In its best-known form, the work provides the narration to a 1958 film of the same name by Alain Resnais, which was commissioned by the Pechiney industrial group to extol the miracle of polystyrene.
Le chant du Styrène, for which Queneau’s poem was commissioned, is a seductive and surreal – at times faintly ominous – picture of polystyrene, celebrating its miraculous ability to give shape to modern needs. It explores the material’s production from petroleum, and, in turn, petroleum’s extraction from decayed fish and plankton. The film captures the thrilling promise of postwar synthetic materials – the post-privation romance with things, which was accompanied by a fresh cultural energy. Presciently, it touches on industrial exploitation of the natural world, hinting at the siren song of industrial progress.
For me, this French artefact also speaks of a remarkable pivotal moment that occurred in Italy a few years later. In 1966, Piero Busnelli founded C&B Italia (later B&B Italia), revolutionising furniture production with injection-moulded polyurethane foam technology – a production method that ultimately changed how people live with furniture, introducing a fresh freedom and informality to the domestic landscape.
In the history of furniture production, there have been a few critical turning points in material applications and manufacturing. Steam-bent wood was introduced in the 1840s, giving rise to the ubiquitous Thonet café chair; bent tubular steel in the 1920s defined the industrial aesthetic of the Bauhaus designers; moulded plywood in the 1940s translated the wartime method of producing leg splints into strong, light furniture via the Eameses; and the enormous advances in plastic, polyurethane and other mouldable materials in the 1950s and 1960s made it possible to produce dynamic forms inexpensively, consistently and in unprecedented quantities.
Each of these material advances aligned with dramatic cultural change, not least the mid-century advances in mouldable materials. By the mid-1960s, the world was in the midst of a social and cultural revolution that played out through music, fashion and art. Alongside these were film and television, powerful mediums that captured all and helped propel anti-establishment values around the world. The new mouldable materials being developed were perfectly in tune with the energy of the times. As youth culture shrugged off hierarchy and conformity, embracing freedom and possibility, the new materials permitted a complementary fluidity of form-making. Curves appeared that could not have been created with traditional furniture-making techniques; superb comfort could be achieved with futuristically thin cushions; large, light, seemingly unstructured volumes became a reality. These new mouldable materials were at the centre of the intersection of material science, industrial innovation, and creativity and imagination.
It was during this moment of cultural flux that Piero Busnelli, a furniture manufacturer from Brianza, Italy, happened to see a moulded rubber duck pop out of an injection moulding machine at a trade fair in London. This duck was a demonstration of polyurethane-foam technology and Busnelli immediately saw the potential for furniture manufacturing: foam could be injected into a mould to form a cushion around a metal frame. It was a technology that could create unprecedented forms with extraordinary efficiency at a high quality.
Busnelli recognised the aptitude of the new technology for the dynamic cultural moment he found himself in and worked from the beginning with visionary design collaborators, of whom Gaetano Pesce and Mario Bellini were two of the most important. Pesce’s Up series of armchairs, to which a ball-shaped ottoman was a fixed by a chord, was billed as a proudly feminist statement about the oppression of women (albeit filtered through a 1960s, male perspective). It gained in stature and poignancy through its delivery method: arriving vacuum-packed, Up expanded as it was removed from its packaging, seemingly in assertion of itself. Meanwhile, Bellini’s Le Bambole seating featured no visible armature – only cushions – and served as a manifesto for an unstructured, informal, sexy, free way of living. In the controversial accompanying publicity photos, Donna Jordan – a Factory model, direct from a downtown loft – was draped, topless, across the product. These were furniture pieces that revolutionised the industry and the domestic landscape, even as Andy Warhol’s pop art was up-ending the art world.
When I began my design career in the early 1990s, B&B seemed to me to stand at the apex. It was a meeting point of design, technology and culture. B&B’s products were always cultural – propositions about how people live – but they also harnessed and reflected the company’s proprietary production technology. I was immediately drawn to discover the full capacity of B&B’s polyurethane-foam moulding, similar to a curious kid in a marvellous candy store. My first project for the brand, the Tulip chair, was based on creating wonderful, voluptuous, pure curves; the second, the Landscape chaise, was about making an extraordinary compound curve as thin as possible without losing comfort. Central to both was a tactile response to the material – its fluidity, resilience and even its inherent modernity.
