London Design Festival 2018: Plastic


21 September 2018

Polyethelene, polypropelene, polystyrene. Acrylic, acetal and, ahem, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. Latex. Vinyl. Plasma rock. Plastics are over-abundant and ubiquitous, causing irreversible damage to the world's ecosystems. With production having increased twentyfold since 1964, they are is set to overtake the volume of fish in oceans by 2050 unless drastic measures are taken to reduce global production and consumption.

Earlier this year, then, when the London Design Fair announced that its second instalment of the Material of the Year display would be devoted to plastic (the first was dedicated to jesmonite), Disegno couldn't help but think, "of the year?" Plastic, it seems to this editorial team, has been the Material of the Half-Century.

Designers and the design industry have, of course, played changing roles in the fates of plastics over the past 50 years. There was a time when the future looked like a Panton chair, or indeed a polyester plastic Futuro House. Today, designers and certain manufacturers are beginning to approach plastic as the problem it is. Or more precisely, as the design problem it is. But there is a certain circularity at play here. In the words of Caroline Till, co-founder of research agency Franklin Till: "We designed our way into it and we have to design our way out of it."

Franklin Till, which Disegno profiled in this year's spring issue, has had a rotating display in Brompton entitled Guilt-Free? this past week. The programme centres around sustainability, and has included, among other things, a display of ethical products ranging from Petit Pli to Thinx pants, and a bioplastics-making workshops with representatives of the open-source materials database Materio. A similar initiative can be found next door, at the exhibition Feel Free to Consume, where Crafting Plastics! Studio are letting visitors craft objects with Nuatan, a new, biodegradable plastic.

PlasticScene at the Gasholders in Kings Cross presents a slightly different take on plastic design, with a display of limited-edition pieces by designers such as Dirk Vander Kooij, Silo Studio, and James Shaw, which all make use of waste plastics. Especially interesting here is the 'Plastic Archive', sourced from the collection of "plastician" and vanguard plastic recycler Colin Williamson, and a 'Plastic Library,' in which visitors can acquaint themselves with the texture and look of different types of plastics, and learn to tell their methyl methacrylate from their polytetraflouroethylene.

There is, however, a nagging paradox at work in these sorts of projects and displays, and it is intimated by the suggestion of "guilt-free" consumption and the encouragement to "feel free to consume" – although it should be said that Franklin Till's programme ultimately problematises the idea of "guilt-free". On the whole, the design industry revolves around producing more stuff, endlessly and constantly – even if the new stuff is made of a slightly more sustainable material, or through a slightly more sustainable process. Although the exhibits aiming to tackle the problem of plastics are all well-intentioned and often well-executed, the most lasting impression that the visitor is left with is never an imperative to consume less, but instead, to consume more – just of a different thing.