TIM BECHTHOLD is head of conservation at Die Neue Sammlung, The International Design Museum Munich, and previously worked at the Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany. He organizes the Future Talks conference series, which focuses on technology and conservation of modern materials in design.
THEA VAN OOSTEN is a former senior conservation scientist with the Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE) in the Netherlands. She led the RCE's effort in POPART, an international collaborative research project that addressed the preservation of plastic artifacts in museums.
ROGER GRIFFITH is an objects conservator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and has also worked in furniture conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is developing a conservation strategy for MoMA's collection of design objects.
They spoke with TOM LEARNER, head of Science at the Getty Conservation Institute, and JEFFREY LEVIN, editor of Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter.
JEFFREY LEVIN Is there something distinguishing about plastics as a material for creating objects that causes you to treat it differently in terms of conservation?
ROGER GRIFFITH Plastic by definition means "flexible" or "malleable," which perhaps sets it apart from some other materials. I think that's why designers use this material—because it has possibilities that other materials don't have. But from a conservation point of view, I don't know that this sets it apart from other materials.
TIM BECHTHOLD Plastics are not just one material. There are so many different plastics, so you can choose what you like as your medium. Flexibility is one possibility with this material, but you might also like a shiny surface or something very strong. If you had asked the question, "What are the characteristics of metal?" it would be difficult to answer because you have different kinds of metal. It's the same with plastics. I would prefer to talk about characteristics of the materials.
THEA VAN OOSTEN Plastics are so widespread and have developed so much from their beginnings one hundred fifty years ago. Life would not be possible anymore without plastics, because plastics are everywhere —in design, in households, in the medical industry. Modern and contemporary art and design are part of that, because of the possibilities of the material. When plastics were first invented, they said it was the material with a thousand uses. Now it's the material with a million uses. You have it in every form—big, small, nanoparticles, chips in your computer. When you speak to people from the industry, they say "plastic" doesn't exist, because most of the time they take plastic material and add some reinforcement directly, such as glass fiber reinforced polyester. We in museums have to make better definitions because there are so many plastics. If you call them thermoplastic, people understand that they're flexible. If you say thermosetting plastic, you are talking about a rigid material.
GRIFFITH Certain types of objects, like chairs, were made of composite materials in the past, but ultimately designers were able to produce an object out of one material—for example, polyurethane foam in the 1960s. Of course, that has its own problems because polyurethanes are one of the more problematic polymers. They degrade more quickly than some others. It's interesting to view this from a historical standpoint and see the changes. Today we're looking at carbon-infused plastics and rapid prototyping—again, it's one material for one object.
LEVIN The irony here is that we want to preserve in collections many everyday items that were created out of plastic and that were never intended to last hundreds of years. Isn't that a major challenge?
BECHTHOLD It definitely is a challenge for a museum collection, because we have to think in longer time periods. Industry does not necessarily look for the best material and the maximum life span.
GRIFFITH In the past, things did last longer, but now we're seeing change in a shorter amount of time. They are organic materials, so they're going to change, and people have to understand that. To last three or four hundred years? I don't know if that's even possible.
VAN OOSTEN If you look at how museums exhibited materials seventy-five years ago, it's so different from now. Today, on your computer, you can look at the texture of a Rembrandt and see how it was made. So there will be a change in what you show and how you show it. We still have this vision of museums keeping everything. Maybe there will be another way of showing what was in the past and that doesn't exist anymore.
BECHTHOLD There is already a switch to more virtual documentation of objects we know won't last a long time. Some objects pose real problems, and so you think, "At least let's document it technologically."
tom learner From your experience, do the conservation issues connected to this group of materials enter into the thinking of the contemporary artists and designers using them?
GRIFFITH Artists like Matthew Barney, Robert Gober, and others employ conservators to help them choose materials. They've had enough time as artists to know that certain materials won't last. For artists whose work is in museum collections, they want that work to last as long as it can. When artists are younger and don't have the financial wherewithal, they can't choose certain materials or employ a conservator. As for designers, some of them with a certain level of success—Patrick Jouin comes to mind—will communicate with the manufacturing companies to choose specific materials that will last.
