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Not Created Equal:
A Long, (Loving) Plastics Primer
By Carl Alviani

 

Drop test
"OK, this one, it's a great camera, fully manual, takes beautiful pictures. You see the body? Polycarbonate body. You drop it once, it's gone."

It's 2000, and after returning from a trip to the Middle East with dozens of lackluster photos, I've decided it's time to learn how to use a "real" camera. So I'm at the counter at Adorama, the legendary camera store in lower Manhattan, listening to an Orthodox Jewish man in black vest and white shirt describe SLR camera bodies. The pitch he's giving me is a well-practiced one, but there is also deep knowledge and passion behind it, born of years of handling and using cameras full-time, and dealing regularly with some of the city's thousands of working photographers.

Plastic, to most of us and for as long as we can remember, was just plastic. And plastic sucks. Except when it doesn't...and this seems more and more to be the case.

"This one," he says, hefting a Pentax K1000, "Here, hold this. Feel how heavy it is? That's a solid metal body. This body's at least 10 years old, probably been re-sold a dozen times." The K1000 is a venerable classic, I learn, the workhorse of student-model SLRs. I'm planning on long trips to countries that treat cameras badly, so I buy it, leaving the plastic one behind.

There are a couple of interesting things about that exchange seven years ago. The first one, not unusual, is that given the choice between the plastic and the metal option, I went for the metal because of its proven durability. If I'd been looking mostly to save money and sacrifice product life and performance, I would've gone with the plastic option. A similar choice is made by untold thousands of Americans every day, and typically the equation of plastic to inexpensive low quality goes without question.

What's a little more remarkable is that the salesman referred to the specific polymer used in the camera body's construction by name—polycarbonate. This didn't mean much to me back then, before design school, but served its likely purpose of making the cheaper option seem inferior but still of reasonable quality. If I'd known more about polymers, I might have commented that PC is an engineering polymer (as opposed to a commodity polymer) noted for its excellent stiffness and impact resistance, and is a key component in bulletproof glass. I might even have gone so far as to challenge the sales pitch, asking perhaps how high a fall he was referring to, onto what sort of surface, and what exactly was meant by "gone": Cracked? Damaged but usable? A thousand little bits?

But what's exceptionally notable in retrospect is that I wouldn't have known the difference between the two if it hadn't been pointed out. One was lighter, but the two camera bodies looked nearly identical.

In the 1980s, when both of these products were probably manufactured, the phrase "cheap plastic substitute" rolled off the consumer world's tongue with ease. No longer the high-tech wonder materials they were in the 60s, plastics of all sorts joined together into a great undifferentiable mass with unsavory connotations of disposability and shoddy construction. And so it made good sense for companies to market plastic goods that resembled their more traditional antecedents as closely as possible.

Given the thousands of alternative ways to allow plastics their own unique aesthetic, and the inexorable forces pushing consumers towards their acceptance, designers are running out of excuses for playing dumb.

 

Pure, genuine silicone: accept no substitutes
A few weeks ago, the The New York Times ran a lengthy review of silicone kitchenwares in its Food & Dining section ("Hot Stuff," Jan. 10, 2007), with plenty of good things to say about the material itself: "...its heat resistance; its flexibility, which allows you to fold it, flatten it and squish it into a drawer; its ease of washing; and its ability to go from oven or microwave to refrigerator, freezer, dishwasher (in most cases) and sometimes even to the dinner table..."

The reviewer, Marion Burros, also makes a point of praising the playful appearances of many of the tools ("Clearly, the designers are having a ball."), and in fact leads the review with observations of how wonderfully different they look from their sober steel predecessors. Clearly, nobody is hiding the plastic here, despite its dubious former role artificially augmenting women's bosoms. One manufacturer of several well-received products has even chosen the name SiliconeZone.

Later in the same review, three entire paragraphs are dedicated to warning readers against kitchen tools made with less than 100% pure silicone: they're less durable, they don't insulate as well or evenly. But you can protect yourself against imposters. We are relieved to find that "there is a simple way to tell: pinch and twist a flat surface on the item. If white shows through, the product contains filler."

While it's possible such distinctions have been made in the past, this is certainly the first time I've seen anything in the New York Times—or any other mainstream print media—describing to consumers how to distinguish between high and low-quality polymers. Plastic, to most of us and for as long as we can remember, was just plastic. And plastic sucks. Except when it doesn't...and this seems more and more to be the case.

