Not many materials have had the schizophrenic life that plastic has. In the khaki-toned years following World War II, it looked as fresh and desirable as spun candy, a dream come true for industrial designers trying to create forms for an array of new and old functions. But as plastic products filled up American homes and malls in the 1950s and 1960s, the "p" word became the era's synonym for false, cheap, hypocritical, "made in Japan."
Detractors claimed that Poly, her sister Ester and the rest of the Polymer family had none of the charm, warmth or staying power of cotton, wood or stone, and none of the resilience of metals. The synthetic sheen of the stuff screamed, "all surface, no content." And once the affable Mr. McGuire took Dustin Hoffman aside in the 1967 movie The Graduate to confide that plastics had a lock on the future, it became fruitless to defend the artificiality of the material and the society that made and consumed so much of it.
Yet time has a way of raising the value of all things -- even plastic ones. So it isn't surprising in these retro days to see the chameleon charms of plastics being celebrated in the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition "Pop Plastics: Molding the Shape of the 1960s."
The show was organized by Robert Sentinery, who was a graduate student in industrial design before he became the editor and publisher of Java.
The exhibition is far from a thorough assessment of 1960s design in plastics. But Sentinery's drive-by approach touches on why so many people simultaneously loved and loathed the stuff, and why the flow of plastics from the factory to you has continued undiminished.
"Plastic" suggests a single material. But it refers to a broad range of petrochemically induced substances, from polypropylenes, urethanes and reinforced Fiberglases to things known by their abbreviations PVC and ABS. Fake or not, they were what the writer Roland Barthes once characterized as "the stuff of alchemy."
The postwar versions were a long way from the prewar Bakelite that chemists had concocted to imitate the look of ivory, other bones and woods. Unlike Bakelite, modern plastics didn't have the problems of inconsistent or blemished colors. As the show reveals, their variety and predictability made them perfect housings for radio and television cabinets, casings, knobs and components for those and every other new kind of electrical and hand-operated product. Almost everything that previously had been made of heftier matter was reborn in plastics, and at prices that encouraged the profligate idea that anything plastic was disposable, not to be valued.
Sentinery, who spent the past half-year gathering the exhibition's objects from around the United States and abroad, says that one of his aims was to convey just how widely plastics were used in the production of day-to-day objects.
He does that right off the bat with three period rooms -- kitchen, living room, boudoir -- packed with things that many people will remember having thrown out in the 1980s and 1990s. The bedroom is complete with shag carpeting and go-go boots parked at the foot of the bed. The kitchen boasts, as authentic decor of the period requires, an array of stackable objects and flashes of floral patterns and product colors -- avocado and acid oranges and yellows -- that remain some of the grimmest ever produced for mass consumption.
The brilliance of placing these Barbarella and Austin Powers vignettes right up front is they underscore just how bad some of the era's mass design was. At the same time, they provide a means to compare the brilliance of some of the high-end designs in this show.
The exhibition's more than 100 objects include some classics of the era by such renowned designers as Vico Magistretti, George Nelson, Massimo Vignelli, Joe Colombo, Eero Aarnio and Ettore Sottsass.
Not far from the period rooms is an entire section devoted to the great designs that the Olivetti corporation developed for its line of office machines.
Among them is the red "Valentine" portable typewriter that Sottsass helped create. Its bright-red, form-fitting case, which just slips off the machine, exemplified the new and close partnership that plastics gave objects and their wrappers.
There's a similar organic relationship between the outside and inside functions of the various components in Peter Ghyczy's "Egg Garden Chair." The white plastic egg hatches a slender upholstered seat that closes tightly to keep out any garden spritz or rain.
Art Deco's streamlined and finned designs highlighted the outward aerodynamic appearances of fast-moving things. But Ghyczy's chair and numerous other "egg" and "bubble" furnishings of the Pop era seemed to draw upon ideas for the cozy, protective interiors of capsules and cockpits associated with space and supersonic travel.
Their forms were ruled by ease, efficiency and convenience. And not solely to satisfy airy aesthetic doctrines. These qualities suited the bottom-line efficiencies demanded by industrial production. They also satisfied the evolving habits of an increasingly mobile and suburban society.
Lightweight, malleable, moldable, injectable, extrudable and sometimes elastic, plastics were the perfect materials for a culture seeking to lighten the load of cars, trains, planes and furnishings, and to transfer family fun from the creaking old parlor and porch to the slab of cement and Astroturf out by the cabana and pool.
Part of the pleasure of this exhibition is in seeing how designers explored the basic qualities of the materials, looking for the best ways to apply their attributes. Vivid colors were the most eye-catching characteristic of the era's designs in plastics. But the materials' most lasting impact occurred in the area of form. Designers found they could use plastics to create configurations that couldn't be made as easily or as durably in wood and other traditional materials.
Gaetano Pesce's "Donna" chair, a voluptuous, polyurethane babe of a seat attired in a tight, red nylon jersey, is one of the more humorous examples.
Joe Colombo's 1965 seater is a more subdued effort to redefine the form.
Sentinery points out that Colombo's was the first four-legged, stackable chair to be injection molded. But the process required the legs to be attached separately, as if they were made of metal or wood.
Magistretti's "Selene" stacking chair, made several years later, took the four-legged injected version a step further by producing it in a single piece -- the method used to make today's pool seats and lounges. The beauty of his design is in its use of corrugation to strengthen the legs. Instead of thickening the plastic, Magistretti girded it with a cross section that looks like an "s" curve. He did much the same in designing the legs of his "Arcadia" table.
Vernor Panton eliminated the traditional chair legs altogether, creating an organic form -- the "Panton" chair -- with a continuous curvilinear surface.
The clean beauty of these forms was nothing new. It was preached and dreamed about by designers at the Bauhaus in the 1920s. But the organic purity of these and other great forms in this exhibition belongs to the 1960s, when advanced production techniques made plastics the material for the long-awaited brave new world.
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