BECHTHOLD At the moment, it is still a one-way street. As conservators, we collect as much information as possible about an object we're working on. In this context, it is quite important to consider interviewing the designers. But there is more to this. The production of design is always a combination of creative persons, engineers, the industry, and producers—so there are different points of view to consider. Nevertheless, we are not going to ask the designer which conservation treatment we should practice on their objects.
GRIFFITH With some designers, the ephemeral quality of these materials is part of the work. In contemporary art, you have artists like Eva Hesse, who understood the ephemeral aspect of the material and chose it because of that—or at least they accepted that.
VAN OOSTEN I have this example of a Hella Jongerius–designed vase. The manufacturing company advised on the material for the vase, and they used polyurethane elastomer rubber. The vase went into production in different colors and it came out beautifully. Ten to fifteen years later, the first vases came into the laboratory with tears, and we tried to conserve them. Last year we looked in the box where we put them and they were totally gone. The material was not appropriate for the design, and no one at the manufacturer or the designer realized that at that time. The properties of the material were too unknown for them to understand that the material was too heavy for the vase. Over time, the vase could not withstand the weight, and it collapsed.
GRIFFITH People didn't know that some plastics, such as the early polyurethanes, would degrade so quickly. Only time tells us that. Nearly twenty years ago we had an exhibition called Mutant Materials, and the idea was to display new plastic materials being used by designers. Just last week we went through storage where some of these things that were not acquired for the collection were stored, and when we opened their boxes we found that they'd turned to dust.
LEVIN Is there a sufficient body of knowledge that can guide artists and designers in the choice of materials—or is there still too much that's unknown?
GRIFFITH I think you can take the different polymers and categorize them. It's kind of true that there are "good guys" and "bad guys." Acrylics, PMMA, polyester—these are ones we know are quite stable because enough time has passed. Polyurethane, PVC, cellulose nitrate—some of these we know have problems more quickly.
VAN OOSTEN Designers and artists are educated. They go to academy and are educated in the materials—but once they're out, they don't know the new materials. So it's a matter of learning and doing.
BECHTHOLD It's also a question of how much money will be spent on product development. If we are talking about large-scale furniture production, then a lot of money is spent on material and technology, and the expertise of engineers and technicians is considered. This results in products that last longer because they were developed very well. But for sure, cheap objects made with low-cost material will certainly last a shorter time.
GRIFFITH In the military and the medical industry, they do a great amount of research to make things last. There's a lot of money poured into those industries, and artists sometimes reach into those areas. Matthew Barney is an artist who uses different types of polymers that come out of the medical industry because he knows they'll last, and their materiality dovetails into his artist practice, which references plastics found in the prosthetic industry.
BECHTHOLD It is worth mentioning in the context of design production that when it comes to models, prototypes, and studio pieces, we confront a range of multiple, often unstable, materials. From a conservator's point of view, these are the most challenging objects. Furthermore, these material choices often represent cutting-edge technology at the time they were designed. Unfortunately, with these kinds of objects we have to accept that they won't last forever.
LEARNER There are certainly some advantages when conservators advise designers and artists on what materials to use or not. But isn't it also interesting when designers push the limits of materials in ways that were not intended? Even if something only lasts a few years, it might inspire other designers, who go on to do new things.
GRIFFITH You're interfering with the design process if you say to them, "No, you can't use that material." That's true in the art world, as well. That's why artists and designers are the same. They're choosing the materials for a specific reason. If it's because it's cheap, that's one reason. If it's because it looks good, that's another reason.
LEARNER There is often considerable pressure within the art profession that many modern and contemporary works of art should forever remain as pristine as the artist first intended— which, of course, is impossible. But does this intolerance to signs of age relate to design collections?
BECHTHOLD In our collection, we usually try to keep traces of use. But what if the damage or modifications are so grave that the designer's intentions are no longer readable? For example, we have a Le Corbusier kitchen that for many years had been extensively used, and which was over painted many times, resulting in a change of the original color concept. The edges became worn off, and some original elements were modified. In this case, we decided to go back to the original version through thinning and removing later paint layers. Via reconstructions, both on colored surfaces as well as on structural elements, we are now able to educate the visitor about Le Corbusier's original color concept and the innovative design, related to other kitchens of that time.
