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Plastic Art

Plastic Art A Precarious Success Story

By Stefan Albus, Christian Bonten, Kathrin Keler, Gabriela Rossi, and Thomas Wessel

Schriftenreihe der AXA Art Versicherung AG


Preserving Plastic Art for Posterity

A Brief History of Modern Synthetic Materials

Plastic Art

Not a Material That Will Last Forever?

Plastics in Art an Overview

The AXA Art Conservation Project

Anti-Aging Prevention




Plastic Art A Precarious Success Story

By Stefan Albus, Christian Bonten, Kathrin Keler, Gabriela Rossi, and Thomas Wessel The AXA Art Conservation Project


or the rst time, AXA Art is issuing a publication dealing with the conservation of art made of plastic materials. The project is a practical part of the AXA Art Research Grant, which is given for research purposes to globally renowned art institutes, with which we share a vital interest in and sense of long-term responsibility for the preservation of cultural assets for coming generations. A mong the partners of the AXA Art Research Grant thus far are MOMA, Guggenheim, Jacquemart Andr, Triennale di Milano, Museo Vergogna, Vitra Design Museum, and from 2006 to 2008 Tate with the Tate AXA Art Modern Paints Project. Our customers can obtain other AXA Art brochures devoted to the subjects of glass, porcelain, silver, photography, design, furniture, paintings, forgeries, and collectibles at The material qualities and life expectancy of plastic differ clearly from those of wood, stone, bronze, paper, and canvas. Plastic lasts forever, people claimed half a century ago, when plastic rst became an object of mass consumption. Unfortunately, this assertion does not apply to plastic art. Although synthetic materials are bred every day in the labs of large chemical companies to have specic properties, they have a limited shelf life. Incidentally, we speak of the design of plastic properties, which have interested us art insurers just as much as the properties of the materials of an African clay-wood-bast-shell-nail-fetish-reliquiary sculpture, an oil-paint fresco, a shark in formaldehyde, or a plastic Nana created by Niki de Saint Phalle. For collectors of art and design made of plastic, therefore, behind the material plastic is an issue that has been given little attention thus far. It is intriguing that this material can look so virginally fresh and exceedingly beautiful at rst, but later? We have understood the signs of the times and with the AXA Art Research Grant have since 2002 pursued an aim that we share with collectors, artists, designers, museums of applied art, restorers, and restoration scholars: extending the life span of plastic art and design works and keeping them as damage-free as possible for posterity. The history of plastics development, often driven forward by ingenious German chemists, reads like a suspense story with astonishing twists and turns. A wealth of technological ideas have undergone a synthesis with artistic imagination, giving rise to one of the most exciting chapters of art history. But art historians have only recently begun to explore this topic. Plastic art is still in its infancy. We are eager to see what plastic will have to offer in future art and design. Only very few students at art academies receive in established courses a solid education in the difcult properties of plastic. The situation is similar at restoration colleges, which are now trying to get their networks to efciently exchange research results. Only a few international museums and scientic laboratories deal in depth with plastics. Yet there are 200 museums worldwide that store plastic artworks and design objects, and sometimes transport and exhibit them under adverse circumstances. Perhaps our readers will feel the way we did when we began some 20 years ago to occupy ourselves intensely with the restorability of all of the objects entrusted to us for insurance. For you can only insure

something if you understand how it can be protected from decay, spoilage, and loss, and, moreover, how it can be restored and its preservation ensured. Objects made of plastic are no longer banal consumer goods but documents which in the context of their historic heritage are held in high esteem internationally and are enjoying increasing collectors value. Who would have thought that objects created by Antoine Pevsner or his brother Naum Gabo, the rst sculptors to use Plexiglas for Constructivist sculptures, would sell for 500,000 euros on the market, and that chairs and lamps designed by Panton, less than 40 years old, would go for more than 50,000 euros. With regard to yellowing, patinas, and the gradual change of materials used, we are experiencing a paradigm shift in the aesthetic perception of plastic art and coming across new criteria for appraising them. While a patina on a traditional artwork means it is antique, a patina on a plastic object is considered more unpleasant and unsightly, as we expect plastic to have fresh, unadulterated surfaces. When it comes to old plastics, however, such inherent changes stand for authenticity and originality. And when artists buy plastic objects from hardware stores and supermarkets for their multimedia installations, the question arises as to what is authentic and original if, when one of these parts is lost, it can easily be replaced from the same store. Although todays experts have no patent answers to these questions, we can nonetheless afford our readers and collectors at least an introduction to this exciting chapter of recent art history. This brochure is also directed to the colleagues of our former AXA Art conservator at the Vitra Design Museum, Kathrin Keler. We would to thank her and her team at the Vitra Design Museum for a successful and fruitful three-year-long research partnership. I would like to extend special thanks to Alexander von Vegesack, the director of the Vitra Design Museum, and my colleague Thomas Wessel. As a collector of design works composed of traditional materials, Alexander von Vegesack was aware of the scope of our project from the very beginning and gave the endeavor a direction by asking key questions. With visionary persistence, Thomas Wessel pushed the research work past the difcult initial phase and ultimately to fruition. Roman Passarge, Managing Director of the Vitra Design Museum, and his assistant Alexa Tepen untiringly provided important impetus throughout the project and at six international symposia were able to get a true following of plastics specialists to rally around them, whose trust we enjoy. The authors Stefan Albus, Christian Bonten, Kathrin Keler, Gabriela Rossi, and Thomas Wessel have succeeded in providing a captivating introduction to a subject that has hardly been explored thus far. Their enthusiasm for the ongoing conservation of plastic art will surely inspire readers to gain a better understanding of plastic in the future.

