic tend towards kitsch and throwaway plastic," Fiell says. "We want to make something noble and responsible of it."

Technological developments are making it much easier to design and produce quality items made from plastic. With computer-aided design software it is possible to mould very complex designs with precision. Rapid-prototyping technology is a futuristic design tool which allows designers to grow their ideas in tanks of epoxy resin, tinkering with their next big ideas as they go along, a process which has a touch of the Rocky Horrors about it.

Eugenio Perazza, the founder of Magis, Kartell's closest competitor, says that "object bulimia is over", thanks to the anti-consumerism ignited by the global recession. Magis's latest collection includes sustainable advances – a plastic derived from recycled water bottles – and aesthetic developments: they have worked out how to fix a pattern inside a polycarbonate shell which will look like the item is made from layered glass. From next year, biodegradable "liquid wood" will be showcased.

Plastic is being massaged and cosseted towards excellence like a fine wine or a prize heifer. "Mindless quality must give way to thoughtful quality," write the Fiells, "and for this to happen we will need talented designers to explore creatively the noble properties of these high-value materials, so that plastics can continue to transform our utopian, but more sustainable dreams into everyday, life-enhancing reality."

The optimism of this pronouncement is audacious. In China, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of factory workers are busy churning out plastic items that are neither desirable nor sustainable. The eco-adventurer David de Rothschild is currently sailing across the Pacific in a boat made of 12,500 plastic bottles, to draw attention to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swell of largely plastic waste considered to be at least the size of Texas gathered in the ocean. It will take another significant oil crisis, not a few groovy chairs, to reverse the tide of disposable plastic items in our daily lives.

In the meantime, the Fiells' celebration of plastic – you'll recognise the Dyson, the Swatch, the Playplax construction toy, the Invisible Group's 1957 Lily chair and the Melissa jelly shoes – seems relevant. Even if Bayley does think "the moment a Gino Colombini bucket arrived in MoMA was an equivalent, of sorts, to the Sack of Rome".

Book offer

Plastic Dreams: Synthetic Visions in Design’ by Charlotte & Peter Fiell (£24.95). To order a copy for £22.45 including free P&P from Independent Books Direct, visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk or call 08700 798 897

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