GRIFFITH Sometimes it's about educating the curator regarding the signs of use. Because you have to accept this—that use of the object. There are pieces in our collection we got directly from the manufacturer, but they, too, show signs of use just from the fact that we're moving them from exhibition to exhibition. With most artifacts in museum collections—and in particular those that have been used—you also have to educate the public that these are of a certain age. It's hard, because some things are still in production. The public can buy that Marcel Breuer chair that was actually designed in the Bauhaus period. But the one in the museum collection is from the 1920s, and many people expect it to look new because they saw it in the shop around the corner.
BECHTHOLD The challenge is finding the right balance. As long as traces of use don't interfere with the original design, it is fine. The funny thing is that sometimes signs of use, like a later addition of a knob on a drawer, illustrate functional aspects that didn't work in the original design.
GRIFFITH Sometimes curators are considering acquiring an object, and they'll send us to look at it, knowing full well that it "needs to be gussied up" to look a little better. The fact is that many design objects are in multiples. They're not singular art pieces produced by a fine artist. So I might say, "Let's see if there's another one out there that's better." And curators like that—I think they almost want to hear you say that.
VAN OOSTEN If you can find a better one, that's good. But that makes me think of the early computers—the first Apple Mac, for instance. They were white but they've aged now, and started to yellow. You cannot do anything about it. You have to accept that at a certain point they will have the patina of old plastic and that you won't find one that is pristine.
LEARNER In terms of the changes in appearance that can affect plastic design objects—do you consider aging differently than damage? For example, you can still be struck by the design of a plastic object, even if it has turned from white to yellow. In fact, that change may even add to its authenticity.
THEA VAN OOSTEN
VAN OOSTEN If it's yellowing but doesn't break if you touch it, then it's aging gracefully. But sometimes objects are degraded, and you have these crumbs on them—then they're not aging nicely. If something tears apart, that's not nicely aged, and you have to repair it. Sometimes that's possible, sometimes not. If it doesn't break or fall apart when you touch it, it has aged well. But if it fades and you see different colors in it, then it's discoloration, and that's not nicely degraded.
BECHTHOLD For a design collection, yellowing can be a problem. Imagine, for example, a corporate identity of a company that was labeled in blue—and with yellowing it now has turned green. Things like that can lead to a grave change in perception.
VAN OOSTEN We have to learn the patina of the plastic. If they're from the 1940s, they'll look like this in the 1980s, and like this in 2014. Sometimes they'll age nicely with a patina. Others don't have a patina and they're degrading. So there is a difference. You have to learn it—and accept it.
BECHTHOLD In some cases, this is challenging. For example, some 1960s objects with these wet-look surfaces were really glossy. Nowadays they don't have the glossy surface anymore. But generally we don't reconstruct this glossy appearance. Here it may be helpful to support the object with a visualization of its original characteristics.
LEARNER For objects that once were functional—like a radio or a watch—and then, as part of a collection, become more like artworks that can't be touched or experienced, do you look for ways that visitors can have a more tactile experience of the object?
BECHTHOLD In the entrance area of our permanent exhibition space, we had sofas from Zaha Hadid where visitors could sit. Now we have Ron Arad chairs. In my opinion, it's nice to give visitors an immediate experience of good design. On the other hand, this can be difficult because visitors don't distinguish between what is an exhibit and what is a temporary furnishing— especially if it's an open exhibition space without barriers. Related to function, museum conservators have a big advantage: the chairs we conserve are no longer intended for use. That's why we don't have to care so much for the structural stability. The same for a radio that doesn't work. Instead of function, we focus on the conservation of form, color, and material.
VAN OOSTEN When new things come into museums, I don't fear so much for them, even if you touch them or use them. Museum life is okay for an object. But if you acquire an object and you don't know its exact history and the potential problems it has inside, then you have to take care.
GRIFFITH It's true that you may have no idea where an object's been over its existence. Maybe it lived in someone's house and was by a window where it was blasted by light. There's this chance it has been abused or misused and then you're taking that on, whereas if it comes directly from the manufacturer and goes right into a good environment, it has a better chance.
