Plastic: a 20th century design classic

Until 4 September 2022, the Vitra Design Museum is hosting Plastic: Remaking Our World, an exhibition that looks back at one of the most extraordinary industrial adventures of the last century and looks at the cutting-edge solutions that exist today for a more sustainable use of this material. This article traces part of the history of the use of plastic in modern and contemporary design, from the first bakelite appliances to the “pop” turn of the 1960s and 1970s.

View of the Vitra Design Museum exhibition, Plastic: Remaking Our World. Photo credit Bettina Matthiessen, © Vitra Design Museum

The history of plastic began in the early 20th century with the invention of Bakelite, a material derived from the chemical industry and used for its insulating and heat-resistant properties. Bakelite was very fashionable in the first part of the 20th century and was an excellent electrical insulator. It was used to make many kitchen utensils and flooded the home. Housing manufacturers were also keen to use it in the design of radios and telephones. Importantly, manufacturers are beginning to take into account the look and shape of the objects they produce.

Antique bakelite and black metal telephone from Burgunder.

With the rise of industrial design, manufacturers of plastic products are placing more and more emphasis on the appearance of the products they bring to the market. On the other side of the Atlantic, Raymond Loewy, the pope of industrial design, says that “ugliness does not sell well”. In his view, manufacturers must produce aesthetically pleasing objects to be sold.

Brown bakelite radio that evokes the shape of a car grille. Sonora Excellence 301 model (1948).

In the early 1950s, formica or melamine laminate became very popular on the European market. It allowed furniture to be produced in very colourful shades, was heat resistant and easy to maintain. It was used in particular for kitchen worktops and became one of the star materials of the 30 Glorieuses.

Advertisement for the Formica brand, 1959.
American advertisement highlighting the ease of cleaning a Formica covering installed in a kitchen.
Vintage blue formica dining set, USA (1950). Photo credit: Design Market

As polymers gradually invaded the industrial production of capital goods, the great designers of the post-war period took advantage of the technological developments underway to modernise furniture. Charles & Ray Eames used the properties of fibreglass-reinforced polyester resin, previously used in the military industry, to design a chair with a single-piece seat shell. In 1950, they launched a series of revolutionary chairs on the market: Fiberglass chairs. The shell, moulded in fibreglass, proved to be very comfortable; the concept was pushed to mass production.

Fiberglass Side Chair DSX, designed by Charles & Ray Eames for Vitra, 1950. From then on, the seat and backrest were moulded in a single piece, a revolution for the time.
Photo credit: Design Market
Fiberglass Armchair DAR, design Charles & Ray Eames for Vitra, 1950. The Fiberglass Chairs offer different legs that adapt to the shell. A worldwide success that has never been denied and a great design classic.
Photo credit: Design Market

The Eames’ invention was all the more successful as it paved the way for very colourful furniture, which a few years later would become one of the symbols of the “Pop” years. The Eames chairs came in blue, yellow, black, ochre and red… As technology evolved, Vitra produced versions with a polypropylene shell: the original Fiberglass became “Plastic Chairs”.

The 1960s and 1970s marked the triumph of a brightly coloured design. Plastics are permeable to pigments and allow for colours that were previously unimaginable. The Danish designer Verner Panton created the first one-piece chair made of moulded plastic and in bright colours, the famous Panton Chair or S Chair, and was a great success. Injection-moulded plastics allow for all shapes and designers can let their imagination run wild!

