Monday, 27 February 2017

BXL photographic archive #0120

In 2010, MoDiP was donated a large archive of images relating to a single company. Bakelite Xylonite Ltd, also known as British Xylonite Ltd or BXL, was possibly one of the first British firms to successfully manufacture a plastics material in commercial quantities. The company was established in 1875 and after a long history went into liquidation in the late 2000s. The images we have in the collection are concentrated around the 1960s through to the 1980s and show us glimpses of the manufacturing process, products and the company’s employees during this time. We plan to share an image each week to give a flavour of the archive. If you want to see more you can view the whole collection on our website.

This week’s image shows a promotional image for a Cascelloid bottle.

To get a better view of the image and find out more have a look at it on our website

We are still working on the documentation of the archive, some of the images we know more about than others. It would be fantastic if we could fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge, if you know anything about the company or specific images it would be good to hear from you.

Louise Dennis (Assistant Curator)

Friday, 24 February 2017

Did you know? #56

Did you know that all of our past exhibitions are available online?

Provocative plastics? discuss, debate, deliberate

Plastics are used worldwide in design and manufacturing. Their use divides opinion and has many proponents and undoubtedly as many opponents. Nevertheless it is a group of materials which has enabled social, technological and medical advancement and offers infinite possibilities to designers.

This exhibition showcases objects from MoDiP’s collections which illustrate differing comments on design and plastics made by historical and contemporary artists, designers and social commentators.

Both design and plastics elicit strong opinion. Do you see creativity or kitsch? Problems or opportunities? Waste or resources? Here is an opportunity for you to discuss, debate, and deliberate.

Louise Dennis, (Assiant Curator)

Monday, 20 February 2017

A different view #50

There are many ways to look at the objects in the MoDiP collection.  With this series of posts I want to highlight the interesting views of objects that we may ordinarily miss.  These include the underside of an object, the surface pattern, or traces of manufacturing processes.

Title: Toy dinghy
Designer: Unknown
Manufacturer: Unknown
Object number: PHSL : 172

Louise Dennis (Assistant Curator)

Friday, 17 February 2017


Opening today our new exhibition -  Picnic

The picnic as we know it today has a long history in England. The practice of carrying food in a hamper for personal consumption on a long journey was introduced in the eleventh century, during the time of William the Conqueror. The word hamper is thought to derive from the French hanapier, a case in which goblets were carried. Picnic first appeared in the English language during the mid-eighteenth century, but it referred to a social gathering to which all comers contributed a share of the food. From the middle ages onwards, formal outdoor hunting feasts were enjoyed by the aristocracy, but it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the notion of taking an informal meal outdoors became fashionable.

In the modern picnic set, plastics materials have replaced traditional china and glass components, and wicker hampers have been exchanged for temperature controlling boxes and bags. The introduction of more robust and lightweight materials, such as acrylic, melamine, polypropylene, polyester and polystyrene, and their respective production techniques have influenced style and design. Pack-ability and portability are bywords for the picnic set, making them easy to store and ready to go. Soft polyester fleeces with waterproof backings offer informal seating solutions. Lightweight yet impact resistant materials are used to encase the delicate inner workings of technology, enabling cameras and radios to be carried easily along with folding and flexible toys adding to the enjoyment of a picnic meal. Bento boxes and children’s lunch boxes are available in many colours, shapes and sizes, for the specific purpose of transporting an individual meal safely and hygienically, and they can be washed and reused time and time again.

Bright and colourful, multifunctional, space saving, strong and portable, this exhibition celebrates plastics picnic ware and lunch boxes.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Coming Soon - Picnic

MoDiP is now closed whilst we change over our exhibition.

Coming soon: Picnic

If you need any assistance in the meantime please email us.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

A ‘Tone Poem in Ivory and Gold’

David Bowie had one. Andy Mackay had one that he played with Roxy Music. Charlie Parker had one that sold for £93,500 at auction house Christies in 1994. John Dankworth had one that he played at the Festival of Britain in 1951. Ornette Coleman had one that he played on his Atlantic debut album ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’, a landmark in avant-garde jazz. And now MoDiP has one: a beautiful, ivory coloured, plastic Grafton Alto Saxophone.
The Grafton’s story begins with Ettore (Hector) Sommaruga, born in Italy in 1904, who started his career making musical instruments as an apprentice at the age of twelve. He went on to gain a Diploma in Music, his principal study being the flute, so was both player and maker. Aged 22 he came to England to carry out and teach the process of gold-plating saxophones and whilst here, joined a jazz-style band playing alto sax. The following year he became a full-time professional saxophonist and over the next decade played his way across south-west Europe. In 1936 he returned to England where he ran a home for child refugees from the Spanish Civil War. He continued this work with Jewish children fleeing Nazi Germany but when Britain declared war in 1939, he was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man. Upon release he set up a business repairing musical instruments for the armed forces which flourished since wartime austerity meant that no new musical instruments were being made or imported. He established a factory in Grafton Way off the Tottenham Court Road in London (note the name).