LEVIN So it's not always immediately apparent what difficulties an object may have encountered before it comes to you?
GRIFFITH Sometimes it's apparent. Let's say it's a polyester or polyurethane chair that was blue but you realize that the color has changed slightly over time. It's faded or it's yellowed—those are some physical signs of use. That's what you have and there's not much you can do about that. We look for objects that are still in their box or have sat on someone's shelf or in a closet—but they're rare.
LEARNER Tim, could you talk a bit about the Future Talks symposia, and why you started them?
BECHTHOLD I was a bit dissatisfied with conferences mainly discussing ethical questions of conserving modern materials. I intended to create a conference that focused more on practical issues, with inspiring topics and a friendly atmosphere. Launching the conference in 2009 was the result of numerous exciting projects we'd engineered years before and that were related to the degradation of polymers. Last October, we had our third conference with more than two hundred bookings from twenty-one countries, and we did workshops for the first time. There were designers and engineers, as well as conservation scientists. Moreover, a broad number of colleagues from the fine arts section are following the Future Talks. The material doesn't know whether it's an art object or a design object.
VAN OOSTEN We regard them as different but they're not.
GRIFFITH It was a breath of fresh air to have an international conference with people from around the world exchanging ideas. There are conferences all the time, but not one specifically focused on design. At the first conference, people talked more about the problems and less about the doing. People were afraid, because some of the problems are a bit frightening to conservators. But now you're seeing more talks where people get up and say, "This is what I tried, this is what I did, this is how I think we should do it—or at least I've done this." I think that's great.
VAN OOSTEN That's why it would be nice to have a conference ten or twenty years after the first restorations and see how these plastics survived the treatments—because you cannot always do a test to see if your treatment will work well over twenty years.
LEVIN On this issue of treatment, Roger, I've heard you talk about a shift from reversibility toward "retreatability." Could you explain what you mean by that?
GRIFFITH Reversibility was a major tenet in university programs teaching conservation. But in the modern and contemporary context, that's not always possible. That's why I think it's shifted to this idea of retreatability. A perfect example is consolidation. If you're going to consolidate something that's porous and you put a consolidant into it, there's really no way to "reverse" that. There are times when the only way to make an object exhibitable is to intervene in such a way that in the future someone can treat it again. Maybe they have to treat on top of what you've done, but we just have to accept that.
BECHTHOLD If you have a brittle foam, sometimes it's the last chance to consolidate it. Otherwise it crumbles and is lost.
GRIFFITH What about the idea of replacement parts? A perfect example is the fillings of furniture. Once those foams have failed, the object no longer represents what the designer wanted. Now that's an important part of the object, but many would say, "You can throw that away and replace it." Others might think, "Why would you do that—that's part of the original object." We had this Bell helmet, where we really had no option other than to make a new face guard out of a similar plastic because one polymer had degraded and stained another one. Now the object can be viewed as it was originally intended. I don't have a problem with that, as long as we document it and keep the original as a document to study in the future.
VAN OOSTEN This is a change. About twenty years ago, at the beginning of plastics conservation, they didn't dare do this replacement, because of a lack of knowledge of plastics.
BECHTHOLD I would say it's still a bit like this in Europe: reconstruction equals ultima ratio.
GRIFFITH There's been a sort of backlash on this. With historic upholstery, there was this idea that you replaced it completely— replacing horsehair, say, with polyester foam and not putting the tacks back in the holes from where you've taken them. But then the object isn't under the same kind of tension, so it doesn't read the same. Now they're going back to using more traditional-style upholstery materials because they're realizing that the profile doesn't look correct.
BECHTHOLD We try to keep the object together as a whole as long as possible. But if a brittle foam leads to a disintegration of form, we obviously have to consider treatments like replacement.
GRIFFITH It's a case-by-case discussion, and it's collaborative. We don't make the decisions alone. The collaboration involves the curator and many others within the institution.
LEARNER Looking to the future—3-D printing, for example. Do you think the profession will move more toward collecting digital files from which a given design object could simply be printed when it's needed for display or loan? Or will established conservation protocols for an "original" object still apply?
