Plastic Dreams by Charlotte and Peter Fiell, aims to be, as it observes on its back cover "quite simply the definitive guide to plastics in design." Indeed, Phillippe Decelle of the Plasticarium in Brussels agrees; "Plastic dreams is outstanding. No one icon is missing." Core77 didn't even know there was a Plasticarium, although our enthusiasm is strong. In a rare moment of candor, however, we must admit that we're simply not qualified to assess the whether one icon is missing. What we do know is that the Fiells have long dominated ID history course syllabi with books like Modern Furniture Classics, so critiquing their content is tough, because they literally wrote the book on industrial design history.
As they've just branched out from Taschen with their own imprint "Fiell" (a slightly easier decision to critique in the fading era of print journalism), the couple was gracious enough to sit down for an interview regarding their new imprint and its first ID centric book, Plastic Dreams. Plastic Dreams follows the same format as nearly every other Charlotte & Peter book we've read: introduction followed by chronological product spreads (two pages, clean grid, explanatory text, simple product shots against gray or white backgrounds). Of course, Core wouldn't be Core if we hadn't asked why their work rarely presented us with process: gritty studio shots, battered molds, ideation sketches that had little bearing on the finished product, etc. With a heavy heart, Peter explained that people just didn't buy books big on process ... they tried. So Core readership, if you want juicy product shots (and we think you do), you've got to get out there and support the supple pages of traditional print media with your wallets.
Instead of process shots, however, the Fiells present something almost, but not quite as good. The photographs of all the watershed products included in their book are all of "ideal, early-run" examples of seminal design classics. Given their history at Sotheby's and the V&A museum, Charlotte and Peter can literally tell the difference between an Eames PAW chair in the first run of 2,000 by Zenith, and between the non-Zenaloy non-Zenith reproductions to follow. We here cannot tell the difference, even though we look at this stuff all day (we never heard of the catchy Zenaloy either, at least until we read the book). That's why office manager, designers and auctioneers keep the Fiell's compendiums around. Even more remarkably, the Fiells care so much that if they couldn't find the perfect version of a design classic, they bought it. Plasticarium be damned; we know where our field trip will take us, so apologies in advance for knocking on a West London studio door.
The book begins with a thorough introduction on the history of plastics originating with Charles Goodyear, transitioning through Leo Baeklite and then reaching its zenith (not Zenaloy) with Verner Panton's ubiquitous Panton Chair for Vitra. After that, the couple speculates on several more modern seminal examples like Konstanin Grcic's MYTO chair, which owes a cantilevered debt to Panton at least. After the intro, or after the user has removed the beautiful plastic shoe from the cover (evocative of Melissa Coral shoes for Melissa by Edson Matsuo, and smelling of some childhood candy our entire office couldn't conclusively identify), then the reader can get to the good stuff: The juicy product selection that most of us can only dream of owning ... unless our field trip to West London involves a little larceny.
All kidding aside, the products are beautiful. On aesthetic grounds alone Jean Heiberg's DBH 1001 Bakelite rotary telephone is worth owning, even though most callers would likely be stuck at the English vs. Spanish touch tone menu, even in the event of emergency. In their interview, the Fiell's explained that they wanted to include the sorts of products that would be passed from generation to generation, and while phones like Heiberg's (or Dreyfuss's Model No. 500 18 years later) haven't stood the test of time, it's because of the electronic guts, not because of their timeless forms. Mind you, gentle reader, we aren't talking about grandpa's handmade dining table passed on to jr., but instead transient plastic housewares. Truly though, things like Stig Lindberg's citrus press have held the same form factor since the day they were conceived. If only the lubricants cooked into the plastics were as robust.
After the Art Deco and Bauhaus simplicity of the early products, the '50s and '60s let the designers cut loose with the materials. Panton's Chair and Joe Columbo's KD29 lamp truly let the designers spread their wings, both with form and color. Precisely because of that freedom, however, the things produced in those eras (all the way through the 80's) remain evocative of a certain time. Products from each of these eras, especially those of Memphis, like Ettore Sottsass's Carlton bookcase (page 212) broadcast their origin in screaming colors and forms. Precisely because plastic is so malleable, it's difficult to make timeless. If each copy is banged out of a mold in moment, or created in CAD over a weekend, why would it be timeless? So as the reader approaches the present day, it becomes progressively more difficult to determine which objects will stand the test of time. Is Ron Arad's Bookworm shelving going to scream the 90s to future Sotheby's auctioneers? Or will Karim Rashid's blobject Garbo trashcan trump its timeliness? Will either transcend its era?
At the end of their introduction, the Fiells observe that, ""Mindless quantity must give way to thoughtful quality." For that to happen, this humble publication is afraid that it will not be the responsibility of the designer to impart that value, but that consumer behavior will remain inflexible until product value transcends era. If the petrochemicals that form the foundations of plastic become precious, then their products will follow. Conversely, if humanity can create future bio-plastics that transcend these limitations, the transience of plastic products should be celebrated as a sign of human ingenuity. We'd far prefer technological progress to scarcity, and would prefer that the word plastic could continue to remain representative of the malleability that is its namesake. Either way, however, Charlotte & Peter's compendium is a wonderful lens through which to anticipate the future.