Wednesday 26 May 2021

Plastic fails

If you’re a regular reader of the museum’s blog, you’ll know that we like to promote plastics’ virtues because this material group is often misunderstood and misrepresented. Reading Pam’s recent post where she talked about the EasyRoller 2 wheelchair, she highlighted ten different types of plastics that were used within the chair’s construction, each carefully chosen to match the intended application. It made me think about the fact that this is not always the case: sometimes designers and manufacturers get it wrong.

For example, back in 2018 I wrote a blog post about my new washing basket. The body was made from silicone and designed to concertina down in order for the basket to be stored flat. Unfortunately, this strength in persuading me to buy the basket was also its weakness as it really didn’t take very long for the silicone to begin to tear along the folded edges (see image below). I persisted with it until the basket handle finally tore off: clearly the wrong material selection. Its replacement, a collapsible storage crate, is again made of plastic but this time polypropylene: far stronger and more durable. It has already outperformed its predecessor at a cost of less than half the price.

Left to right: the collapsible washing basket, the silicone beginning to fail and the replacement.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

Continuing with the washing theme, a few years ago I also bought some plastic pegs because I felt the wooden ones we had been using left too much of a noticeable mark on the clothes. I acquired two different types: some white polypropylene ones that replicated the design of the more traditional wooden style and some polystyrene ergonomic pegs in red, purple and grey. They both promised to grip the clothes in a more delicate way and have indeed been successful in solving this particular issue. However, I am now finding that all of the ergonomic pegs are becoming embrittled, with the finger grips starting to snap off. In the summer they might be out on the line all day and, unfortunately, they are obviously not sufficiently UV resistant to deal with this amount of sun exposure resulting in breakage at the weak point in the design. Their limited lifespan simply cannot compete with the wooden ones I have owned for over twenty years, although the white ones are faring better. The broken pegs are now being repurposed to secure netting around plants in the garden where they do not have to be opened/closed on a regular basis.

Left to right: the three different types of pegs, the snapped finger grips and a broken peg being repurposed.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

At Christmas, my daughter was given a travel mug made from eco-friendly bamboo with a heat-resistant silicone lid and grip. In manufacture, the bamboo has likely been ground into a powder and combined with a synthetic resin such as melamine, a material renowned for being easily stained by organic acids such as the tannin found in tea. I think the mug was only used twice before we started to notice the interior surface becoming discoloured so, once again, perhaps not the best choice of material for this particular purpose? We have also found a new use for the cup, this time as a toothbrush holder in the bathroom.

Left to right: the travel mug, the stained interior and a new use.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

So, does any of this really matter? I appreciate everything has a finite lifespan and I probably expect too much of these everyday products but bad design, which includes material selection, contributes to negative perceptions about plastics when the product ultimately fails. Even if the purchase cost is not very high (such as in the case of the clothes pegs), I still don’t want disposability. I continue to believe that the plastics material family is amazing but it has to be the right material for the job. Luckily, we have some great examples in the collection to successfully demonstrate this such as an artificial eye, flame resistant racing gloves and a wind-up radio amongst many, many other objects. We also have resources that explain what is good as well as what is bad about plastics if you want to find out more.

Left to right: AIBDC : 008357, AIBDC : 005887 and AIBDC : 000415.
Image credit: MoDiP

Katherine Pell
Collections Officer

Wednesday 19 May 2021

Revisit the 80s in Memphis: Plastic Field

A new exhibition at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes (02/12/20 – 12/09/21) explores work from the influential 1980s design movement, Memphis.

Memphis designers with Masanori 
Umeda's Tawaraya Bed, 1981.  
Image credit: Studio Azzurro. Courtesy Memphis Post Design Gallery.

The Memphis Group was founded in December 1980 by Italian designer and architect Ettore Sottsass. It brought together a group of young, international designers, united in their desire to inject humour into the design world and challenge contemporary notions of functionality and taste. Their work was colourful and geometric, drawing inspiration from the Pop Art, Bauhaus and Art Deco movements to create an entirely new aesthetic. 

'Carlton' by Ettore Sottsass, 1981. Memphis Milano Collection. Bookshelf in plastic laminate. 
Image credit: Aldo Ballo, Guido Cegani, Peter Ogilvie. Courtesy Memphis Srl. 

Prioritising the sensory quality of an object over its function, they used materials like plastic laminate, traditionally used in kitchens and bathrooms, to produce high-end furniture such as ‘Carlton’, a bookshelf room divider designed by Sottsass in 1981 (seen in the image above), and ‘Lido’, a sofa designed by Michele De Lucchi in 1982 (below).

'Lido' by Michele De Lucchi 1982. Memphis Milano Collection. Sofa in plastic laminate.  
Image credit: Studio Azzurro. Courtesy Memphis Srl.

Whilst their designs experienced limited commercial success at the time and were often derided by critics, the collective’s influence has had a lasting cultural impact despite only being active for eight years. Only ever intended to be a deliberate, passing fad, Memphis disbanded in 1988 with many of the group going on to become established names within the field of international design. MoDiP has examples represented within the collection from the former members Michael Graves, Alessandro Mendini and George Sowden, as well as objects inspired by the movement, which can all be viewed on request. My favourite, which I think captures the essence of the Memphis style, is this Zolo toy building set dated to 1998.

 creative building set, AIBDC : 001325.  
Image credit: MoDiP

The Memphis: Plastic Field exhibition celebrates a revolutionary moment in the history of design and features over 150 lovely objects. Apparently, some of the group’s early laminate pieces occasionally contain mosquitoes, which had unfortunately become embedded within the composite material during manufacture at Lake Como, Italy. When I visit, I might just take a magnifying glass with me to go bug hunting as well as plastics spotting!

Katherine Pell, Collections Officer.

Wednesday 12 May 2021

Shopping Bag 329/Hinza Bag

From a collections care perspective, it is always great to welcome a brand-new object into the collection. That way we can be relatively certain the material will behave in the way we expect it to over time, when we display and store it.

A lovely, brand new object in the collection.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

Most objects, however, have had a life before they join us and exhibit signs of use and wear. From an interpretation perspective this is extremely valuable information in helping to tell that object’s story.

A lovely, worn and used object in the collection.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

What gets really interesting though, is when you have the rare opportunity to study the same design in both an old and new object. This was recently made possible for MoDiP when we received a Perstop bag and a Hinza bag through a generous donation from Karin Bachstätter, the CEO of Hinza AB and great granddaughter of Perstorp founder Wilhelm Wendt.

The Perstop bag (right) and Hinza bag (left)
Image credit: Katherine Pell

I first became interested in this bag after reading an article in
Plastics Today in 2019. I thought it would be a perfect addition to our collection as it tells an interesting story about changing perceptions of the plastics material.

AIBDC : 008597, Shopping Bag 329, c.1950s.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

The Shopping Bag 329 (also known as the Perstop Bag) was created in the 1950s by Perstop AB, a Swedish plastics manufacturer, and designed in-house.

Shopping Bag 329 with original label from the personal collection of Thomas Lindblad.
Image credit: Thomas Lindblad

The ergonomic shape was both durable and sturdy, retaining its form, and was made available in a variety of colours with a glossy, wipe-clean surface and stylish moulded-in stripes. The bag quickly became very popular in Sweden but fell out of favour during the 1960s when supermarkets started to give away free plastic carrier bags. Coincidentally, these were also invented by a Swede (Sten Gustaf Thulin, in 1959) although they were never intended to be a single-use product:

The Shopping Bag 329 is considered a Swedish design classic.

Image credit:

However, with more recent environmental concerns, in 2006 Karin Bachstätter decided to re-introduce the bag, still manufactured in polyethylene but this time using sugar cane as the raw material, a renewable resource, instead of oil.

AIBDC : 008598, Hinza Bag, 2020.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

The bag is considered so original and distinctive that it has been granted copyright protection as an article of Applied Art by the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design and in 2019, Perstorp AB transferred the intellectual property rights to Hinza AB: the design is now officially recognised as the Hinza bag.