Cologne, August 2006 Dr. Ulrich Guntram Chairman of the Management Board of AXA Art Versicherung

Saving Plastic Art for Posterity

ynthetic materials play an extremely important role in our lives. How many people still wear shoes with leather soles? Who still dons real oilskins in bad weather? Today, plastic-based coatings protect goods that are worth billions. Synthetics make cars lighter and provide doctors with astonishing new aids. They make our lives comfortable for example, in the form of exible foams in furniture. Insulating materials made of plastics save much more energy than is consumed in their manufacture. Above all, with their design potential synthetic materials enable innovative products to have great opportunities on the market. Television housings, textile coatings, art anyone attempting to compile anything close to a complete list of the applications of modern plastics is doomed to failure from the very outset. Synthetic materials are used in areas of everyday life where they would never be expected and their applications are growing like wildre. And it seems that plastics will become even more important in the years to come. Although wood, glass, clay, concrete, stone, and steal dominate the worlds materials market in terms of quantity, we live in the age of plastic.

Many people today still remember the Sacco (1968), designed by Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini, and Franco Teodoro it was very seen often in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, these seats were among the rst plastic furniture to fall into disgrace: The cover, made of PVC articial leather, was not very abrasion-resistant even during the chairs lifetime.

This becomes particularly clear if you have a look around a museum exhibiting remnants of the world our grandparents lived in. What is striking is what is missing: the luxurious consumer goods which nowadays are ooding the Western-dominated world to the point of excess. But our ancestors had much fewer materials at their disposal: wood, ceramics, cast iron, wool everything provided by nature for embellishment and daily use. Many antiques collectors and museums are helping keep alive the memory of the aesthetics and sophisticated technology of past eras. Coming generations will do the same with todays consumer goods. In the future, museums and collectors will be interested in products bearing testimony to modern life. What, one might ask, will our great grandchildren feel when they saunter through a museum and view artifacts of our plastics age? Will there be another design explosion similar to the rampant rise of plastics? Or will there be a return to conventional materials instead? In either case, we can assume that plastics will be around long after fossil fuels, from which they are ultimately manufactured, have become unaffordable. Even today, when we are inundated with plastic, only around seven percent of the annual oil production is converted into synthetics. Whatever assumptions we have, it is very possible that our descendants will be denied strolls through exhibition rooms full of foam chairs, video game consoles, and kitchen aids made of synthetic materials. It is likely that the items we use today on a daily basis will one day only exist in photos. Contrary to popular belief, plastics age rapidly. The materials that we expect to last the longest have a lower life expectancy than most of the materials humans have worked with thus far in the history of their development. Time bombs are ticking in all plastic products. Millions of foam armchairs are crumbling, as are spacesuit supply hoses; every day billions of plastic cups are thrown away, and

countless pieces of modern furniture with stunning designs that fueled our image of the Swinging Sixties are falling into decay. The yellowing of what were once gleaming white plastic objects, which for years looked like impeccable ivory, is usually only the beginning and often a sign of much more threatening processes to come. What can be done about it? Not much, for the time being. For the cogs responsible for the gradual destruction of older plastics have been grinding uninterruptedly for over half a century and are not palpable deep inside the objects in the world of molecules, on which chemists have only little influence as soon as the materials they make leave the reactors. The harmful processes are fired by everyday influences which are often expressly connected with use of the objects: light, heat, mechanical strain even air can have a deleterious effect on some synthetic products in the long run. And the processes are insidious. While certain foams, exposed to the environment without protection, can become brittle within weeks, or even days, other plastics perform their tasks and seem to be indestructible for years, until they suddenly fail because the accumulated damage no longer guarantees regular functioning: Seating surfaces break, paints peel off. This normally occurs after 10 to 25 years the lifespan of most plastics. For this reason, the furniture object Pratone designed by the Gruppo Strum has to be protected from touching in museums; for this reason, restorers have in the last few decades continually complained about the pitiful state of many collectors items: cracked foams; polyester laminates whose layers detach from one another; once shiny surfaces that lose their luster over time or are covered by a sticky film; chairs that soften or harden with time regardless of the material and the history of the individual object. This state of affairs is surprising and terrifying. Does this mean that a Malitte seating system has a shorter life than its owner? Very possibly. But in that case, is there any sense in collecting plastic art to begin with?