Panton Chair Classic, design by Verner Panton for Vitra. The Panton Chair Classic was the first injection-moulded plastic monoblock chair designed by Verner Panton in 1963. This version is the original version in glossy lacquer finish.
Photo credit: Design Market
One of the symbols of the triumphant “pop” plastic of the 1960s: the famous Tam-Tam stool designed by designer Henry Massonnet in 1968 and reissued by Stamp Edition.
The famous “Valentine” portable typewriter designed by Ettore Sottsass for Olivetti in 1969. This piece, which has become an icon of vintage design, illustrates the new possibilities of moulding and deformation allowed by plastic
Photo credit: Design Market
Red plastic box in which the portable typewriter “Valentine” is stored. Designed by Ettore Sottsass for Olivetti in 1969.
Photo credit: Design Market

A symbol of these “all-plastic” years, the Italian publisher Kartell specialised in the production of plastic furniture shortly after its creation in 1949. Under the guidance of its founder, Giulio Castelli, a chemical engineer by training who studied under the inventor of polypropylene, Giulio Natta (winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963 for his work on polymers), and his wife and collaborator, the architect Anna Castelli Ferrieri, Kartell became the emblem of Made in Italy design. In 1964, the firm launched the 4999 children’s chair. Some specialists consider the 4999 designed by Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper to be the first 100% plastic (polyethylene) chair. four years later, Joe Colombo designed the 4867 chair for Kartell, the first chair made entirely of injection moulded ABS.

4999 chair, design: Marco Zanuso & Richard Sapper for Kartell, 1964. A classic of vintage design.
Chair 4867, design: Joe Colombo for Kartell, 1968. Made of polycarbonate and produced by Kartell, 4867 has been considered an icon of 1960s design for many years and is on permanent display in prestigious museums. Photo credit: Design Market

Other major advances in the plastics industry allow designers to create original pieces, with plastic adapting to the desired shape and functionality. Many designers are experimenting with polyurethane foam (synthetic foam rubber), which fills the volume of certain creations (mattresses, filling of seats and cushions, etc.). Its lightness makes it a major asset and allows great freedom.

Karelia armchair, design: Liisi Meronen Beckmann for Zalotta, 1966. Made of expanded polyurethane foam with a glossy vinyl cover, this seat has become one of Zanotta’s cult classics.
Malitte” set by Roberto Sebastian Matta, published by Gavina in 1966. The 5 elements that make up the set are blocks of polyurethane foam covered with black and green fabric. Photo credit: Design Market
Unfolded “Malitte” set by Roberto Sebastian Matta published by Gavina in 1966. Another piece symbolic of the sixties: freedom and modularity. Photo credit: Design Market
The famous ribbon-shaped seat: the Ribbon chair created by Pierre Paulin for the Dutch publisher Artifort in 1966. The French designer uses polyurethane foam covered with a stretch jersey. For many of his iconic designs of the 1960s, Paulin dressed his creations in stretch jersey over lightweight frames clad in polyurethane foam. Photo credit: Artifort

In the 1980s, plastic was less popular, although some designers used the extraordinarily transparent properties of PMMA, better known as Plexiglas® and now Altuglas®. One of the masters of transparent glass is the Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata, who proposed his Glass chair in 1976. Kuramata followed this up with other models, including the fabulous Miss Blanche, made of transparent plastic.

Glass chair, design: Shiro Kuramata, 1976. Photo credit: Shiro Kuramata
Miss Blanche chair, design: Shiro Kuramata, 1988. Translucent acrylic seat.
Miss White chair, design: Shiro Kuramata, 1988. Translucent acrylic seat, detail of the roses imprisoned in the transparent glass, a magnificently poetic piece!

Towards the end of the 20th century, Philippe Starck, the enfant terrible of French design, successfully designed pieces that play with light using transparent polycarbonate, a popular substitute for glass. His Louis Ghost chair has become a classic and a best-seller in contemporary design, with over 1 million sold.

La Marie chairs, design: Philippe Starck for Kartell, 1999. La Marie is the first chair made of transparent polycarbonate in a single mould. Photo credit: Starck
Louis Ghost chair, design Philippe Starck for Kartell, 2002. Photo credit: Kartell
Louis Ghost armchairs, design Philippe Starck for Kartell. The armchair version of the chair. Polycarbonate allows for a wide variety of colours. Photo credit: ©Starck,

François Boutard