From Ziploc bags, cellophane, and soda bottles to computer keyboards and car fenders, plastics are a pervasive part of our lives today. The development of plastics in the early 20th century made it possible to create lighter, more durable, and more affordable consumer products. Plastics were appealing to designers in the 1930s and 1940s, a time when these were key consumer concerns. Today’s plastics are not only sturdy and resilient but, in many cases, beautiful.
The Science of Plastics
Plastic is a general term for a wide range of synthetic and naturally occurring materials. It is also used to describe something that can be molded or re-formed. Plastics are made of polymers, giant molecules that consist of many smaller, repeating chemical building blocks. Different patterns of molecules create different kinds of plastic, each of which has its own unique properties and applications.
A term applied to many natural and synthetic materials with different forms, properties, and appearances that can be molded.
VIDEO: Plastics (1944) by Young America Films, an archival promotional film for plastics
Questions & Activities
Design Objects in Context
Look closely at the objects discussed in this section.
Consider how the each design is reflective of the social, economic, and cultural contexts from which they it emerged. Do the objects tell us anything about aspects of society at the time that they were developed? If so, what?
Choose one of the objects discussed and suggest an update to its design. Create a sketch, collage, or 3-D model articulating your reinterpreted design. Will you use a different material? How is your reinterpretation more suited to contemporary conditions?
Plastics and the Environment
Research the material. Conduct online research into the environmental impact of plastics. What are the key issues and concerns about the use of plastic in consumer products? What steps have been taken to mitigate the impact that the use of plastic has on our environment?
Explore the ways that artists and designers are responding to the environmental impact of plastics.
Respond to the implications and uses of plastic. Pick one artist or designer and write a 1-page response describing how his or her work responds to the environmental impact of plastic.