Wednesday, 23 February 2022

Martyn Rowlands

Our current exhibition, Friend and faux, includes a Betterware 2001 broom head designed by Martyn Rowlands in 1970.

Rowlands was one of the first trained industrial designers to work with plastics in Britain, having attended an industrial design course at the Central School of Arts and Deign in Holburn at the end of the Second World War. He was especially interest in plastics technology and initially worked at Bakelite Ltd and then set up the plastics design office for EKCO in the 1950s.

He tended to work through the development of models rather than by making drawings. His designs are noteworthy for their smooth, clean lines and their practicality. He was among the first designers to make the most of the relatively new injection moulding process.

Martyn Rowlands with Trimphone, cutlery and cat.  Image credit - Institution of Engineering and Technology Archives

In 2002, Rowlands became an Honorary Fellow of the Arts University Bournemouth.  Around this time, he also donated a large number of objects from his private collection all of which can be found on our website.  We have featured his work in our first Spotlight on exhibition.

Some of Rowlands notable designs include:

Super bath, 1955.

Trimphone, 1966.

Series 500 taps, 1967.

The Spinhaler designed for Fisons is featured, along with a number of other MoDiP objects, in the Museum of Plastic 2121 project which is an imagined museum built to teach future generations about plastics and tell the story of how activism started in 2021 led to the positive change that resulted in us cleaning up our oceans and forever changing our relationship with plastic.

Spinhaler, 1967.

Louise Dennis
Curator of MoDiP

Wednesday, 16 February 2022

Gutta percha

When I joined MoDiP, this beautiful ornament captured my attention. It is currently on display in the About Plastics case in the museum.

Initially, I was confused. What was a wall ornament doing in MoDiP? I made it my mission to research this beautiful artefact.

I found out that it is a wall plaque of Venus and Cupidmade from compression moulded gutta percha and a chalk/flour mix, painted black. It dates to the late 19th century.

Gutta Percha is a natural plastic from the latex of several Malaysian trees which belong to the Sapotaceae family. The milky substance emitted is called Gutta Percha when it is evaporated and it is a hard material at room temperature, becoming soft at 100°c. It was first introduced into Europe in 1843 and was widely used as electrical insulation in underwater telegraph cables like this one from MoDiP's collection.

A few other objects in the museum that contain Gutta Percha include a lovely sample (bottom left), a pen tray (bottom middle) and a gaming piece (bottom right).

If you would like to come in to see these items or any other objects we have, contact us here.

Reanna Butcher
Museum Assistant

Wednesday, 9 February 2022

Durabeam torch, BIB Design Consultants, 1982

In the early 1980s, I can clearly remember one day when my Father returned from work and presented a strange object to the family. It was made of plastic, rectangular in shape and coloured black with a yellow strip running around the edge. We couldn’t guess what it was (we weren’t allowed to touch it!), so he put us out of our misery by proudly flipping open the hinged top to reveal a lit bulb. It was a torch, but unlike any we had seen before and operating in a completely different way (no on/off switch, you simply opened/closed the pivoting lid). We were specifically instructed that we could not play with it - this was NOT a toy - which was a shame as I found it fascinating and was already imagining using it as some sort of Blake’s 7 futuristic teleportation device.

Image ref: The pocket-sized Durabeam torch.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

The reason this childhood recollection was prompted was due to a recent enquiry we had received at MoDiP, from a woman still using her Durabeam torch all these years later. It had stopped working but she had forgotten how to change the batteries and sought our help. We were able to assist her with full instructions on how to remove the side panel in order to access the battery compartment.

Image ref: The side panel removed to access the batteries.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

MoDiP has two examples of the Durabeam torch in both the small and larger size.

Image ref: AIBDC : 0_6429 and 0_6474
Image credit: MoDiP

The Durabeam was designed in 1982 by R.J. Winstone, A. Forman, P.J. Pope and J. Drane of BIB Design Consultants, a company formed by Nick Butler, Peter Isherwood and Stephen Bartlett in 1967. Duracell UK Ltd, a subsidiary of the US battery manufacturer, wanted to enhance the sale of their batteries within Europe (at that time they held a 25% market share). They conducted extensive consumer research for products that used batteries and ultimately identified the potential for manufacturing a small, portable torch that could provide the solutions to those aspects that customers were currently unsatisfied by. For example, people often needed their hands free to tackle a job but found they had to hold the torch to direct the beam. The on/off switch was often found to be unreliable and a common complaint was that the lens would break easily.

As a one product company (ie. alkaline batteries), Duracell had no internal design department so they invited three industrial design agencies to submit proposals for this new torch. BIB were successful, answering the brief with early concept sketches that illustrated distinctive geometric forms, using only the Duracell corporate colours of black and yellow.

Image ref: An early concept sketch (left) and two models (centre and right).
Image credit:

In an interview published in 1984, Nick Butler said:

'Duracell were enlightened clients – they’d never made anything but batteries before. We knew that play value was important: kids like to read comics with torches. We also knew that no designer had yet done a good torch. The brief was to sell batteries, so the solution had to be cheap. We thought go for a light source, not a torch.’

It was this thinking that allowed the design to develop in such a different way to traditional torch forms and an idea that Duracell were particularly keen to adopt was the articulated head. John Drane prototyped the mechanism, applying various pressures through a process of trial and error to achieve the correct ratchet strength. Other design modifications included simplifying the battery cover to snap fit over pegs moulded into the body, thereby reducing mould tooling costs, and the black coloured external surfaces being given a matt finish to disguise imperfections caused by uneven shrinkage in the acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) material selected.
The final robust product was launched in two sizes (home and pocket), priced slightly higher than its competitors but with batteries included so the product was ready to work immediately. It was also the first torch to be advertised and a contemporary report records how people were coming into the shops with magazine cuttings to specifically seek out the Durabeam. Released in the UK in September 1982, 450,000 torches were sold in the first three months with sales achieving over 3 million just two years later.

Image ref: 1980s advert: it stands up, lies down, bends over backwards, and then completely disappears.
Image credit:

Awarded a Design Council award for Design Excellence in Consumer and Contract Goods: Durable Products, 1984, the awards judging panel commented that 'Durabeam is a compelling product - one wants to hold it, use it, buy it, which is after all essential to good design'.

Success! The durabeam enquiry that started off this blog

Katherine Pell
Collections Officer


Wednesday, 2 February 2022

MoDiP: a collection of national importance

We are delighted to share with you that Arts Council England has awarded MoDiP’s collection Designated status[1]. Regular readers of this blog will be aware of MoDiP’s focus but may not realise its distinction. This award bestows on the collection national significance.  

The collection provides the world’s most comprehensive survey of how plastics have transformed the designed world, uniquely charting the development of design in plastics from natural plastics to 3D printed objects. There is no other collection which researches and engages with the impact of design in plastics on society so effectively and extensively. We are proud, as a result, to be recognised beside such esteemed historic and significant collections as those of The Pitt-Rivers Museum, Wellcome Trust, and Museum of London. Dr Nick Merriman, Chair of Arts Council England’s Designation panel, said: 

“I’m delighted that the scheme is recognising the outstanding collection at the Museum of Design in Plastics, which demonstrates the fundamental importance and impact of plastics in our world.” 

In recent years, discourse around plastics in the designed world has been divisive, being somewhat polarised by issues around overuse and sustainability. We often see plastics depicted as objects that leave an indelible and damaging impact on the natural world, and while that’s certainly something we need to address as a global community, the current pandemic will see more than 8 billion plastic vaccination syringes used across the world to counter the threat of COVID-19. Over the course of the pandemic and beyond, plastics have been crucial to saving lives and ensuring the safety of populations across the world. Intelligently used, they also play an important part in making the world more sustainable.

We understand that people see plastics from different points of view. Ours is that plastics, as a materials group, are valuable when used appropriately, while acknowledging the negative impact their poor use and disposal has on the environment and health. We also believe that lessons from the past can help manufacturers, designers, and consumers, indeed all of us, make better informed choices. For over 50 years more things and a greater variety of things have been made of plastics. Going plastics free is neither an option nor desirable.

Our hope is that this award will help us raise our voice and assist us in getting our message across; that it will strengthen our ability to influence opinion and policy in terms of both addressing plastics’ mismanagement and increasing understanding of their valuable potential when used responsibly.

[1] The Designation Scheme identifies the pre-eminent collections of national importance held in England’s non-national museums, libraries and archives, based on their quality and significance.