Plastic: It's all around us — from our sneakers to household products, even to the food we eat.
Although the news about plastic these days tends to be dire — 91% of plastic is not recycled and 50% of plastic produced is for single-use purposes — the exhibition "Plastic Rapt: A History of Designing Forever" at the University of Minnesota's Goldstein Museum of Design takes a holistic approach.
Using objects from the museum's permanent collection, the exhibition discusses plastic's harmful effects and at the same time gives a bigger picture of how plastic came to be. Among the objects exhibited are '70s-style clothing, old Mac computers, combs and objects made with celluloid.
"We don't always have collections-based exhibitions, but I thought it would be fun to look at plastics — it's something we all love to malign," said interim director Jean McElvain. "We wanted to present both why it's bad but also why people love it so much in product design and how reliant product companies are for kind of whimsical, high-color pieces."
Of the seven main types of plastic that exist today, the show focuses on four. The most widely used is polyethylene (PE), which comes in high density (used in milk jugs and outdoor furniture) and low density, found in plastic bags. Polypropylene (PP) is used mostly in textiles, furniture and food packaging. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a rigid and flexible plastic used in pipes, credit cards and vinyl records. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), known as polyester, is used in fibers and soft drink bottles.
The random objects at the show that come in many colors, shapes and sizes, including chairs, an old rotary phone and wall clocks, all have heavy plastic components. Napkin rings shaped as an orange elephant, red bird or brown bear are as fake as they come and made of Bakelite, the world's first synthetic plastic created after celluloid. An off-white hair comb with long spikes looks like it's made of ivory, and another appears like tortoise shell. In reality, they're both made of celluloid.
"Initially, plastic was seen almost as a way to be conservationist because instead of killing a turtle [for its shell] or an elephant for its tusk, you'd make the object out of plastic," said McElvain. "It's a reversal of how we view it today."
Those interested in the history of fashion will also find "Plastic Rapt" appealing. There's a ruffly red blouse made by synthetic-fabric-loving Japanese designer Issey Miyake. Several mannequins wear '70s-style leisure suits and look like they walked off the "Mad Men" set. A pair of women's rain boots, called "drizzle boots," are made of beige see-through plastic (most likely polyethylene) and even have a space for the heel. Two iconic monogram Louis Vuitton bags may look like leather, but are actually made of polyvinyl chloride.
Plastic also is used to mimic other materials such as silk, suede, fur and wool. Its versatility comes through in a teal blue dress shirt made with Ultrasuede, which was popularized by fashion designer Halston.
We also learn that the first plastic, celluloid, had nothing to do with bottles or bags and everything to do with billiards. By the 1860s, the game was becoming more popular but there was a shortage of ivory, used in making the billiard balls. So when a New York firm offered $10,000 to anyone who could come up with an alternate for ivory, John Wesley Hyatt came through in 1868 by discovering the process for making celluloid.
The show points out that while plastic has historically offered useful alternatives, it's not meant to last. A photograph of eroding blue plastic chairs at an outdoor sports stadium speaks to the material's paradox. Similarly, a pair of cream-colored fiberglass-reinforced polyester go-go boots from the 1960s now look like a pile of chipped paint.
"One of the interesting things about plastic is that even though it never goes away, it doesn't last," said McElvain. "There's that irony of it — you're kind of sitting in this quandary where a lot of it feels unrepairable but it won't go away forever."
Plastic Rapt: A History of Designing Forever
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Fri.; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat. Ends Sept. 25.
Where: Goldstein Museum of Design, 12 McNeal Hall, 1985 Buford Av., St. Paul.
Info: Free, design.umn.edu or 612-624-7434.