 

Bakelite: If the shoe fits...
There's no clear progression from Cheap to Desirable in the history of polymers in consumer goods. Depending on the time and the material, polymer construction has alternated between both extremes: a material fact to be hidden but later celebrated; both feature and bug. This probably has less to do with a particular polymer's suitability for a particular product—wood, metal and ceramic, after all, have been used in ill-advised ways too—and more to do with its long-standing perception as a substitute material.

Because so many of the products from which it was made had no established style or design language, Bakelite was free to be itself: dark, lustrous, curvaceous and classically beautiful. Eventually they were making the stuff into jewelry.

There is plenty of fact to back up this perception of course. The history of polymer development is largely one of seeking substitutes for rare or expensive alternatives. The first polymer ever made (Parkesine, in 1862) was invented as a substitute for ivory in billiard balls. Rayon, the first polymer fiber, was billed as "artificial silk." And venerable Bakelite, the first "true" plastic, which went on to spawn a luminous wave of design creativity in the Art Deco era, started life as a cheaper alternative to shellac.

But while Parkesine is relegated to history's dustbin, and rayon never developed into much more than a cheap cloth that's hard to iron well, Bakelite quickly grew into a material phenomenon. Advertisements from the 20's and 30's feature it by name. Websites, collectors clubs and even museums have been established to sing its praises, long after it fell out of large-scale production.

So why did this particular phenolic resin gain such a starring role in the design canon of 20th century industry? By modern standards, Bakelite lacks many of the features that make polymers so desirable: it's brittle and heavy, it can't be injection molded, and it's a thermoset, and therefore non-recyclable.

The easy answer is that Bakelite, like all phenolics, is a superior electrical insulator, and was quickly pressed into use in all manner of electric appliances. The more involved answer is that Bakelite's introduction on an industrial scale in 1910 coincided with the rise of literally thousands of new products for which it was perfectly suited. Radios, telephones, electric lights, phonographs, and other electrical appliances were still in their infancy, making the fateful strides from rare curiosity to large-scale mass production. A material that was non-conductive and moldable in a wide range of shapes, while still possessing a reassuring weight, was perfectly suited to the challenge. As a material for telephones, for example, Bakelite became so ubiquitous that the most common models in Germany and England in the 1930's were known simply as "Bakelite phones."

Scanning through a collection of Bakelite products from this era, it's striking how many of them fit clearly into one of two categories: plastic copies of previously designed goods, such as the Bakelite pencil sharpener with the same silhouette as its sheet metal contemporaries; and goods for which no previous blueprint existed. Among the latter are many icons of the Art Deco and Streamline styles, exuberantly "modern" in appearance, and, it could be argued, mostly responsible for the longevity of the material's popularity. Because so many of the products from which it was made had no established style or design language, Bakelite was free to be itself: dark, lustrous, curvaceous and classically beautiful. Eventually they were making the stuff into jewelry.

 

The most popular chair in the world
Spurred by the technical demands of fighting a World War, American and European industry developed hundreds of new polymers in a boom of invention from the mid-30s to the early 50s. It was during this period that many of the polymers that form the foundation of the modern plastics industry were first put into widespread production: PVC in 1933, polyethylene and nylon in 1939, PET in 1941.

The groundwork for the cheap-plastic-substitute backlash was being laid though: plastic covered in simulated woodgrain, plastic extruded and painted to resemble metal tubing, clear acrylic tumblers decorated to ape glass ones. The consumer doesn't know what they want—they want what they know—and designers and manufacturers gave it to them.

The post-war industrial surge suddenly found itself not only with a lot of goods to make, but with an unprecedented number of things from which to make them. Unlike Bakelite's miraculous appearance decades earlier (exactly when it was needed to usher in the Electric Age), the majority of these new polymers fell back into the old groove of substituting for more traditional materials. In many cases, plastic substitutes were superior to their predecessors in wood, metal, ceramic or cloth. Simply because there were so many of them, materials could be fine-tuned to fit the function of the product. In many more cases, though, it was a matter of efficiency: a molded part uses only as much material as it needs, and no more.

The buying public during the post-war period was enamored enough of the newness of plastics to see these substitutions as a largely positive move. The groundwork for the cheap-plastic-substitute backlash was being laid though: plastic covered in simulated woodgrain, plastic extruded and painted to resemble metal tubing, clear acrylic tumblers decorated to ape glass ones. The consumer doesn't know what they want—they want what they know—and designers and manufacturers gave it to them.

