Plastics in Design Collections

Plastics have revolutionized the world of decorative art and industrial design. Since their introduction, they have captured the attention of designers on many levels—plastics offer versatility, convenience, low cost and a freedom of design not offered by any previous materials.

Over the last 150 years of plastics evolution—from celluloid, the first human-made plastic, to the most advanced technopolymers—an infinite number of design items in every color, pattern, shape, and form have been produced with plastics using a wide range of manufacturing methods from molding and casting to 3D technologies.

Plastic jewelry, fashion accessories, vanity items, clothing, shoes, housewares (from radios to kitchen appliances), cameras, games, toys, furniture, and furnishing, and much more are currently in museum collections. Many of these have become iconic items.

Unfortunately, plastics don't always have as long a life span as expected. Having been created as commercial products, they were not designed to last forever. Many objects made of plastics in design collections, like those in contemporary art collections, are currently showing serious signs of degradation, posing challenges for conservators charged with the care of these works.

However, there are some significant differences between works of art and design objects and their related collections. For instance, unlike contemporary art collections, most of the items in design collections, especially industrial design products, are not unique objects but mass-produced products designed for use. Some of these items are still in production, while others, no longer in production, have been acquired by museums from collectors after years of use.

The aim of this component is to explore the issues and challenges posed by the conservation of plastics in design collections using the knowledge in identification, characterization, and degradation of plastics the GCI has developed.

Page updated: June 2017