Not even high-tech protects against aging: Even the plastic hoses on the space suits of the Apollo astronauts degenerate with time. Knights armor has a longer life.

Why of course there is! Anyone who is surrounded by plastic design objects, furniture, and artworks from past decades, and who, after reading this brochure, conscientiously looks after them, will preserve a piece of history that led us to the age we are in today. To be sure, when it comes to plastic art and design objects unlike, say, paintings and sculptures it is possible to create new originals at any time by exploiting the possibilities afforded by plastics technology. The revival of the Panton Chair, for instance, shows that new editions of spunky cult furniture can nd a market in times of a renewed interest in forms of past decades. It would probably cost less to make a new Il Piede armchair out of fresh polyurethane exible foam than to conserve a now severely damaged original. And dont objects like Charles and Ray Eames La Chaise, which was designed in 1948 and mass-produced for the rst time in 1990, show what timeless good design is? Perhaps. But new editions (replicas) of earlier plastic furniture designs are still different from the authentic original. We culture-conscious contemporaries must not let this original, cultural heritage degenerate into historical documents. And just how many collectors and museums are rmly resolved to preserve this heritage is reected by the exorbitant prices paid today for outstanding originals on the art market. Due to its vulnerability, the older a plastic art object is, the more protection it needs. As a result, stores are charging ever higher prices for pieces from the rst phase of plastic art production if they are still in top condition.

At the same time, we must remain aware of the fact that plastic art ages. Rapidly. Plastic art restorers essentially have two options today: they can stabilize the current state of the object, and they can possibly increase its life expectancy. This also applies to plastics much older than polyurethane and polyethylene for example, cellulose acetate and cellulose nitrate. Restorers and restoration experts are working in close cooperation with experts from the chemical industry on methods and technologies that they hope will one day enable aging plastic art objects to be saved. And the plastics industry has made progress. There are granulates on the market today which are considerably more stable than the rst ones produced when plastics were in their infancy. Manufacturing problems which were common in the 1960s and which are reected by the pitiful state of preservation of some pieces of plastic furniture today, have long since been ironed out. And we mustnt forget that plastics are not the rst polymer materials used by humans. Silk, hair, leather, cotton all natural bers are materials whose inner composition is not dissimilar to that of modern plastics. Linseed oil is in principle a raw material for plastics, and boiled oil is a paint-like coating. Like modern plastics, wood consists of long-chain molecules, and is, needless to say, a feast for microbes. Yet people have learned to create conditions under which these materials survive for centuries or even millennia! In optimum conditions, the information in a book will remain longer than the data stored in the coated plastic substrate of a tape recorder. But researchers around the world are working on ways of one day stopping the insidious decay of polymer materials. After all, solutions have been found for similar problems, such as the decay of modern, acidic papers at least in principle. However, the problems of aging plastics have become much more complex, and the work of plastics conservation experts has only just begun. To rescue a Joe Colombo table lamp, for instance, the traditional expertise of a restorer is needed as well as the know-how of chemists and materials scientists.

While a great deal of knowledge has been accumulated, practical tips are rare. There are no universally applicable recommendations on, say, how to deal with cracking plastics not least because this phenomenon can have a different cause with different kinds of plastics. As a result, experts welcomed the AXA Art initiative with open arms, as it offered them a forum for exchange with the Vitra Design Museum at joint symposia and sponsored their restoration research for several years. Meanwhile, generally valid methods that private collectors can use to protect their plastic art from decay let alone reverse damage that is already there are nowhere in sight. Still, the research work that has been carried out at museums and other research establishments has shed some light on plastics aging processes, and the knowledge that has been gained can be used to help slow down these processes an important rst step. This, in turn, can lead to instructions and tips for slowing down aging of synthetics. Just as we can keep t by exercising and eating properly, we can add years to the lives of collectors items such as polyurethane chairs and ABS housings if we treat them properly. This brochure will provide you with valuable information on what is good and appropriate for your plastic art collectors items.

Can collectors outlive their the objects they collect? Its very possible. Many plastics, such as the polyurethane foams in Sebastian Mattas Malitte seating group from 1966, have a life expectancy of ten to 25 years under normal circumstances.


A Brief History of Modern Synthetic Materials

1. The beginnings

he development of plastics from their beginnings until today is doubtless a successful chapter in the history of modern chemistry. This does not mean that it was not an exciting one, however. On the contrary, the history of plastics development is like a detective story whose protagonists are researchers who were often looking for something completely different and then gradually invented the materials that have such a big impact on the world today. The history of plastics development dates back to the rst half of the 19th century. Long before modern polymer materials like polyurethane or the many members of the polystyrene family were brought by chemists to laboratories, our greatgreat grandparents used materials that today can be called plastics in the broadest sense as a rule products from nature which were rened and