One area that countered this trend, at least for a while, was the use of plastics in furniture, possibly because it was so late to the game. Molding an entire chair out of plastic is more technically difficult than, say, a small bracket bearing. It wasn't until 1965 that Joe Columbo designed the Universale, the first mass-produced injection-molded chair. Although Verner Panton designed his iconic one-piece Panton chair in 1960, it didn't reach production until 7 years later. By this time, many fundamental concepts of what furniture ought to be like were being questioned, and many of the avante garde design scenes in Europe—Italy and Denmark in particular—were gaining notoriety in the U.S.

The trouble here is not that some plastic goods are cheap. It's possible to find just about any type of material in a cheap manifestation somewhere. The trouble is that while most consumers know that oak is better than particle board, few are even aware of the difference between the thin, unfilled polypropylene that makes a monobloc, and the well-processed ABS or fiber-reinforced polypropylene that gives the Panton its lovely texture and longevity.

The most notable figure in the importation of plastic furniture to the U.S. during this period, and its attendant hypermodern style, was the furniture dealer George Beylerian. As a representative of Kartell, and through his Manhattan home furnishings store, Scarabeus, Beylerian perhaps did more than anyone to bring plastic furniture into American homes.

In an email interview, Beylerian acknowledged two primary factors in his success. First, the recent large-scale introduction of ABS, whose high strength and high-quality surface finish made durable plastic furniture a possibility. The second was growing American interest in a new style with the sheen of imported luxury: "It was...during the Italian design boom, so that helped a lot. We introduced wild colors and that was totally new." The furniture that came from this movement looked completely unlike anything to come before it, and took full advantage of the flexibility offered by the material. Like the Bakelite phone, many of the home furnishings of this period achieved iconic status because they were designed with no apologies for the polymer material that comprised them.

While not an Italian design, the Panton chair is one of the most recognizable examples of this brief renaissance in plastic furniture design. Copies of it, sanctioned and knock-off, are widely available and surprisingly expensive, retailing for upwards of $200 for the genuine Vitra-manufactured version. 10 or 15 years later—nobody seems to know for sure—a completely different type of plastic chair came along, whose purchase price today is about 95% less than that. It doesn't have any official name, though those who deal with them often call it by its technical designation of "monobloc chair."

The monobloc is a single piece injection-molded armchair, seen at outdoor cafes and on patios across the planet. It has been banned from public view in design-conscious cities like Bern, Switzerland and Bratislava in Slovakia. It is also almost certainly the most common chair on Earth; though there is no exact number on how many have been made, it is estimated in the millions. The monobloc is an excellent example of how plastic versions of things engender the perception of plastics as cheap substitutes. It is first and foremost a cheap chair, light in weight, easily broken and virtually impossible to repair. Visually, its design is a lazy imitation of a wooden deck chair, often with raised detailing depicting garlands of flowers, or sheaves of wheat.

It performs its job admirably, seating the greatest number of people for the least amount of money, then stacking and rolling away with minimal effort. It's even spawned a small fan club, and stands as a sort of anti-design icon that can be found literally anywhere on earth. As a spokesperson for polymers as differentiable, desirable materials, though, it could do better.

The trouble here is not that some plastic goods are cheap. It's possible to find just about any type of material in a cheap manifestation somewhere. The trouble is that while most consumers know that oak is better than particle board, few are even aware of the difference between the thin, unfilled polypropylene that makes a monobloc, and the well-processed ABS or fiber-reinforced polypropylene that gives the Panton its lovely texture and longevity.

 

Yes...the iPod is coming up. Promise.
Part of the difficulty is a lack of positive marketing. Given the task of naming as many metals, woods, and plastics as she knew in one minute, a non-designer friend of mine came up with 9 metals, 3 woods, and not a single plastic. "How about Plexiglas?" I offered, "Or vinyl?"

"Those are plastic?" she replied.

Besides being relatively inelegant-sounding, chemical abbreviations like "acrylic" suffer from a short history in the public eye, and are frequently hidden from view. If a dinette set is made of mahogany, it is Made of Mahogany; an acrylic tumbler is simply plastic.

