TOTALLY PLASTIC: As millions of environmentally minded consumers and corporations are trying to reduce — or wherever possible do away with — plastics, the Vitra Design Museum is showing “Plastic: Remaking Our World.”
Running through Sept. 4 in Weil am Rhein Germany, the exhibition will hit the road for other stops. It has been organized through the teamwork of the Vitra Design Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and in Dundee and the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology in Lisbon. Why plastic has been so important in the history of the modern world, and why it is so difficult to replace are some of the issues that the exhibition set out to explore.
The exhibition draws upon plastic designs dating back 120 years and weaves in insights from the plastics industry, scientific research, activism, policy making and experimental approaches. In the exhibition catalogue, Nike Inc.’s chief design officer John Hoke 3rd writes, “Embracing the material’s future responsibly means investigating its plasticity further — its ability to be returned, reimagined and reincarnated — while continuing the search for reformulations and alternatives.”
The invention of celluloid by John Wesley Hyatt in the 1860s was prompted by the search for a replacement for ivory in the production of billiard balls. In 1907, Leo Baekeland invented the first plastic made of purely synthetic components and named it “Bakelite.” Independent inventors crafted new ways to use plastics early on. By the 1920s, petrochemical giants like Dow, DuPont and Imperial Chemical Industries were advancing it and a decade later industrial designers like Egmont Arens, Wells Coates and Gio Ponti stepped forward. World Wars I and II ushered in Plexiglass for aircraft purposes and other military-inspired developments.
Monsanto presented a more playful concept with the 1957 unveiling of the “House of the Future” at Disneyland in California. The decades that followed led to other interpretations of plastics. A wide assortment of objects and designs including bright-colored Pop Art-inspired ones are showcased in the exhibition. Eero Aarnio, Gino Sarfatti, Jane Atfield, Bär + Knell, Enzo Mari, Klarenbeek & Dros and Shellworks are among others. Projects geared for cleaning up the oceans and rivers and smart concepts for waste reduction and recycling through bioplastics made from algae and mycelium are included.
The exhibition also touches upon how the first fully synthetic fabrics were developed in the early days of the plastics industry and went on to influence fashion. Testimony to that are a few items on view including the “Space-Age” dress from the 1960s and custom-made clothes consisting of compostable mushroom root developed from MycoTex. Nylon stockings are also in the mix, as they marked the start of the fully synthetic revolution in fashion and textiles. Visitors will learn among other things that Ascher was one of the first companies to transform translucent parachute nylon into fashionable dress wear.
After closing in Germany this fall, the exhibition will travel to the V&A Dundee in October, where it will be on view until May 2023. A showing is planned for Lisbon next spring.