Problems with plastic
What’s more precious—an iconic sofa or a dolphin?By John Ryle • November 1996 • City of Words • The Guardian • Revised • Posted 2016 • 839 words
All that is solid melts into air. Or decays in some less pleasing manner. Plastic, for example, distorts and discolours over time. It melts, not into the air, but into a mass of goo. If it’s early Tupperware (circa 1960) it smells terrible as well. Foam rubber decays more swiftly still: it sags and darkens, then crumbles to sand. The only exception, among early synthetics, is Bakelite, a heat-cured material that still has its enthusiasts, but which fell into disuse because it was too brittle and expensive.
The trouble with plastic is exactly that—its plasticity. This means heartbreak for collectors of Barbie-dolls: over the years their pert features and clean-cut limbs will become discoloured and lose their shape (much like those of real people). The phenomenon is also causing concern to the curators of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where design objects made from a wide variety of synthetic materials—space suits, typewriters and toasters—are displayed alongside works of modern art that use traditional media: paintings, lithographs and bronzes.
Much of the post-war design collection at MOMA is threatened by the unsightly entropic tendency of plastic. According to a report in the New York Times, some of the most striking pieces at the museum can no longer be displayed at all. An Eames sofa, unused, is collapsing from within. A set of nesting bowls, once the dernier cri in kitchen implement design, has decayed into a molten, toxic mess.
The pièce de resistance in the current design exhibition at MOMA is an innovative 47D0-1 helicopter, dating from 1945. This striking, minimalist design, skeletal, insect-like, with a transparent bubble enclosing the pilot and passengers, hovers over the fourth-floor escalator like a stage prop from Miss Saigon. But the helicopter’s cast acrylic dome is clouded by tiny cracks. Like the bowls and the sofa and the Tupperware, it is slowly disintegrating.
Of course traditional media have their problems too: metal oxidises, stone blackens, glass weeps, and paints and glazes darken and peel and crack. But the arts of conservation have evolved to deal with them. The new synthetic materials, by contrast, are still in the first generation of decay; their fugitive qualities are unchronicled. So curators everywhere—not just those at MOMA—are struggling to fix the ailing plastic artifacts in their collections with untested unguents and glues. The first Barbie-doll facelift cannot be far away.