Why plastic is still the future for design
Words Mark Hooper
If you believe David Attenborough and National Geographic, plastic is the single biggest threat that the world faces today. Why then has it been the star of every design festival across the globe in 2018?
It’s choking our oceans, with a half-life every bit as long as nuclear waste, while our complex system of landfill islands simply cannot cope. And yet the overwhelming message from the design community is clear: ‘We got this’…
The solution to ‘the plastic problem’ that we have seen time and again this year is as simple as it is brilliant: it’s only a problem if you don’t recycle it. And whilst recycling plants might be struggling with it, the design community has found inventive new ways to address the issue. Forward-thinking creative studios everywhere are leading the way in re-using the world’s most reviled material, instead positioning it as a substance to be admired and celebrated. To paraphrase The Graduate, the future of design can be summed up in ‘One word: Plastics!’
In a bold and perhaps surprising move, plastic was named Material of the Year at London Design Fair this September. ‘It’s no secret that single-use plastic forms a real environmental threat, so for the 2018 edition of Material of the Year we have cast an eye on the design industry to see how the material is being repurposed in imaginative and valuable ways,’ they explained.
And their selection was indeed surprising, but it helped to demonstrate through the innovative use (and re-use) of plastic proved that it’s not the material, it’s what you do with it the counts. Featured work designers included Weez & Merl and Dirk Vader Kooij – not forgetting Cræftiga finalist Charlotte Kidger. (Speaking in praise of her submission, the Cræftiga judges said, ‘Charlotte’s Industrial Craft is an innovative and effective way of turning a waste problem into a versatile new material.’ She had, they said, ‘found a way to form it into a new material that can be moulded into furniture and vessels that have a value, longevity and unexpected beauty of their own.’)
Taking up the mantle, PlasticScene, curated by designer James Shaw and Laura Housely of Modern Design Review magazine (main image). ‘A recurring issue in the debate about plastic use and reuse is confusion over the different types of material; what they can do and how they behave,’ they explained. ‘In response, a new generation of interested designers, manufacturers and consumers have begun to explore those very questions.’
The show featured a host of inspiring designs using recycled or repurposed plastic, from Shaw himself as well as furniture makers, artists and interiors experts (including Dirk Vander Koolj once again and Max Lamb, whose PET jigsaw chair is pictured below). Just as impressive was the plastics library, detailing some of the earliest uses of plastic as a material.
This echoes the Materials Library (‘a palette of elemental experience, I suppose’) instigated by artist, maker and broadcaster Zoe Laughlin, at the University College London’s Institute of Making, which she co-founded. Laughlin is one of several inspiring women, all working at the forefront of material use, who we talk to in the new issue of Hole & Corner, The Elements.
‘Particularly with the issue of plastic, I think we designed our way into it by, when creating a material, not thinking where it was going to end up,’ Caroline Till of Franklin Till told us. ‘And we were also guilty of exalting its particular properties relating to longevity, and producing amazingly seductive marketing stories and narratives around that – along with incentives from petrochemical companies that there are huge issues with.’
For designer and biofabrication expert Natsai Audrey Chieza, the divide between the natural and artificial world is in itself an unhelpful one. ‘I don’t believe in those kinds of dichotomies and absolutes,’ she says in the issue. ‘How far do you want to go? Plastic is a dinosaur under high-pressure conditions! It’s all about context.’
Chieza remarks how, during a meeting of OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), one of the industrial leaders is famed to have said, ‘We’re doing this all wrong; we shouldn’t be burning oil, it’s a complete waste, we should focus on what we can do with petrochemicals.’
‘I’ve found that really interesting,’ she says. ‘Of course, petrochemicals are also bad! But when it comes to the plastics argument, I think we’ve just been really foolish in thinking that things can just be thrown away. There is a horrible throwaway culture, particularly in the West, with single-use plastics. We don’t understand the idea of repurposing and re-use here. A lot of the conversations we’re having about sustainability right now, it’s as if people are pretending they’ve just invented the idea, which is really frustrating.’
To read more from Zoe Laughlin, Caroline Till and Natsai Audrey Chieza, see the Elements Issue of Hole & Corner, available to purchase here…