Thursday, April 06, 2006

The appeal of plastic

click photo to enlarge
Will mankind come to regret the twentieth century's fascination with plastic? It's a wonderful material that can be formed into virtually any shape, made any colour, and given any texture, and as a consequence is formed into things as disparate as ships, cameras and substitute body parts! But, problems with toxicity, recycling and litter, not to mention oil depletion, suggest that alternatives may have to be sought in the not too distant future.

Plastic materials that can be made into any shape are the manufacturer's dream material, and many substances have been pressed (literally and figuratively) into use in the search for an all-purpose compound. Clay was perhaps the first widely used such material that could be moulded into many shapes. But, whilst fine for bowls, jugs, pantiles, pipes, etc, its brittle qualities restricted its use elsewhere.

The Victorians thought at one point that they had discovered the ultimate mouldable material in gutta percha. This variant of natural latex became known to western science in 1842 and was soon in use insulating under-sea cables. Its properties were quickly exploited in other industries, and the Gutta-Percha Company, in 1847, began making furniture with the material. Moulded chairs, often quite ornate, revivalist in style, and emulating wood, were exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851. However, though the material continued in use - in golf balls for example - it never became as widespread as enthusiasts hoped. In the twentieth century Bakelite, the invention of Dr Leo Baekeland, was the all-conquering mouldable material for many years. It was probably the first plastic made from synthetic polymers, and its heat-resistant and non-conductive properties led to its use, from the 1920s onwards, in insulators, radios, telephone casings and other manufactured items. It continues to be used in aerospace components, electronics and elsewhere, but has been largely superseded by polypropylene and other contemporary plastics.

The stack of blue chairs in the photograph illustrate a modern use of plastics - cheap, industrially-produced seating. The curved, moulded shape of the backs is easy to achieve with this material, and here it was the repeated lines of those backs that drew me into the photograph. This asymmetrical section in vibrant blue seemed to me to make a good composition.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen