In 1987, collector and author Philippe Decelle found a plastic Joe Colombo Universale chair discarded on the side of the road. He recognised the distinctive work of the Italian industrial designer and brought it back to his apartment. So began his collection of ill-fated plastic relics otherwise destined for roadside rubbish bins; the luckiest ones might land in flea markets or antique stores.
Decelle became a plastic fanatic, scouring markets and estate sales for outlandish 1960s polymer forms rendered obsolete after the oil crisis of 1973. But Decelle saw plastics as the heart of design in the 20th century, a changing and optimistic emblem of modernity.
“Even now, plastics are evolving all the time,” says Decelle. “Where there is something that doesn’t work they try to adapt, like trying to make plastics good for the environment. Plastic is everywhere: it’s an insulator, it’s in your phone, in your TV, in your computer.”
Decelle’s collection flourished over the next 27 years. In December 2014 Decelle sold the collection, making it the centrepiece of a new design museum called the Art & Design Atomium Museum (ADAM) in Brussels, that opened on 11 December. The ADAM is a new project by the Atomium museum, a history and culture museum built in 1958 for the first World Trade Fair following the second world war. The ADAM is housed 200m from the Atomium in part of the International Trade Mart, a 1970s International Style building.
The ADAM has two temporary exhibition spaces in addition to the gallery housing its permanent collection. The re-design and exhibition design was conceived and directed by Brussels-based architectural practice Lhoas & Lhoas and assisted by 20th-century design specialist Thierry Belenger, and historian and design theoretician Alexandra Midal. French architect Jean Nouvel designed the playful red and yellow main façade, that was inspired by the existing staircase and scaffolding of the Trade Mart.
The 500-piece permanent exhibition, named the Plasticarium by Decelle, is a kaleidoscope of vacuums, Tupperware, typewriters, radios, blow-up chairs, lamps, desks, and even old Apple desktops: a sea of polychromatic polymers. They cast a nostalgic sheen through the industrial and open permanent exhibition space, inviting guests to view the smooth mass-produced items of a bygone era without distraction. The otherworldly shapes are the hallmarks of international designers and visual artists such as César Arman, Joe Colombo, Verner Panton, and Evelyne Axell.
“There’s a sense of nostalgia, of having seen these pieces in your grandma’s house,” says Atomium exhibitions manager Arnaud Bozzini. “It’s powerful because there are so many ideas from designers in the past. You can see the influence up to now and learn something about contemporary society. We bought the collection with the intention to protect it for the future, to put it in the right conditions for conservation.”
Among the collection is Ettore Sottsass's Valentine typewriter, with its cherry red portable container. Enzo Mari’s 1969 Bambu vases add a tinge of beige to the otherwise candy-coloured assortment, with their angular and truncated silhouettes. And Verner Panton’s 1967 Cantilever chair offers its smooth S shape to the exhibition and shows the reconceptualisation of the conventional four-legged chair.
Decelle’s personal favourite is Ron Arad’s Driade MT3 rocking chair, a sculptural take on a rocking chair with an ivory exterior contrasting an orange rounded interior. Each piece offers a unique personality, yet the exhibition is remarkably unified despite its diversities of shape and function. These pieces signified the start of a new era— light-hearted, unrestrained, and non-traditional. They are, however, imbued with an underlying tinge of realisation.
“With mass production of plastic you can make everything and you can produce for everyone, for all classes,” says Bozzini. “But it came with questions of sustainability and ecological issues. People realised it wasn’t such a quick fix. But this was a utopian ideal that existed after the war. Now we know it was a little bit naive.”
Although sad to part with the collection that took him a quarter of a century to amass, Decelle hopes that the collection will serve as a reminder of a distinctive era of history and design.
“I think, after all, there’s pleasure in sharing the collection with people,” he says. “That’s what makes a museum collection interesting, that it belongs to the people in general, but also that it will be the testimony and a reminder of a certain moment in our civilisation.”