Exploring a Space Age Material

Plastic is a ubiquitous and versatile material that has had a significant impact on the world. It has revolutionised design and manufacturing, enabling the creation of products that were previously impossible to produce. The evolution of plastic as a design material has been shaped by scientific advancements, changes in manufacturing techniques, and shifting consumer preferences.

Maurice Burke set of four tulip swivel armchairs for Arkana (part) $1,000-1,400

The story of plastic begins in 1907 when Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, was invented by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland. Bakelite was a heat-resistant and non-conductive plastic that was widely used in electrical applications, such as telephone casings, radios, and light switches. It was also used for decorative objects and jewellery.

During World War II, plastic saw a surge in popularity due to the need for lightweight and durable materials for military applications. Plastics such as nylon and polystyrene were used in parachutes, helmets, and other military equipment. After the war, the production of plastic increased dramatically as manufacturers looked for ways to use the new material in consumer products. The 1950s and 1960s were a time of great innovation in plastics. Advances in manufacturing techniques made it possible to create products in larger quantities and at lower costs. This led to the development of new types of plastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene, which were more flexible and could be moulded into a variety of shapes.

During the 1960s, a design movement known as Space Age emerged, reflecting the rapid advancements and exploration of the Space Age and Space Race. Designers were inspired by the futuristic potential of space travel and new materials and technologies. This movement extended beyond just industrial design, permeating architecture and fashion, among other fields.

Sergio Mazza Bacco bar table for Artemide $600-800
Verner Panton nine Panton chairs
for Vitra (part) $2,600-3,600

Space Age design was distinguished by its use of innovative materials such as plastic, fibreglass, and metal, as well as its bold, visionary forms and shapes, often biomorphic and organic in design. Many objects were modular, adaptable, and versatile, suited to a range of spaces and functions, imbued with a sense of otherworldliness and futurism. The influence of pop culture, exemplified by the iconic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, was also apparent.

Designers such as Joe Colombo, Pierre Cardin, Anna Castelli Ferrieri, Eero Aarnio and Gae Aulenti were at the forefront of this movement, creating a range of plastic furniture, lighting fixtures, and other objects that were innovative and accessible to a wider audience. The popularity of these designs has seen a resurgence in the past decade, with original pieces becoming highly collectable.

Today, it’s hard to ignore the environmental impact. Since the 1970s, many designers and manufacturers have been exploring new ways to use plastic in more sustainable and responsible ways. Recycled and biodegradable plastics have potential as sustainable alternatives; however, one of the most eco-conscious decisions a consumer can make is to buy vintage.

We have some great examples of Space Age design coming up in the April Modern Design Auction, including a set of six Maurice Burke ‘Tulip’ swivel armchairs for Arkana and a Sergio Mazza ‘Bacco’ bar table for Artemide.

REBECCA STORMONT / Modern Design Specialist

March 2023