As war ended, Hector had already developed his idea to produce a saxophone in plastic, filing a patent on 14th September 1945. He had predicted a post-war demand for instruments but was well aware of the increasing difficulties and expense of importing raw materials. At the same time, manufacturers were looking for new ways in which to use their huge stockpiles of plastics that were no longer needed for war use. Putting all this together, Hector believed that moulded plastic would be suitable for mass production and capable of producing a musical instrument that was affordable to all. An unplayable prototype was presented at the ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition in 1946 but it took a further four years of development before the Grafton Alto Saxophone was commercially launched in 1950. It was described as ‘A Tone Poem in Ivory and Gold’ and sold for 55 guineas, half the price of a brass saxophone (equivalent to £1850 today).

Despite endorsement from such key players as Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, John Dankworth, ‘Lazy Ade’ Monsbourgh and Harry Hayes, less than 3000 were ever made in the Grafton’s ten years of production. Hector himself became so disillusioned that he left the project in 1953, returning to France to run a motel. There are many reasons attributed to the Grafton’s fall into relative obscurity. Firstly, production was very slow - the assembly line averaged only 12 saxophones each week, mainly due to the parts that had to be finished and fitted by hand. Secondly, it was being sold so cheaply that there was little profit to be made per instrument. Thirdly, although the acrylic body of the saxophone was tough, it was brittle and could easily break if dropped. Additionally, Hector had introduced a non-standard spring mechanism which was difficult and expensive to repair. Finally there was the traditionalist point of view where musicians simply did not like the look of the Grafton and preferred the feel and sound of playing brass. The factory was closed in 1959 although outworkers continued to build one or two each week until the parts ran out in 1961.

Exuding 1950s Italian style, the Grafton is certainly a thing of beauty but is rarely seen being played these days. However, improvements in the development of plastics and manufacturing processes over the 50 years since production stopped have recently enabled a modern, comparable version of this plastic saxophone to come onto the market. The Vibratosax, first introduced in 2011 by Thai company Vibrato Saxophones, is made in polycarbonate and ABS and has been marketed as a ‘sax for all’, echoing Hector’s original dream. MoDiP will hopefully be featuring one to compare against the Grafton in an exhibition later this year. 

Katherine Pell (MoDiP Administrator)

Goodson, S., 2014. The Grafton Plastic Saxophone (online). New Orleans: Sax Gourmet. Available from: (Accessed 19 December 2016).

Horwood, W., 2011. The Grafton Story (online). Missouri: Available from: (Accessed 19 December 2016).

Howard, S., 2015. Grafton Plastic Alto Saxophone (online). Hampshire: S. H. Woodwind Repairs. Available from: (Accessed 19 December 2016).

Howard, S., 2015. The Naked Grafton (online). Hampshire: S. H. Woodwind Repairs. Available from: (Accessed 19 December 2016).

Kennedy, S., 2015. Piyapat Thanyakij at Vibrato Saxophones Music Company Interview (online). California: Teen Jazz. Available from: (Accessed 9 January 2017).

USA Horn., 2016. The Grafton Acrylic (online). New Jersey: Available from: (Accessed 19 December 2016).

Monday, 6 February 2017

A different view #49

There are many ways to look at the objects in the MoDiP collection.  With this series of posts I want to highlight the interesting views of objects that we may ordinarily miss.  These include the underside of an object, the surface pattern, or traces of manufacturing processes.

Title: BABYBJÖRN highchair
Designer: Unknown
Manufacturer: BABYBJÖRN

Object number: AIBDC : 007342

Louise Dennis (Assistant Curator)

Friday, 3 February 2017

Guess the object

MoDiP has the kind of collection that you may think you are very familiar with. We have objects which we all use every day, and some pieces which are more unusual.

By looking at this distorted image are you able to guess what the object is? What do you think it could be used for?

Post your answer in the comments below or to find the answer click here and you will be taken to the MoDiP catalogue.

Louise Dennis (Assistant Curator)

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Plastics Research Group

We held the first meeting of the Plastics Research Group involving members of both faculties of the University on 23 November, 2016. We were pleased to have Rachel Worth, the AUB’s Head of Research Development, and Valerie Lodge, the AUB’s Research Manager, at the meeting along with the following members of the Group: Louise Dennis, Kate Hall, David Lund, E-J Scott, Will Strange and Channa Vithuna. Apologies were received from Iain Archer, Jeffry Baggott, Laura Cotterill, Elena Crehan, Russell Gagg, Kirsten Hardie, Jonny Hoskins, Christian McLening, and Humphrey Trevelyan.