transformed into usable forms by means of technological inuence. Hard rubber (Charles Goodyear, 1839), which was sold as ebonite starting in 1853 due to its similarity to ebony, linoleum (1883), and celluloid (John Wesley Hyatt, 1869) were the rst more or less synthetic materials that paved the way to modern polymer materials. Galalith (1897) also known as articial horn which is obtained from the milk component casein and hardened with the help of the chemical formaldehyde, still has a good ring in the ears of collectors and historians. The leap from modied natural products to the rst fully synthetic materials was made shortly before the First World War with the introduction of the phenolic resin Bakelite (later outperformed by the aminoplastics developed in the 1920s and 30s), which had some of the properties of modern polymer materials. It was more robust, more durable, more temperature resistant, and could be processed more precisely than its predecessors. It was an ideal material for the budding electronics industry. The main focus in this chapter are modern synthetic materials which were instrumental in the design revolution of the 1960s and 70s, polyurethanes, polyolenes, and polystyrenes, to name but a few. However, the differences between high-tech polymers and linoleum, Bakelite and co. are not nearly as big as is commonly assumed. The rst polyesters, for example which much later were an important basis for unsaturated polyester resins (UP resins), without which neither the streamlined automobile

One of the rst polystyrene telephones.


bodies designed by Luigi Colani nor the art of Niki de Saint Phalle would have been possible were produced back in 1856. But these early polyesters, which were made by stirring together citric acid and glycerol, were a far cry from todays standard (or even that of the 1950s) they were much too soft. Likewise, the worlds rst polystyrene was produced long before modern high-tech plastics were even conceivable. The discovery came about due to negligence. In 1839, the Berlin apothecary Eduard Simon left an ethereal oil called storax liquidus, which he had obtained from the resin of the liquidamber orientalis tree, out for a few days. It transformed into a peculiar jelly that solidied increasingly over time. For a while it was used as an auxiliary product in coatings, before fading into obscurity as a laboratory curiosity. Today we know that the substance, which its inventors dubbed metastyrol, derived from storax, was nothing other than the plastic known today as polystyrene.

Often discovered accidentally Rubber also had serendipitous beginnings. When an inventor named Charles Goodyear mixed a gob of natural rubber with sulfur (one of many materials he tried to combine with rubber in experiments) and left it unobserved for a while next to his experimental oven, the combination of sulfur and heat turned the soft, sticky rubber into hard rubber. Today the process is known as vulcanization. The material was one of the rst plastics and was used technologically, among other things. Strange substances such as metastyrol and rubber could be further developed into extremely efcient materials like polyamides or polyurethanes, which are commonplace today, thanks to researchers like the Munich Professor Hermann Staudinger, who was the rst to nd out what the odd material made from styrax oil could do and what it had in common with materials like Bakelite and celluloid. Staudinger discovered something that today is common knowledge: that plastics consist of submicroscopic long chains of repeating molecules strung to13

An extruder from 1936. In such apparatus the rst polystyrene plastics were melted so that they could be injected into a mold under pressure. While today injection molding is a matter of course, in the rst third of the 20th century it was still a high-tech process, adopted from metal processing.

gether like pearls in a necklace. Plastics can emerge spontaneously (as in the case of metastyrol) or can be made by chemists (as in the case of polyamide). To designate the result of this stringing process, which is known as polymerization, Staudinger added the Greek prex poly to the name of the molecule. Hence polystyrene simply means many styrenes.

What are polymers? A simple recipe for making polymers is as follows: Take one or two different chemical building

blocks and nd a way to combine them into long chains, or macromolecules (macro simply means particularly large). These macromolecules can be envisioned as tiny strands of spaghetti. If you produce many of them, the same thing happens that occurs on a plate of spaghetti: The long chain molecules get tangled up with other similar molecules, so that after they cool down they cant slide past one another any more. With somewhat more complex recipes, these simple chains do not only become entangled, they combine (cross-link) with special bridge molecules. That makes the plastics even harder or more elastic depending on the recipe. Synthetic resins, for instance, form that way, as does rubber. In the latter case it is sulfur that cross-links with the rubber molecules. The true art of the chemist was and still is to nd suitable new building blocks and ways of combining them. Scientists in the extremely young eld of polymer chemistry all chain molecules with poly in their name are subsumed under the heading polymers quickly discovered that the type of building blocks that combined to form the exciting new giant molecules (these components were called monomers from mono, or individual) had a considerable inuence on the properties of the plastic obtained from them. So it was only a matter of time before resourceful minds of the time starting searching for ever-new building blocks and linking methods with an eye to creating ever-new plastics with still unknown properties. In addition, many of the products that the chemical industry had earned money from hitherto (above all dyes) were regarded as exhausted. New elds of work had to be found. The world was in a state of upheaval.

lon, a synthetic ber made of polyamide (1934). Today we know that polyamides have been commonplace on Earth for billions of years. Proteins, for example, are nothing other than very sophisticated polyamides and therefore so are natural bers like collagen, one of the main components of human and animal connective tissue. Carothers had broken a sound barrier.

2. World in upheaval
One of the rst people who appeared before reporters cameras with a truly exciting, brandnew plastic was the DuPont chemist Wallace H. Carothers. He is considered the inventor of ny14

Synthetic materials Polyurethanes today high-performance synthetics used to make textile coatings, mattresses and upholstery, car bumpers, ski boots, shoe soles, bowling balls, and as of late even condoms were also discovered around this time. Otto Bayer, the inventor of polyurethanes, had Carothers polyamide in his thoughts when he became head of the main scientic laboratory of I.G. Farben in Leverkusen in 1931 and developed the recipe for his polyurethane. His stroke of luck: He was a complete novice in the new eld of research and initially combined in test tubes substances he was familiar with from his earlier profession as a color chemist. As a result, he not only paved the way for entirely new synthetics, but also developed a manufacturing method still completely unknown to his colleagues. But polyurethanes were not so new. A compound which can be viewed as a forbear, as it were, of polyurethanes forms in tiny amounts when peach schnapps is exposed to sunlight for a certain period of time. Soy sauce and sake, too, contain extremely tiny quantities of chemical compounds containing the original patterns of polyurethanes, so to speak. Whisky drinkers may also become acquainted with them. But the rst polyurethanes that Bayer concocted in his test tubes were a disappointment. They were stringy masses which could be pulled into threads, but which could not be used to make bers. They could be processed into brushes, though. And they

The inventor of polyurethane, Otto Bayer, in front of a foam mushroom made of the new material.


absorbed less water than polyamide and were stiffer. Consequently, they were very promising.

ful thanks to industrial usage of truly gigantic amounts of this universally applicable and combinable material. It was also in the 1930s that the rst research was carried out on polyester resins, which were more reminiscent of todays products than their predecessors composed of glycerine and citrus acid. These resins were much more complicated than polystyrene, which is constructed more or less simply from a single component. Two building blocks were needed for the polyester components, as well as at least one more component that linked them (interestingly enough, styrene is also used for this purpose). The result was incredibly robust and resistant plastics which were easy to process to boot. All one had to do was stir the liquid resin mixture and cast it in molds, where it hardened, releasing considerable heat. While not suitable for mass production, this method was appropriate for making individual pieces or small series with a nice, smooth surface, and made it possible to create shapes that could not be achieved with other materials. The development of polystyrene was progressing as well. Very soon, after their reactors were producing enough styrene (around 1930), the BASF chemists Carl Wulff and Eugen Dorrer were so procient in building chain molecules that one could speak for the rst time of controlled polystyrene production. The material (normally) only hardened when the chemists wanted it to. But it was primarily in the 1940s that the way was opened for the modern materials we know today, and not just polystyrene.

Creating a raw material basis Still, it was a long way from the rst test tube polymers to todays plastics developed in the second third of the 20th century. One of the biggest challenges, apart from creating samples of completely new synthetics, was having enough starting material (monomers) to produce them on a large scale. Needless to say, this is not an easy task with substances supposed to react with similar substances to form new products. One had to make sure that they did not form untimely, uncontrolled chains, as was the case with Eduard Simons storax liquidus. In the case of polystyrene, however, which BASF chemists had started focusing on in the meantime, this already occurred on August 9, 1929 (the date of Reich Patent no. 550055). And in 1931, some 30 tons of synthetic styrene owed out of the reactors in Ludwigshafen, paving the way for the development of largescale technological methods that could be used to manufacture large quantities of synthetic polystyrene for the rst time. Otto Bayer (the fact that he has the same name as Bayer AG, on whose grounds in Leverkusen he discovered polyurethane, was purely coincidental) had to overcome other hurdles for his polyurethane as well. His employers considered the idea of manufacturing the highly reactive components an academic game that could never be realized technologically, and a crazy idea. And no wonder, as the vehemence with which these polyurethane building blocks plunge at their reaction partners is legendary. In the early days, parts of a mold would remain stuck to a rubber mass that Bayers fellow workers had treated with a representative of this family of components. But a virtue was made out of necessity. The substance made a career as an adhesive which could even securely combine glass and rubber. Otto Bayers goal of synthesizing large quantities of his polyurethane building blocks was ultimately success16

The structural formula for polystyrene.

Teething troubles The rst products made out of polystyrene struggled with substantial teething troubles. They were brittle and they cracked. So the new plastic had to be further developed. At the beginning, the length of the chains that the monomers formed before the eyes of the chemists was still unsatisfactory the longer they were, the harder the plastic became, as longer molecules convolute better. A great advancement was made when scientists succeeded in pumping off non-polymerized styrene after the reaction. But even with the help of new types of polystyrene which were very high-tech for the 1930s and 40s in terms of manufacturing, the product was a far cry from what it is today. In 1942, only some 5,000 tons of granulate trickled out of the Ludwigshafen reactor. The rst polystyrene products were inconspicuous coil cores, parts inside relays, and accumulator cases for the electronics industry. The electrical insulation properties of the new material were better than those of any other material at this time. The advancement of polyurethanes also entered a new phase at the beginning of the 1940s. In 1942, a facility went into operation that could produce 20 tons of the new polyurethane raw material a month. But when it came to processing it into plastic, there were constant problems. Many polyurethanes that the lab workers removed from their molds were full of bubbles. One of the samples came out of the test lab with the following remark: At best, can be used to make Swiss cheese imitations. The reason for this phenomenon was the high reactivity of the polyurethane building blocks: They not only reacted with other similar components, but also with water, giving rise to gaseous carbon dioxide. Here Bayer showed real ingenuity. He began intentionally mixing small amounts of water

with his components to obtain more bubbles and in the process invented polyurethane foams. By the beginning of the 1950s, an impressive range of products could be manufactured from the new synthetic materials. After the Second World War, polyester resins were wed with berglass. The extremely tenacious glass bers, enclosed by liquid resin, stabilized the synthetic resin parts from within like steel reinforcements on simple concrete and made synthetic resin products even more stable than they were to begin with. Polystyrene was used to make pipe mouthpieces, pill packaging, and lipstick tubes, as well as armbands, hair combs, powder boxes, hair slides, and soap boxes. But the true value of the material had not been recognized yet. As late as 1951, polystyrenes difcult ammability was considered one of its big advantages in this respect it was superior to celluloid, which is very ammable. In the history of applications of this plastic, stories have been told about buttons catching re and billiard balls exploding. In the mid-1950s, polystyrene got two sisters, again with the surname poly: polyethylene and polypropylene.

Two accidents and an analysis of them The run-of-the-mill plastic polyethylene is actually old hat. The rst person to hold this substance in his hands is alleged to be the Germany chemist Hans von Pechmann, who became acquainted with the material back in 1898, but not in the form known today. However, Pechmann did not go down in chemical history as the inventor of polyethylene, but as the originator of a chemical reaction named after him which is used to make cumarines compounds partially responsible for the aroma of woodruff as well as the typical smell of a mown lawn. The rst modern polyethylene was produced more than 30 years later in the reactors of ICI in the form of a white, wax-like lm which the chemists Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett found in their reaction vessels in March 1933. The building blocks of polyethylene were as the

name expresses molecules of the gas ethylene, a close relative of the welding gas acetylene. But the gas did not let itself be processed into a chain molecule completely acquiescently. The British chemists had to apply gentle violence in the form of temperatures of 170 C and pressures of 1400 bar for polymerization to be achieved. Seven years later, the rst commercially successful production method was established. The rst technological polyethylene (known as high-pressure polyethylene) is viewed today not as a plastic but as a kind of synthetic wax rst used in cable sheaths. And although polyethylene conquered the world in the form of the famous Tupperware (a somewhat more stable material), almost 20 years went by before the material was applied on a larger scale and with the well-known property prole. Today the chemist Karl Ziegler is regarded as the father of the real polyethylene. Ziegler was a kind of wunderkind who voraciously read physics books and conducted chemical experiments at the age of ten. He nished his chemistry studies in just three and a half years (an extremely short period in Germany, where studies can last seven years or longer) and completed his doctorate four months before his 22nd birthday. But despite Zieglers brilliance and expertise, polyethylene was also discovered by accident. While working at the Max Planck Institute for Carbon Research in Mhlheim an der Ruhr, the professor experimented with a new chemical which he had heard about from America in 1947. In one of his experiments he lled a pressurized reactor with this material, squeezed in the gas ethylene, and waited to see what would happen. One day he found in the reactor, instead of the chemical compound he had expected, a gas whose molecules consisted of only two ethylene building blocks. Ziegler was clever enough not to throw away the failed result, but instead probed the reason for the failure. In the process, he discovered an effect that would win him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963:

) ) H C ( ( 2 4n
Someone had inadvertently washed out the pressurized vessel in which he sought to carry out his reaction with nitric acid. The latter had detached a tiny amount of nickel from the wall of the vessel, which had done something to the ethylene. If nickel could link two ethylene molecules, Ziegler surmised, then perhaps other metals could combine even more. So the chemist tried out all the metals he could get his hands on, including chrome, cobalt, silver, and titanium. And he actually found one. When a coworker was experimenting with chrome connections, he suddenly obtained a solid material that he had to pry out of the experimental reactor with a drill and a chisel: polyethylene! Later, titanium and Zirconium worked even better than chrome. Compounds of these metals today called catalysts due to their ability to spur on the reaction of the ethylene molecules to polyethylene enabled the Max Planck Institute researchers to leave their heavy steel reactors in the cupboard. From that point on, to make polyethylene they even used bottling jars that Ziegler found in the kitchen of his wife Maria pressure and heat were no longer needed! Incidentally, polyethylene is not the only thing the Mhlheim scientists discovered. Gentle decaffeination of green coffee beans by means of liquid carbon dioxide a method used today on a large scale was a direct by-product of their search for the synthetic material used to make plastic bags! The discovery of polypropylene also ultimately goes back to Zieglers work, as the building blocks of polyethylene and polypropylene are quite similar. This later gave the Italian chemist Giulio Natta the idea of applying Zieglers method to the the component propylene. The outcome is well known: Ziegler and Natta shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery of olen polymerization Nana had submitted his polypropylene patent 14 days before Ziegler did. Hoechst began large-scale production of polypropylene in 1957. Rapid progress was also made with polyurethane and polystyrene. Otto Bayer found substances which could accelerate the at times somewhat sluggish formation of polyurethane