Getting into a wider array of polymers was out of the question, since most of them go by names that only a chemist could love: polymethylmethacrylate, polytetrafluoroethylene, polyethylene terephthalate. If you're lucky you get a common name, brand name or abbreviation (acrylic, Teflon, and PET, respectively), but none of these is particularly compelling when written down next to evocative nouns like mahogany, porcelain or steel. Besides being relatively inelegant-sounding, chemical abbreviations like "acrylic" suffer from a short history in the public eye, and are frequently hidden from view. If a dinette set is made of mahogany, it is Made of Mahogany; an acrylic tumbler is simply plastic.

When George Beylerian finally got out of the furniture business, his retirement took a decidedly active bent. Rather than recede into leisure, he used his considerable background and affiliation in design and materials to found Material ConneXion, a materials library and consultancy that has since grown to four offices internationally and a high reputation among product designers in fields ranging from sporting goods to architecture.

Andrew Dent, the person responsible for growing and maintaining the library, points out that 60% of their samples are polymer or polymer related. While a great many of these are surface treatments designed to let polymers resemble other materials, an even larger fraction are designed to let the polymers themselves take on new appearances and forms.

Speaking from MC's headquarters, Dent admits that telling one polymer formulation from another can be difficult, even for a PhD materials scientist like himself, with 18 years of study and experience in the field. "There are very few ways to distinguish, actually," he explains, listing a few informal tests he's devised to make rough distinctions: the polymer's smell, the way water runs off of it, whether or not it's been painted, and with what.

This certainly contributes to the "plastic is plastic" perception among consumers, and frequently, notes Dent, among designers. Part of his job is bringing product designers into the know, educating them on the wide range of visual, tactile and textural treatments available by fine-tuning the process of polymer selection and molding. "A designer who knows the processes can play with things like opacity, luminosity, and color. Color is a huge part of getting something right."

Unlike the brushed aluminum that famously wraps around the Nano, the face of the iPod serves its purpose in secrecy. Nobody thinks of the iPod as a piece of plastic, and Apple certainly isn't going to point out the fact—nowhere on the entire iPod website was I able to find the polymer's identity.

The payoff for delving deeply into processes can be great. Like most of us, Dent has already heard far too much about the success of the iPod; but while others might point to a clean interface or creative marketing campaign to explain its popularity, there's no doubt in his mind that the depth created by its proprietary hard-coated, co-molded face adds considerably to an impression of quality. Unlike the brushed aluminum that famously wraps around the Nano, the face of the iPod serves its purpose in secrecy. Nobody thinks of the iPod as a piece of plastic, and Apple certainly isn't going to point out the fact—nowhere on the entire iPod website was I able to find the polymer's identity.

The technologies that allow the iPod to look the way it does, for as long as it does, are fairly recent, big-deal developments. The two level molding process that "sinks" the color into the face is an excellent example of designers and engineers "playing with opacity," something that can only be done with higher-end polymers like acrylic and polycarbonate. Dent notes that each of these has "a lovely crystal clarity," as opposed to lower cost polymers like polypropylene and polyethylene, which are milky to start with.

This kind of clarity and depth isn't worth much if it scratches up, though, which is why developments in coatings have been so instrumental in selling plastics as high-quality goods. The most promising of these treatments are known as nanocoatings, which typically feature nanometer-sized particles of ceramic suspended in a resin matrix, applied to a part after molding. Originally developed as an anti-scratch coating on sunglasses, their use has spread in recent years to personal electronics and accessories, bringing not just greater durability but a whole new aesthetic.

This isn't the first time the sporting goods industry has brought new materials and treatments into the realm of desirability. Since the mid 80s, when high-performance sports gear first started tinkering with exotic materials like titanium and carbon fiber, there has been a slow but steady seepage of awareness of new materials from the sports world into everyday consumer goods. Technology transfer is part of it, but perhaps more important is that higher tech, less traditional materials begin to be perceived as desirable in their own right. Carbon fiber, for example, doesn't look like anything else, nor do designers try to hide it. Instead, it has become a luxury material on its own merits, to the point where real and imitation carbon fiber faceplates are available for cell phones. This despite its total lack of heaviness and solidity, two historical hallmarks of luxurious goods. High performance outerwear has largely supplanted cashmere and fur as the clothing of choice for moneyed urbanites in many parts of the U.S. and Europe. In a similar vein, the slowly growing acceptance of plastic goods that look like plastic goods owes much to the sleek but utilitarian style pioneered by sporting goods designers seeking to look cool without sacrificing efficiency.

