Plastic makes perfect

New material and computer technologies coupled with high-end design are shifting the perception of plastic from fun and cheap to glamorous and chic. Nicole Swengley reports.

July 31 2010
Nicole Swengley

Plastic has come a long way since the Space Age look of the 1960s and 1970s, when colourful, glossy surfaces and curvy shapes appealed to a youthful generation in search of new typologies. In contrast, today’s advanced technopolymers are honed to a glittering transparency resembling crystal or imbued with alluring, jewel-like colours, while new technical processes and production methods mould the material into increasingly ingenious shapes. As a result, the funky look encapsulated by Verner Panton’s iconic, cantilevered chair for Vitra (£181), which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary, is giving way to a more sophisticated, glamorous aesthetic.

“Plastic is no longer the staple of low-budget, informal spaces – it’s a material to rival fine timbers and metals,” says London-based interior designer Suzy Hoodless. “Plastic technology continues to develop and, when used in collaboration with computer technology, the material morphs into soft, undulating shapes. Philippe Starck’s new Masters chair for Kartell [£120], for example, is a genius interpretation of three iconic designs amalgamated to create a contemporary, glamorous dining chair.”

In 1999, Jasper Morrison’s simply-styled Air chair (£80), produced by Magis using gas-assisted injection moulding, and Philippe Starck’s pioneering La Marie chair for Kartell (£156, the world’s first transparent polycarbonate chair) kick-started the trend for strong, lightweight, contemporary-looking plastic furniture. But it was Starck’s phenomenally successful, transparent Louis Ghost chair (from £179), launched in 2002 by Kartell, that proved plastic to be both practical and glamorous. “This historically-inspired design showed that plastic was appropriate for a whole range of interiors,” says Peter Fiell, an expert in 20th- and 21st-century furniture whose new book with wife Charlotte, Plastic Dreams (Fiell Publishing, 2010), surveys landmark designs in plastic since 1925.

It’s a view shared by New York-based interior designer Sandra Nunnerley. “Many of our clients want to live in spaces that are both edgy and engaging but also traditional and comfortable,” she says. “We like the soft shapes of Ron Arad’s Voido rocking chair for Magis [from £414], because the gentle polyethylene curves offer a fresh interpretation of ‘cosy’. And Peter Emrys-Roberts’ Phantom sofa for Driade [£5,105], which has a fluorescent green, translucent plastic shell hanging from a chrome steel frame, would look great mixed with both traditional and contemporary furniture.”

This shift in perception from cheap and disposable to chic and desirable is underscored by manufacturers’ collaborations with top designers. Kartell, for example, has worked with Patricia Urquiola, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Marcel Wanders, Antonio Citterio, Piero Lissoni and Patrick Jouin in addition to Starck. “We try to mix innovation with the best shapes created by the best designers because we want to give plastic more quality and glamour,” says Claudio Luti, Kartell’s president and owner. “Without an emotional element, however, none of these designs would be successful.”

At Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile in April, Kartell’s latest offerings did not disappoint. Standout designs included Philippe Starck’s structurally complex Masters chair (£120) and chic Tip Top table (£137), Patricia Urquiola’s graceful Comback chair (available in 2011) and Ferruccio Laviani’s exotic Bloom lampshade (£431) studded with crystal-like flowers.

Transparency continued thematically in Starck’s cheeky Ghostbuster bookcase (from £203, also in various colours) inspired by vintage French commodes. “We’ve created a magical, invisible, high-technology ghost of this old icon,” he told me. And one of the most memorable designs was, indeed, virtually invisible. A one-piece, transparent polycarbonate chair designed by Tokujin Yoshioka for Kartell (price on request, to order) merged functionality with evanescence. Sit on it, and you are comfortably supported; yet its chunky presence is virtually eradicated in an intriguing disappearing trick.

The new collection from Italian manufacturer Magis also features innovations, notably a new production method employed in Marcel Wanders’ prototype Troy chair, wherein a complex, monochromatic pattern is inserted into a polycarbonate shell to create the visual effect of layered glass. Aesthetically, Magis has upped the glamour stakes with designs such as Pierre Paulin’s polycarbonate Flower armchair (from £582) and Stefano Giovannoni’s slinky Paso Doble chaise longue (from £987), whose polyester-vinyl polymer seat is supported by an aluminium frame.

“The power of CAD/CAM software is driving the trend for glamorous new shapes,” says Peter Fiell. “It has made the moulding of complex forms much easier and more precise, while rapid prototyping enables computer-generated images to be turned into 3-D forms almost instantly.”

Manufacturers, meanwhile, have adapted processes such as rotational moulding and gas-assisted injection moulding, previously used to make utilitarian goods such as plastic bottles, to create high-end designs. It’s therefore now possible to produce large-scale pieces, such as Zaha Hadid’s 2m-tall Flow planter for Serralunga (€5,500), or hollow-form furniture, such as Ross Lovegrove’s Supernatural chair for Moroso (£128), that minimise the use of materials and energy requirements.