from the raw materials. Some of these substances reacted in seconds and minutes to form plastic rather than in weeks as had been the case previously. Moreover, he discovered ways to bond and evenly distribute the bubbles that emerged in his plastics after water was added, so that they adhered better in the material rather than bubbling up like in mineral water. Later the foam idea was enhanced, and special expanding agents were added to the polyurethane components: at rst CFCs (chlorouorocarbons), and later simple gaseous hydrocarbons like pentane, a relative of the camping stove gas butane. Researchers learned to continually improve the gas pore distribution in the material. Since, there have been foams with open pores and closed pores; it is even possible to produce polyurethane foams with a shiny surface as smooth as steel whose interior, however, consists almost solely of gas bubbles, like a bone. Such products are lightweight yet hard to bend or break. The rst integral foams made in this manner were still quite hard yet very light thanks to

Soft foams are usually manufactured in large blocks and subsequently cut to size. Today textile polyester shells can also be foamed directly, lling up with polyurethane like a balloon with air.

their bubble structure. Their rst application was in aircraft construction to stiffen wings. Polystyrene developments kept pace. In 1951, Styropor rst saw the light of day at BASF marketed by its inventors as captured air.

Plastics technology With increasing market maturity of the new materials another question became increasingly important: how to bring the new, promising materials into a usable shape. Even polyamides, which today have all kinds of applications, were referred to by BASF chemists in 1939 as plastic with a horn-like exterior and could initially only be used to make bers, bands, and massive blocks that had to be worked like wood. It was the advent of so-called injection molding that paved the way for plastics to enter the world of consumer goods we know today. The material was melted and injected into a hollow mold, where it cooled and retained the specied shape. In principle, this procedure is still employed today. The rst polystyrene parts produced in this way were made by hand-operated machines used in metal processing. However, the piston engines employed in the infancy of plastics could not produce enough pres19

Integral foams are structured like a bone: Under a hard shell is a porous core which can distribute the emerging forces better than a massive material and which saves weight to boot. The bone picture is not a real one, but a polyurethane model that surgeons use in exercises.

Before plastics could be used in refrigerators, researchers rst had to learn how prevent them from becoming too brittle in below-zero temperatures no easy task!

were so complex that the polyurethane couldnt be melted. Moreover, conventional methods of combining starting materials into a mixed apparatus ended disastrously: The highly developed components reacted too quickly with one another. As a result, processing using injection molding methods was discontinued, and researchers got the idea of rst bringing the building blocks into a reactable form so that they could create a polymer in a ash. Here, too, technology was the key. The rst facility suitable for series production of modern polyurethane products was built in just six weeks from discarded parts that had been borrowed from neighboring labs. The most important idea: a cross-current mixing head that evenly vortexes the polyurethane molecular components in fractions of a second before they are injected in the mold. It was important to time the hardening reaction so that the components didnt harden in

sure to press large quantities of tenacious, melted plastic mass into shape. The situation did not change until 1957, when BASF engineers brought the rst injection molding machine with so-called screw preplastication on to the market. The machines generally consisted of long pipes with thick steel sheathing in which the melted synthetic granulate was kneaded soft by means of two counterrotating screws at high temperatures. Thanks to these machines in conjunction with ever-heavier equipment which could press together the halves of the molds rmly enough really heavy and large components could be manufactured for the rst time. At the end of the 1950s, the rst polystyrene refrigerator lining, weighing 10 kilograms, fell out of an injection molding machine. Styropor was only able to take the world by storm after the technology for manufacturing these novel foam blocks was developed anything but a simple task, but nonetheless solved in 1952. Meanwhile, polyurethanes had to be processed differently than polystyrene, for the chain molecules formed by the polyurethane building blocks

All the chemistry notwithstanding, without expert engineers there would be no foam furniture. Polyurethanes do not melt like other plastics; their liquid components have to be injected in molds using elaborate apparatus. Above: A stateof-the-art polyurethane mixing head manufactured by the machine-building company Krauss-Maffei.

the jet, but formed a more or less liquid pulp. If everything was done properly, the uid raw polyurethane could ll nooks in molds that could not be reached by other, much more viscous plastics.

