The Future of Plastics, Virta Design Museum

May 2022

The exhibition "Plastic: Remaking Our World" at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein illuminates the history and future of a material in which promises and problems intertwine like in no other. By exploring paths to a sustainable future, the exhibition closes the circle to the beginnings of plastic production when its compo-nents were natural.

No other material is as controversial as plastic. The potential of almost limitless malleabil-ity on the one hand; the problem of global pollution on the other. With the start of the Ukraine war, plastic has also taken on a geopolitical dimension. Independence from fossil materials – whether for industrial production, mobility, power generation or heating – has become a central issue. But this does not mean the end for plastics. Quite the opposite. The material is currently being reinvented – and not for the first time.

The exhibition “Plastic: Remaking Our World” at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein in Germany is not a nostalgic indulgence in space-age fantasies. In fact, the 60s are only briefly touched upon. The focus on furniture is also deliberately broader. “We wanted to show the central role of plastic in everyday life, in the areas of communication, electrification, mobility, consumption,” says Jochen Eisenbrand, who curated the exhibition together with Mea Hoffmann, Charlotte Hale, Lauren Bassam and Anniina Koivu. “We didn't want to focus on plastic design, as museums have often done in the past.”

It is true that plastic is artificially produced by humans but in the early days plastics were not based on petroleum, they were of natural origin. The exhibition begins in the mid-19th century, when materials like shellac and celluloid came on to the market. A world map from 1886 shows telegraph cables laid across oceans and insulated with gutta-percha, a plant-based rubbery substance. Everyday objects are displayed in glass cases that evoke associations with presentations in natural history museums. This is no coincidence: the first plastics were developed to replace hard-to-find or precious natural materials such as ivory, whalebone or tortoise shell. The central idea of plastics was to protect nature, not threaten it.

That was also the intention behind Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic invented by Belgian Leo Baekeland in 1907. He wanted to find a substitute for the insulation of electric cables. The shellac used until then was based on a resin obtained from the excretions of the lacquer beetle but the growing demand in the 20th century could not be satisfied with the animal product. In the 1930s several new polymers were developed in chemical labora-tories. US company DuPont invented neoprene in 1930, nylon (as a substitute for silk) in 1935 and Teflon in 1938. Cellophane, invented in 1908 by the Swiss Jacques E. Brandenberger, became a commercial product in the 1930s. At the 1939 World's Fair in New York, car manufacturer Pontiac presented a Ghost Car made of transparent Plexiglass, a material that soon gained military importance as a visor for the cockpits of fighter airplanes.

During World War II plastic production quadrupled. Kitchen utensils, children's toys in bright colours, a ball chair by Eero Aarnio capture the space age era in the exhibition. A central role is assigned to the oil crisis of 1973, when the idea of limitless growth and wasteful consumption was burst. Recycling and waste avoidance were themes thereafter. Children's chair “Müll Direkt” (1994) by Bär+Knell made of recycled plastic stands for a new ecological ambition and a new aesthetic with colourful, imperfect surface structures. The central exhibition space ends with a beach setting where mass production objects unite in the sand, representing the estimated 140 million tonnes of plastic waste in the oceans: water bottle, plastic bag, Monocloc chair (designed by Henry Massonnet in 1972), but also an internet cable wrapped in plastic, washed-up fishing nets and the currently ubiquitous face masks.

The upper floor of the Frank Gehry-designed museum marks the transition to the present and the future. The black walls of the previous exhibition spaces change to a brighter white. “An increasing number of designers are taking material development into their own hands, forcing the industry out of its comfort zone,” explains Anniina Koivu, who curated this part of the exhibition. Illuminated glass tables, reminiscent of a laboratory, display a wide range of alternative plastics that are no longer based on petroleum but are made from mushrooms, algae, banana leaves or coffee grounds. Mycelium, the root-like structure of fungi, is an effective ecological alternative to polypropylene (EPP) or polystyrene (EPS), which can be used as packaging or building materials.

“We started making materials from a biopolymer called chitin, which we extracted from shells, a waste product of seafood farming,” says Amir Afshar of Shellworks, a London-based startup founded in 2019 by scientists, engineers and designers that produces packaging for the cosmetics industry. After receiving requests for vegan solutions the company changed the formula. “Now we use a micro-based fermentation process, where the microbes feed on a carb source, for example sugar or food waste, and produce a plastic-like material in their cells. The beauty of it is that the same microbes will then break it down and they are abundant within marine and soil environments,” continues Afshar continues. The exhibition ends with a 2022 remake of late Peter Ghyczy’s “Garden Egg” (1967) made by Dutch designer duo Klarenbeek & Dros. The icon of the plastic age is 3D-printed by an industrial robot out of an algae-based paste, instead of being injection-moulded like the original.

The circle is thus closed, bringing us back to the beginnings of plastics, when organic raw materials were used. Nature could also help get rid of petroleum-based plastics, as works by scientists in Japan and the US reveal. In 2016, researchers at the Kyoto Institute of Technology took samples at a PET bottle recycling plant and discovered the bacterium Ideonella sakaisensis 201-F6, which can turn plastic into an intermediate and degrade it. When researchers at the University of Portsmouth studied the bacterium, they were able to accelerate the degradation process threefold by combining two enzymes. This is not a justification for producing more waste. However, it offers a perspective on how the problem of petroleum-based plastics could actually be solved.

The exhibition Plastic: Remaking our World at Virta Design Museum runs from the 26.03.22 til 04.09.22

Richard John Seymour, From the Series Yiwu Commodity City, 2015. © Richard John Seymour.
Table telephone model, Frankfurt, 1928/29, Marcel Breuer, Richard Schadewell. © Vitra Design Museum, Photo: Andreas Sütterlin.
Photo by Peter Stackpole, staged to illustrate an article on Throwaway Living, LIFE magazine, August 1, 1955 © Getty / Photo: Peter Stackpole. © The Ocean Cleanup.
Edward Hack, Pineapple syrup bottle, c. 1958; Courtesy of Museum of Design in Plastics, Arts University Bournemouth.
Jean Pierre Vitrac,Plack picnic ware, c. 1977. © Museum of Design in Plastics, Arts University Bournemouth.
Henry Massonnet, Fauteuil 300 / Monobloc, Polypropylene, 1972. © Vitra Design Museum, Photo: Jürgen Hans.
This article appeared in DAM81. Order your personal copy.