During the twentieth century, plastics became fashionable, entering the home in a hundred guises. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
The mass production of radios in the 1930s boosted the use of plastics and gave scope to modernist designers. Fada radios were well known for their pleasing design and this cast phenolicmodel is a rich yellow-amber colour with a vaguely oriental design, and an appearance similar to walnut. Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
plastics were mostly used as substitutes for natural materials. Celluloid replaced ivory and tortoiseshell, Bakelite was made to look like wood, and other cast phenolics resembled jade and amber.
The contemporary concept of the ideal woman was made plastic in 1959 in the form of Barbie
The new-fangled ‘wireless’ presented new opportunities for the use of plastics. Wells Coates and Serge Chermayeff at the Ekco Radio factory created classic radio castings in the 1930s. High-profile excavations in Egypt (Tutankhamen) and Mesopotamia (Nimrud) influenced contemporary design in the form of Art Deco. Plastics played a major role in this design movement, especially in jewellery and ornaments. The modernist designers also used plastics.
Squeezy bottles are now familiar objects and are generally popular, despite being made of plastic. This is the first of its kind, the ‘Sqezy’ bottle for washing up liquid, was made of polythene with metal ends, by Cascelloid in 1958. Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
In the period after 1945, plastics were put to more functional uses, in the shape of the polyethylene washing-up bowl and the squeezy bottle. Polyethylene was also the basis of Tupperware kitchenware, initially simple bowls and containers, but later extended to champagne flutes and rice-fluffers. Formica worktops revolutionised kitchens and plastic-encased television sets made their way into most homes, leading the way for other plastic goods, including CD players and PCs.The contemporary concept of the ideal woman was made plastic in 1959 in the form of Barbie®, the iconic doll which has now adopted over 150 different persona ranging from Suburban ShopperTM Barbie® to Princess of the Danish CourtTM Barbie®.
‘Vinyl’ (PVC) records were first introduced in the United States in 1948, and appeared in Britain a few years later. Cheap and unbreakable they soon became associated with rock-and-roll and pop music. ‘Cutting the vinyl’ was the in-thing and considerable attention was paid to the design of record sleeves, including this classic album cut in 1967 by the Beatles at the height of their popularity. Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
Plastics became an integral part of the ‘Swinging ’60s’. The Beatles cut their records on vinyl discs, Mary Quant made plastic rainwear fashionable and many people were happy to sit on inflatable furniture or beanbags filled with plastic pellets. Although mocked in the film The Graduate in 1967, during the following year plastics featured in two movies, Barbarella and 2001: A Space Odyssey. A generation of young men were traumatised by the giant inflatable plastic breast in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972). Plastics could be hip (and even cool).
After the drama of the 1960s, plastics colonised our home in a quieter but all-pervasive manner. Nearly all new windows became uPVC double-glazing, even if some were made in a mock-Tudor style. Plastic flooring replaced linoleum. Hairdryers were made of plastic rather than metal. Thanks to the successful introduction of the barbecue – and despite the chilly British summer – plastic garden furniture displaced traditional deckchairs. Even today, plastics continue to make inroads. ‘Smart plastics’ are moving out of the research lab into the home, where some baby spoons now change colour if they are too hot to be used safely. In the future, other smart materials may control the temperature of different rooms, regulate the light levels and even clean the kitchen.
Since the 1920s, the plastics industry has promoted the concept of a ‘Plastic Age’, portraying plastics as the solution to many of our problems, the material that ensures that hitherto expensive items are available to all, ‘a democracy of luxury’. > more
For all the benefits that plastics have brought us, we continue to sneer at them. . When plastics are successful, expensive and desirable, we don’t call them plastic. In our world view, plastics will always be tacky. > more