There is no question that production technology at once gives expression to and forms our desires. Perhaps this is the siren song to which the title of Queneau’s poem refers? As we push technology forward, our needs and aspirations change. With this in mind, how will designers respond to the latest industrial revolution, 3D printing, which allows for the production of impossible forms with an unprecedented degree of customisation? Queneau described polystyrene’s special expressive capacity and aptness for its historical moment, and looking into the future we can only guess at the technologies to come. Design is a language for solving human problems in a functional, industrial way, with tremendous creative freedom. It is a way of giving meaning to technical capacity. The greatest challenge for the designer is as follows – with these incredible technical and expressive means at your disposal, what are you going to say? How will you respond to this seductive call of possibility?
Le chant du Styrène
Original French by Raymond Queneau (1958)
Ô temps, suspends ton bol, ô matière plastique
D’où viens-tu ? Qui es-tu ? et qu’est-ce qui
Tes rares qualités ? De quoi donc es-tu fait ?
D’où donc es-tu parti ? Remontons de l’objet
À ses aïeux lointains ! Qu’à l’envers se déroule
Son histoire exemplaire. En premier lieu, le moule.
Incluant la matrice, être mystérieux,
Il engendre le bol ou bien tout ce qu’on veut.
Mais le moule est lui-même inclus dans une presse
Qui injecte la pâte et conforme la pièce,
Ce qui présente donc le très grand avantage
D’avoir l’objet ni sans autre façonnage.
Le moule coûte cher ; c’est un inconvénient.
On le loue il est vrai, même à ses concurrents.
Le formage sous vide est une autre façon
D’obtenir des objets : par simple aspiration.
À l’étape antérieure, soigneusement rangé,
Le matériau tiédi est en plaque extrudé.
Pour entrer dans la buse il fallait un piston
Et le manchon chauffant – ou le chauffant manchon –
Auquel on fournissait... Quoi ? Le polystyrène
Vivace et turbulent qui se hâte et s’égrène.
Et l’essaim granulé sur le tamis vibrant
Fourmillait tout heureux d’un si beau colorant.
Avant d’être granule on avait été jonc,
Joncs de toutes couleurs, teintes, nuances, tons.
Ces joncs avaient été, suivant une lière,
Un boudin que sans n une vis agglomère.
Et ce qui donnait lieu à l’agglutination?
Des perles colorées de toutes les façons.
Et colorées comment ? Là devint homogène
Le pigment qu’on mélange à du polystyrène.
Mais avant il fallut que le produit séchât
Et, rotativement, le produit trébucha.
À peine était-il né, notre polystyrène.
Polymère produit du plus simple styrène.
Polymérisation : ce mot, chacun le sait,
Désigne l’obtention d’un complexe élevé
De poids moléculaire. Et dans un réacteur,
Machine élémentaire œuvre d’un ingénieur,
Les molécules donc s’accrochant et se liant
En perles se formaient. Oui – mais auparavant ?
Le styrène n’était qu’un liquide incolore
Quelque peu explosif, et non pas inodore.
Et regardez-le bien ; c’est la seule occasion
Pour vous d’apercevoir ce qui est en question.
Le styrène est produit en grande quantité
À partir de l’éthyl-benzène surchauffé.
Le styrène autrefois s’extrayait du benjoin,
Provenant du styrax, arbuste indonésien.
De tuyau en tuyau ainsi nous remontons,
À travers le désert des canalisations,
Vers les produits premiers, vers la matière abstraite
Qui circulait sans n, effective et secrète.
On lave et on distille et puis on redistille
Et ce ne sont pas là exercices de style :
L’éthylbenzène peut – et doit même éclater
Si la température atteint certain degré.
Quant à l’éthylbenzène, il provient, c’est limpide,
De la combinaison du benzène liquide
Avecque l’éthylène, une simple vapeur.
Éthylène et benzène ont pour générateurs
Soit charbon, soit pétrole, ou pétrole ou charbon.
Pour faire l’autre et l’un l’un et l’autre sont bons.
On pourrait repartir sur ces nouvelles pistes
Et rechercher pourquoi et l’autre et l’un existent.
Le pétrole vient-il de masses de poissons ?
On ne le sait pas trop ni d’où vient le charbon.
Le pétrole vient-il du plancton en gésine ?
Question controversée... obscures origines…
Et pétrole et charbon s’en allaient en fumée
Quand le chimiste vint qui eut l’heureuse idée
De rendre ces nuées solides et d’en faire
D’innombrables objets au but utilitaire.
En matériaux nouveaux ces obscurs résidus
Sont ainsi transformés. Il en est d’inconnus
Qui attendent encor la mutation chimique
Pour mériter en n la vente à prix unique.
English translation by Madeleine Velguth
Oh, time, suspend your bowl, oh plastic substance
Whence are you? Who are you? And what accounts
For your rare qualities? Of what might you consist?
From what have you come? The object, as it now exists,
Has remote ancestors! Let us in reverse unfold
Its exemplary history. To begin with, the mold.
Including the nest, mysterious entity,
It engenders the bowl or whatever else may be.
But the mold is itself enclosed in a press
That injects the paste and forms the piece,
And thus most advantageously extrudes
The finished object, ready to be used.
The mold is expensive; this could be a prohibition.
But then it can be rented out, even to the competition.
Vacuum forming is another way of
Obtaining objects: simple aspiration pays off.
The warmed material, carefully gauged,
Is extruded in sheets at the previous stage.
To go into the injector a piston was needed, so
Too the isomantle – or the mantleiso –
Into which was fed... What? Polystyrene,
Hardy and boisterous, rushing, not serene.
Vibrating on the sieve, the granulated swarm
Bustled happily in colors so warm.
Before being a granule it was an extruded string,
Strings of all tints, shades, tones, coloring.
These strings had been, following a procedure,
A sausage to which a plasticating screw applied pressure.
And what occasioned the agglutination?
Pearls colored to suit every imagination.
And how was it colored? Why, the pigment mixed
With polystyrene became homogeneously fixed.
But before that the product to dry was tumbled
And so, rotatingly, the product stumbled.
It was scarcely born, our polystyrene.
A polymer produced by the simplest styrene.
Polymerization: this word, as we all know,
Designates obtaining a complex product, and so
Of higher molecular weight. And in a reactor,
An elementary machine, work of an engineer,
The molecules into pearls, clinging, formed
And linked to each other. Yes – but before?
The styrene was only a liquid, colorless,
Somewhat explosive and not odorless.
Do take a good look: it’s the only occasion
You’ll have to see what is in question.
Styrene is produced in great quantities
From superheated ethyl-benzenes.
Formerly styrene was extracted from benzoin,
CaProduct of the styrax, in Indonesia grown.
And so from pipe to pipe we are going back,
Through the desert of canalizations’ track,
Toward the raw materials, toward matter abstract
Circulating without end, effective and secret.
It is washed and distilled and then redistilled
And these are not mere stylistic exercises skilled:
Ethylbenzene can – and even should blow up
If its temperature rises high enough up.
As for ethylbenzene, it comes, I have seen,
From the combination of liquid benzene
With ethylene, a simple vapor.
Ethylene and benzene have as generator
Either coal, or oil, or oil or coal.
To make them both, they both can have a role.
We could set off down this new avenue
To try to get of both of their origins a view.
Does oil come from masses and masses of fish?
It’s not really known, and coal’s origin’s a wish.
Does oil come from plankton in labor?
A much debated question... growing ever grayer…
And oil and coal went up in smoke
When along came the chemist who, with luck’s stroke
Turned these clouds solid and made of them
Innumerable objects utilitarian.
Into new materials these obscure residues
Are thus transformed. And unknown brews
Are still awaiting chemical mutation
So they can merit commercial exploitation.