Although very tough, cellulosic is also relatively soft, and certainly doesn't remain pristine once chucked into a toolbox. Scratched once, it looks awful, but scratched repeatedly "it kind of buffs out," says Dent, "It becomes like a loved scar...kind of like Harrison Ford's chin."

An obstacle to the advancement of this trend lies in the fact that many industries still see plastic parts as in need of covering up. The automotive industry in particular, Dent notes, is "really annoying" in this capacity. The ABS used in the interiors of most cars today is typically painted or otherwise coated, in an effort to get higher levels of finish. While this gives the designers of car interiors great control over these surfaces, it also renders them fragile. If a brushed steel or wood surface is lightly scratched, over time this becomes a patina; part of the overall look that adds to its character. Painted plastic, observes Dent, "looks nasty when it scratches, and just gets worse the more it happens."

Other than hard-coating, the other way of presenting plastic parts as durable and worthy of hanging on to is to allow them to get scratched in an aesthetic way. There are a few outstanding examples of this, the finest probably being the cellulosic acetate used in screwdriver handles. Although very tough, this material is also relatively soft, and certainly doesn't remain pristine once chucked into a toolbox. Scratched once, it looks awful, but scratched repeatedly "it kind of buffs out," says Dent, "It becomes like a loved scar...kind of like Harrison Ford's chin." Cellulosic acetate is essentially non-recyclable, especially when permanently bonded to metal, but this is a moot point, environmentally; people hold on to their screwdrivers for decades.

 

Aging gracefully
Product design today frequently means plastics design, and there are a number of compelling reasons to design plastics in a way that distances them from the "cheap plastic" perception. From a marketing standpoint, consumers are wary of objects that look like inferior imitations, and from a sustainability perspective, the less disposable an object feels, the better. The encouraging message for designers is that there is a wide array of ways to achieve this distance. Revealing polymers for what they are is key, as is educating the consumer to appreciate what a perfectly chosen material they hold in their hand, either through marketing or through design cues.

The paint job is a lovely, subtle two-tone, with a pair of gently different shades of silvery grey, one tinted to match the finish of the metal cover so precisely they appear to be the same material. It's a convincing illusion, but in the end, just a more refined example of the polymer-hiding routine that has plagued product design since wood-grain was first wrapped around a plastic television cabinet. And it doesn't last. Unlike my Pentax, it refuses to age gracefully, a victim of the market's allegiance to an outdated pre-polymer aesthetic.

Perhaps the greatest imperative is to maximize the utility of the material. A polycarbonate camera made in the likeness of a metal one will never be as strong—that's just the nature of the material. It is perfectly possible to design a camera that isn't "gone" when you drop it though, and since my K1000 was built, dozens of high-end digital SLRs have hit the market, charging a premium for a well put-together chassis that incorporates metal parts where they are needed, polycarbonate where it's needed, and elastomeric overmold, strategically located to protect it from damage.

I still have my K1000, but I haven't used it in years; it's too heavy, and anyway I've switched to digital. My Canon Powershot gets pretty frequent use instead, and is showing its age after just four years. The metallic paint is rubbing off, exposing milky white plastic underneath. It still works fine, but looks like it ought to be retired soon, and there's no good reason for that.

On closer inspection, this particular camera appears to suffer from a clear case of metal envy. A thin formed sheet metal plate covers to front face, but the vast majority of the body is injection molded plastic; probably ABS judging by color and finish on the small rubbed-off areas. The paint job is a lovely, subtle two-tone, with a pair of gently different shades of silvery grey, one tinted to match the finish of the metal cover so precisely they appear to be the same material. It's a convincing illusion, but in the end, just a more refined example of the polymer-hiding routine that has plagued product design since wood-grain was first wrapped around a plastic television cabinet. And it doesn't last. Unlike my Pentax, it refuses to age gracefully, a victim of the market's allegiance to an outdated pre-polymer aesthetic.

Perhaps it's going too far to advocate a total embargo on imitative finishes on polymers, but a limited one seems well in order. Just as building a brick house and then painting it to look like wood is absurd, so too with many consumer goods; especially those, like point-and-shoot cameras, that are guaranteed to eventually be caught out. Given the thousands of alternative ways to allow plastics their own unique aesthetic, and the inexorable forces pushing consumers towards their acceptance, designers are running out of excuses for playing dumb.

Carl Alviani is an industrial designer at FlatHED , in Portland, OR, and an occasional Core77 contributer. He interned at Material Connexion while in graduate school. He can be reached at carl-at-flathed-dot-com.