“The materials themselves are constantly being refined,” he adds. “The latest technopolymers are lightweight, strong and can be environmentally sound. The trend towards wholly unified designs – forms made from a single material – facilitates recycling.” Indeed, the only downside, says Fiell, is that “plastic looks best when brand new and can get scratched and marked unless treated carefully”. Still, the best designs will no doubt be passed down the generations.

What’s fascinating is that many designs just don’t look like plastic. Take Tom Dixon’s gleaming Copper Shade (from £285) and Mirror Ball light-shade (from £205). These polycarbonate globes undergo a high-tech process called vacuum metallisation in which tiny amounts of metal are exploded via an electrical charge. The result is an ultra-thin, highly reflective surface with a warm, metallic allure – but with an underlying structure of plastic.

Just as glamorous is Ross Lovegrove’s Cosmic Leaf suspension light (from £678) produced by Artemide in PMMA (polymethyl methacrylate) and chromed steel. An external light source in the ceiling fitting throws light onto the textured, plastic form, and because this diffuser is covered with a thin, semi-reflective film coating, it absorbs certain wavebands of coloured light and reflects others. “The overall effect is an emitted light that has warmth, intensity and unusual optical qualities,” says Fiell.

Designs as glamorous as this co-exist happily with furniture made from natural materials, as designer and artist Mark Humphrey observes. “I use many beautiful plastic designs in my spaces, such as the Cosmic Leaf light. And I’m looking forward to using Marcel Wanders’ ingenious plastic-with-wicker Cyborg chair for Magis and Philippe Starck’s Magic Hole furniture for Kartell when it’s available next year. I love combining shiny plastic furniture with my own hand-carved designs in stone, terracotta, wood, bronze and glass. It’s a vibrant mix.”

Plastic can emulate nature, too, as demonstrated by Vitra’s Vegetal chair by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec (£284). The fibreglass-reinforced polyamide stacking chairs follow the patterns of natural growth, interweaving to form an asymmetric, irregular, circle-shaped seat. The connecting strips are stabilised by “branches” that merge with the chair’s legs. The design, for use indoors or outside, took the Bouroullec brothers four years to develop. “As designers it’s our task to find new structures, new construction forms. The design of this chair is primarily structural and not just a decorative motif,” says Ronan.

Similarly organic is Lovegrove’s Supernatural chair. Perforations in the back of this stackable, indoor/outdoor chair throw leaf-like shadows on the ground. Made from glass-reinforced polypropylene, it’s both aesthetically elegant and extremely light (2.5kg) because, as Lovegrove explains, “all internal cavities within the frame are hollow like a bone”.

Moroso’s willingness to embrace plastic in its many technological variations has resulted in some stunning designs, including Ron Arad’s organic Ripple chair (from £269), whose glass-reinforced polypropylene seat tops a steel frame; Arad’s sculptural Big Easy outdoor chair (£1,135) made from recyclable, coloured polyethylene; and Tord Boontje’s pleasingly plump, polyethylene O-Nest seat (£400) in fashion colours such as lime, orange and fuchsia.

A successful collaboration with Patricia Urquiola on the glamorous Smock seats (from £4,795), which feature steel frames covered with injected polyurethane foam, led to Urquiola’s eye-catching Tropicalia designs. Here steel frames are interwoven in geometric and faceted shapes with multicoloured strips of thermoplastic polymer. Perfect for summer, the collection includes a chaise longue (from £1,380), chairs (from £600), a canopied daybed (£11,190) and a hanging seat (£4,900).

Plastic’s easy adaptability for use indoors and outside is endorsed by Chris Dezille, director of interior designers Honky. “When I saw Martín Azúa’s Om Basic chair (£358) for Mobles 114 at Milan a few year’s ago, I was looking for something cost-effective to go with our office meeting table [Arik Levy’s Bigwire Table for Zanotta]. Since then it has become our chair of choice for clients’ terraces. The monobloc polyethylene design adds a sculptural quality and soft lines to any outdoor area.”

Similarly, Sandra Drechsler, creative director of Chelsea-based interior designers Taylor Howes, recently recommended Driade’s Nemo chair (from £941), designed by Fabio Novembre, for the sleek, glass-fronted courtyard of a contemporary house in the Lake District. Another monobloc polyethylene chair, it has a high back whose exterior is shaped like a giant face. “It will make a great feature as it is part sculpture and part furniture. With the right lighting it can turn into a piece of pop art at night,” says Drechsler. Less unconventional but equally weather-resistant are the Grand Plié polyethylene sofa (£1,535) and armchair (£772) designed by Ludovica and Roberto Palomba for Driade.

Italian manufacturer Serralunga’s technical forays into plastic are similarly bold: witness its low, curved, polyethylene Loop bench by Christophe Pillet (from €815) and the sinuous shape of Zaha Hadid’s sculptural Flow planter (from €2,550), which shares its rotational moulding process with industrially manufactured municipal refuse bins. The polyethylene planter comes in two sizes, the larger of which is two metres tall. And Starck’s Holly All vase-cum-seat (from €1,250) is a similar height, while Paolo Rizzatto’s 90cm-tall, polyethylene New Pot (from €315) comes in vibrant shades of apple green or fuchsia with a hidden holder inside that lets you create towering displays of flowers either indoors or on a terrace. Plastic, it seems, has truly come of age.

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