Nature by Design: Plastics

June 8, 2019 – January 2, 2022

BrisÈ Fan (China), 1850–60; Carved tortoiseshell sticks, silk ribbon, tortoiseshell washer, metal loop; H x W (open); 23.5 x 39.4 cm (9 1/4 x 15 1/2 in.); Gift of Clarence Hoblitzelle, 1912-10-7; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
2 East 91st Street
New York, NY

From molded tortoiseshell and vulcanized rubber to bioplastic pellets and semi-synthetic yarn, the beauty of natural plastics and design’s achievements with these pliable materials are explored in this fascinating range of objects from Cooper Hewitt’s collection. The animal and plant kingdoms were design’s original sources for materials with a quality known as plasticity— the ability to be bent or molded into virtually any form. Natural thermoplastics like tortoiseshell and horn can be split into thin, translucent sheets that become malleable with heat. Rubber and leather can also be molded, but when treated with heat, harden irreversibly, becoming strong materials known as thermosets. Semi-synthetics, such as rayon or celluloid, are made from plant materials processed in chemical factories where the raw materials are purified and reconfigured to change their properties.

The popularity of biologically-derived materials eventually led to the scarcity of some, to the detriment of the species that supplied them. To keep pace with consumer and industrial demand, scientists developed synthetic substitutes starting in the late 19th century, with a proliferation of petrochemical plastics in the 20th century. Produced and discarded in such great quantities, these petroleum-based plastics now present a global environmental crisis. In light of their harmful impact, we have come full circle. Designers, manufacturers, and consumers today are exploring many traditional and non-traditional natural materials, investigating novel approaches to their use and processing, and creating renewable and biodegradable bioplastics as sustainable solutions for everything from packaging to home goods.