Presentation by Rachel Worth

The meeting began with an informal and extremely helpful presentation by Rachel Worth about how to get academic papers published. She covered the motivation to write, how to get started and the most common reasons why proffered contributions are rejected, drawing on Paul Silvia’s How to write a lot: a practical guide to productive academic writing, Washington, 2007 and Hilary Hamnett’s ‘Why are academic papers rejected by Journals?’, Times Higher Educational Supplement, September 2016.

Why we write

Our motivation to write is our passion for our subject. We publish because we want to communicate our ideas to a wider audience: students and public alike.

Getting started

Nonetheless getting started can be hard. We tend to create specious barriers to stop us getting on with writing, for example:

  • we need to do more research,
  • we need a new computer,
  • we need to be inspired,
  • we can’t find the time.
None of these is true. There comes a point when you just have to commit to writing and it is not a matter of finding the time but quite simply of allotting the time.

The recommendation is to select a regular amount of time, say one hour a day, and to stick to it. It is a good idea too to keep a log to build up a sense of achievement: the more you get down, the more you will be inspired to do. As creative people, we must be creative with our time. She also recommended carrying around a notebook and jotting down ideas as they come: you can write anywhere.

She also made the point that it can be useful to have more than one project on the go. It is important as a writer to meet deadlines but sometimes for a range of understandable reasons the publishing industry may not be able to get back to you when expected and then it can be useful to have a parallel project to fall back on.

Approaching a journal or publishing house

It is important to research relevant journals or publishing houses in order to make sure that the ones that are approached have a track record of publishing in the relevant subject area. It can be a good idea to write to an individual within the publishing house to discuss the appropriateness of the proposed article in terms of their remit. Some publishers have complex submission processes and it is important to follow the requirements carefully.

Revisions requested as a result of ‘peer review’ should not be taken as personal insults but rather as the means of making the text as good as can be. Peer reviewers may not agree and it is then for the writer to choose which route to go down.

Causes of rejection

Hilary Hamnett has outlined the following reasons for rejection:

  • the paper is outside the scope of the journal.
  • it has no novelty: it does not say anything new.
  • it is fragmented and without sufficient structure.
  • it is weak in conclusion.
  • it is not well referenced and/or the references are not up-to-date.
  • it is not clear how the article would change perception / thinking.
  • the writer has not responded adequately to peer reviewers’ comments.
Thank you Rachel, questions and comments from the group showed how much this presentation was appreciated.

Research being undertaken within the Group

Those present then shared with each other their research relevant to the plastics theme.

David Lund, a post-graduate student linked to MoDiP, described his subject as how plastics have changed the model and dominated its development since the introduction of plastics and explained his intention of inventing a conceptual framework for critically investigating the model as a material-social object which would be applicable to the study of objects of all kinds.

Channa Vithana, Architecture, talked about his fascination with the pure plastic phenomenon and his interest in writing a paper on the word ‘plasticity’ in terms of how it relates to other materials as much as to ‘plastics’.

Kate Hall, another post-graduate student linked to MoDiP, told us of her research into how the perception of objects, and specifically plastic chairs, are changed when viewed through the lens of poetic narrative.

Will Strange, Modelmaking, is undertaking an MA in Creative Thinking with a view to deepening understanding of maker culture and the value of making things for yourself rather than buying them readymade, or commissioning them from another source.

E-J Scott, Fashion, talked about his research into the synthetic fabric, Crimplene. He is fascinated by its ubiquitous nature, that everyone had it and how it presents a different history from that of elite fashion. It is a material that does not fray and therefore does not require over-locking which made it attractive to home dressmakers. Basing his findings largely on oral histories he has evidence that it was this fabric that led the democratisation of sixties fashion, for example the designs of Mary Quant. He drew links between his research and that of Will Strange into today’s Maker Movement.

Louise Dennis, Museum of Design in Plastics, who is undertaking a PhD at the University of Brighton, discussed how her research into why plastics are collected by museums links to the research of others in the group with notions of value, ubiquity, the everyday, and their place in the museum.

I am currently editing selected papers from the AUB’s conference, Provocative Plastics: plastics in design from the practical to the philosophical into a book focused on the conference theme which gave rise to the most interest: ‘Plastics and value’. It approaches the theme from two perspectives: plastics’ value as a medium for making and plastics value as perceived by society in use.

Susan Lambert (Head of MoDiP)