Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Skeuomorphic plastics

I asked a fellow PhD student, Kimberley Chandler, to write a post for us following a recent workshop.  She used an item from the collection to illustrate the idea of skeuomorphism.

‘Plastic’, wrote Roland Barthes in 1957, ‘is in essence the stuff of alchemy.’ Writing at a time when the character of this ‘miraculous substance’ was relatively unknown, Barthes was fascinated by its transformative impulse. He admired its ‘quick-change artistry’, from fluid to fixed form, and its countless iterations: here, a bucket, and there, a jewel. [1]

Barthes’ also recognised its more prosaic nature, and lauded the simple artifice of common household objects. For me, this sentiment is materialised most acutely in the Bakelite electric bed warmer, 1943 (below). Fashioned from Bakelite, an early form of plastic, this quasi-bottle exhibits those qualities associated with warming the bed: the classic shape with textured sides, sealed with a stopper, and with a subtle bulge that reveals its hot, fluid interior. 

PHSL : 3
Yet this hot-water bottle is, in fact, electric and without water: ‘Just slip into the bed and plug in.’ The electric cord interrupts the magic; like the strings that betray the puppet. It is no longer a pliable object, but brittle and unforgiving; and moulded from Bakelite, it is, in effect, an imitation.  

This electric bed warmer – with its familiar form, yet less familiar touch – presents a curious juncture in the history of Bakelite, a moment when its performance as a new material was being tested. Yet, it also embodies the clash between conservatism and innovation, between tried and tested and the future of plastic. And it does this by way of the skeuomorph, through the direct imitation of a hot-water bottle, but in an altogether different material. It is less about deception, and more about transition: a way to usher in the new.  

Writing in the 1940s, two chemists, Yarsley and Couzens, acknowledged the inexhaustible possibilities of this new material in their futurist account of a world filled with plastics.[2] Their fanciful projections take narrative form in ‘Plastic Man’ living in a ‘Plastic Age’, whose every possession is moulded in plastic; and who, no doubt, goes to bed at night clutching his Bakelite electric water bottle.

I would like to thank Kimberley Chandler for taking the time to write this post.

Louise Dennis (Assistant Curator) 

Kimberley Chandler is a writer and researcher in contemporary craft, design, and architecture. She is the recipient of an AHRC-funded studentship in ‘Design Agency: Activism, Innovation, Transformation’ at the University of Brighton. 

[1] Barthes, Roland, ‘Plastic’, in Mythologies, New York: Hill and Wang, 1957, pp. 97-99
[2] Yarsley V. E., and Couzens E. G., Plastics, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1945, pp. 154-158

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