GRIFFITH I think we'll be keeping both the file and the object.
BECHTHOLD Which could be quite difficult because of copyright issues. Even if you get the files, you'll need a person who knows how to deal with them. Technology is changing so fast. Even if you can migrate the data and want to "reprint" the chair in ten years, I'm sure it will have a different surface structure because of changing printing technology. These are things to keep in mind if we're thinking about conserving data.
GRIFFITH This makes me think of artists' interviews and talking to the designers to ensure that if we do that in ten years' time, it will be acceptable. Is that new printed object the same as the original?
LEVIN It raises the question of what you're trying to preserve— the design or the physical object? What if the original object is made of a plastic material that turns out to be inappropriate, and you can re-create it with a more stable plastic?
VAN OOSTEN As you were saying this, I thought of the Panton chairs. They were remade with new materials, and then there was a new Panton chair. That's a little bit the same as what you're describing. And when you have your chair, you don't even need a digital file. You scan the chair yourself and make another one.
LEARNER What is the best way to train as a conservator of design objects? Presumably conservators are mainly coming out of traditional objects conservation training programs—but could that be improved?
BECHTHOLD What we need to have, beneath the traditional objects conservation training, is a professional offering of relevant workshops and courses on polymer chemistry, plastics technology, and conservation. At the Neue Sammlung we have two full-time furniture conservators, which is quite helpful because as a furniture conservator you deal with many different materials. But to conserve design objects means that one never stops learning about technologies and materials. What we do not have in Germany is the specialty of "objects conservator."
GRIFFITH Being an objects conservator in general means you are around all types of materials, so you can be an objects conservator but with a specialization. I trained as a furniture conservator like you, Tim, and then crossed over. When I got the job at MoMA, I was originally hired to serve the architecture and design department. We are only two objects conservators, so I have to deal with both the fine-arts sculpture and the design, which I'm happy doing. I get to see both sides of the coin.
BECHTHOLD I think it is helpful to be a furniture conservator— you're used to working on three-dimensional objects.
GRIFFITH If you just study objects conservation, at least in the United States, you may not even touch a design object or a furniture piece. You might work on fine-arts sculpture in bronze, marble, wood, or plastic. But unless you specifically focused on design, you probably wouldn't be handed that. Whereas as furniture conservators, you understand the idea of use better than somebody from an objects context.
VAN OOSTEN Most of the conservators I know around the world who ended up in plastics were furniture conservators.
BECHTHOLD If you're a furniture conservator and you're interested in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, you somehow end up in plastics.
VAN OOSTEN I teach workshops in plastics around the world, so one might conclude there is still a need for training in plastics. There is obviously a lack of training in plastics in programs of the various conservation disciplines. However, in the Netherlands we have education in modern and contemporary art, and a big part of it is plastics conservation. We had a discussion a while ago at the Textile Conservation Centre in Glasgow, where they were thinking about setting up a plastics conservation specialty. A lot of people were involved in a roundtable discussion, and the first topic discussed was, "If we are going to teach plastics conservation, what is it we are going to teach?" We have to consider if there is a need for a specialty in plastics conservation. Conservators should be trained in plastics in general, and then in more specific plastics with respect to the various conservation disciplines. Moreover, this topic is still under discussion.
GRIFFITH With the American programs, you can only study furniture conservation at Winterthur at the University of Delaware. They do a unit on plastics conservation, but there's nothing in the collection for students to get experience with. At the Royal College of Art where I studied, we were tied to the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has a broad collection of modern and contemporary design objects. It was a wonderful joint program with three institutions—the Royal College, the Victoria and Albert, and the Imperial College of Science and Technology, all located in South Kensington, London. But that program has since closed. In the sixteen years I've been at MoMA, I have not seen many students come for an internship or a fellowship with us who want to focus on plastics conservation. We sometimes don't even have a student approach us in a year.
VAN OOSTEN I think that all conservators should learn about plastics in their education. Even if you're a metal conservator, you should know about them because of all the things, like adhesives, that are made up of polymers. Every institute needs to offer some training in the whole range of plastics.