Moulded-in maker's mark, AIBDC : 008598.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

In use it is a lovely size and shape with a secure, comfortable LDPE shoulder strap, it can be stacked if you want to store several at the same time and easily wiped clean making it extremely versatile. In addition to being used as a practical bag, I have read about people using them as bicycle baskets, for general storage around the home as well as in the garden. The design is original, sleek and modern, despite being seventy years old, and the Hinza has now been made available in two sizes, in a range of bright and cheery colours, with accessories such as cool-bags, covers and linings. I particularly like the large, bioplastic version in olive green and have already put in a request with my family for my next birthday!

MoDiP’s examples can all be viewed on request.

Katherine Pell
Collections Officer 

Wednesday 5 May 2021

EasyRoller 2 wheelchair

I have recently been in the position of caring for someone whose mobility has been somewhat compromised and consequently I have discovered some of the ‘delights’ of using a wheelchair to help with this. I appreciate that there are a lot of wheelchairs available for a whole range of different needs and uses, but the ones I have been using have been either the 'fold it up and put it in the boot of the car' sort for those times when it is just too far to walk for the person I have been assisting, or the 'one-size-fits-all' porter style, helpfully provided by the NHS to assist with getting from A to B down the miles of hospital corridors. Neither of these two options are an enjoyable experience either for the chair user or for myself, having to cope with somewhat basic design and function. Nevertheless, the wheelchair has proved to be an invaluable aid and we are grateful for having access to one when needed. 

There is, I have discovered, a rather more swish model on the market, specifically for use in hospitals, airports, pools etc, less institutionalised in appearance and one that offers a thoughtfully designed user experience for those occasions where materials from which wheelchairs are usually made just won’t do. It has been on the market for over a decade now and has had remarkably few problems or faults in that time. 

The EasyRoller 2, AIBDC : 008620
Image credit: Pam Langdown

The EasyRoller 2 is made completely from plastic materials. It is intended for use in situations like MRI scanning rooms in hospitals and airport security where metal framed chairs could be a problem. It is also perfect for assisting those with mobility difficulties to get into a swimming pool. For pool use, the chair is available without seat and back padding to avoid buoyancy, and to stabilize it in the water there is a mounted weight under the seat. Cavities in the chair quickly fill with water which drains away easily and there are no metal parts which might be affected by chlorine or corrode, so the chair can be wheeled directly into the pool. Every part is water resistant, including the padding on the seat and armrests, so the chair can be wiped or hosed down to clean. 

The wheel tubeless tyres are puncture-proof.
Image credit: Pam Langdown

As far as wheelchairs go, it is rather elegant. It has a supportive high back and a wide comfortable seat and is designed to offer a better user experience. It is very easy to manoeuvre. The handle, for someone pushing, is integrated into the back rest, the breaks are easy to access and the footrest rotates backwards when not required. There are no extra bits which need clipping on: its all there ready to go. OK, so its not suitable for putting in the boot of the car, and it isn’t intended for someone who uses a wheelchair all the time, but that’s not what it was designed for, and if I needed a wheelchair to help me negotiate airport security, hospital corridors or into the pool then I think this is the one I would want to be offered. …….and MoDiP now has one in its collection.

Detail of the wheel.
Image credit: Pam Langdown

The EasyRoller 1 began development in 2000 and was first introduced for sale in 2001. The EasyRoller 2 was developed in 2009. It was designed and developed by Eker Design in Norway and is produced in Germany. In July 2011 Eker Design was awarded the Red Dot design award for the Easy Roller, recognising its outstanding design and engineering, with the jury highlighting 'functional elements such as the steering handle, armrest and tipstop (which) are intelligently integrated into the design, lending the wheelchair an overall welcoming appearance'. In the same year it also achieved an Honours Award for Design Excellence from the Norwegian Design Council. 

I think this is a great example of the choice of the best materials for a particular application. In the current climate, where some plastics have a bad reputation, this wheelchair exemplifies why designers choose to work with plastics over other materials and why, in this instance, they really are the best material for the job.

Pam Langdown
Documentation Officer