3. Mastering plastics
In the mid-1950s and early 1960s, the history of plastics entered a second phase. Chemists and engineers improved their mastery of the materials. Since electronic components in operations got hot very quickly, engineers asked for a type of polystyrene that tolerated more heat. Other engineers, who conceived of plastic products with complicated shapes, requested variants that owed more easily in a molten state, so that they could ll more complex molds. Indeed, chemists were able to modify the new polymers in the desired way thus, for example, improving the ow by adding inner lubricants to the material (see below). At the same time, chemists began developed new building blocks. They quickly discovered that the synthetic component styrene could not only be coupled with other styrene molecules, but also with a number of other molecules to create usable plastics. The new ingredients in the chemists recipes bore exotic names such as acrylic nitrile and vinyl carbazole.

styrene molecules during the genesis of the plastic, could they create synthetics with modern properties. The procedure was known as grafting. In fact, the process is similar to grafting a premium cherry onto a run-of the-mill one. Freed in this way from its worst aw its brittleness polystyrene took the household sector by storm. In addition to the soft material PVC, the new polystyrene derivatives were the rst real thermoplastic composite materials. The rst impact-resistant polystyrenes with built-in shock absorbers were developed as early as the 1950s; starting in 1961, researchers at BASF were able to obtain polystyrene types that were not brittle even at low temperatures, and in 1968 19 of 20 refrigerator linings were made of this material just a few years earlier they had been composed of enameled steel. Later ame-resistant variants were added, which were used, for example, to make TV backs. The classical styrene family, originally consisting of just a few members, had grown substantially. It was the dawning of the age of plastics whose names were hard to pronounce, such as styrene acrylic nitrile (SAN, 1962), acrylic ester styrene acrylic nitrile (ASA, 1967), and acrylic nitrile butadiene styrene (ABS 1965). But behind the complicated names is a simple principle: The names merely consist of the names of the components from which the plastic is made. In the years to follow up until today, chemists managed to combine the new bonus structural elements together better and better and thus to optimally control the properties of their plastics. The growth rates that the inventors of the new materials achieved were a dream come true based on todays standards. In 1950, 138,000 tons of polystyrene were produced, in 1960 550,0000, and in 1970

The table lamp KD 27 made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS (Joe Colombo, 1965/66).

Plastics construction kits

With these new ingredients scientists nally were able to reduce the brittleness of pure polystyrene. For some of these substances, strung into chain molecules, were nothing other than elastic synthetic rubbers which in a plastic could have the effect of tiny built-in shock absorbers. This development only sounds easy on paper in actual fact a great deal of development work had to be done to marry incompatible polystyrene with rubber components. Only when chemists began not merely adding rubber shock absorbers to polystyrene but rmly combining them with the growing

as much as 2,100,000. Designers reveled in plastic surfaces with unparalleled shine, while engineers and technicians took delight in styrene synthetics that reliably did their jobs even in winter. 1975 witnessed the introduction of stress crack resistant polystyrene types. Translucent polystyrene followed in 1977, and in 1980 BASF had the worlds widest range of styrene polymers on display in its show window. The Ludwigshafen acropolis in Ludwigshafen, one of the largest polystyrene silo systems on the site, represented a degree of versatility hitherto unknown in polymeric materials.

polyester synthetic resins. All of these new building blocks were used to make soft and hard foams as well as elastic plastic parts, which in turn were used to manufacture all kinds of products ranging from skis to car bumpers. Foams in particular played an ever more important role in everyday life. In soft form, foams are not only comfortable, but also conduct heat extremely poorly, making them ideal for use in insulation material. If refrigerators and refrigerated transport cars were not lined with polyurethanes (the rst polyurethane optimized for this purpose was introduced in 1960), it would be much more difcult, say, to buy fresh North Sea sh in Munich. In the meantime, houses have been built which thanks to polyurethane insulation can be heated with a light bulb, and gel-like polyurethane padding is used in bicycle saddles and prevents bed-ridden hospital patients from getting bedsores. The inclination of some polyurethanes to bond with everything when reacting is a boon today in paints and adhesives production. Textiles are also covered with a thin layer of polyurethane, making them robust and water repellent. The strong impact that plastics have had on everyday life is reected by the development of the telephone: Styrene polymers paved the way from mahogany boxes with handmade receivers to the mass products of the 1970s and 80s. The colorfastness of the material was among the properties that convinced 1950s designers and developers.

Ever new building blocks

In the eld of polyurethanes, too, the construction kit existing in the mid-1950s was expanded increasingly. Developers constantly came up with new ideas, which in principle had only one common feature: they were constructed based on the typical polyurethane pattern. Remarkably, some of the polyurethane components are themselves polymers and some are constructed according to the polyester model and thus remotely related to

The acropolis in Ludwigshafen: For decades BASF boasted the worlds largest range of polystyrene plastics. What look like the columns of an ancient temple were silos used for intermediate storage of the material.

4. Today
The plastics we take in our hands today have little in common with the imperfect materials that the rst plastics chemists created in test tubes more than 70 years ago. Nor does the equipment used to make modern synthetics bear much resemblance to the mixing boilers of yesteryear. Entire teams of engineers rack their brains to design the reactors in which monomers are beaded together and re22

Plastics have grown up: Today high-tech synthetic materials can even take over the function of kidneys. In the picture: microporous polysulfon bers for dialysis.

Chemical reactors that are used to manufacture plastics today have little in common with the glass apparatus expected in a lab.

ned into high-tech molecular chains. Five-meterhigh cylinders in which eight people could stand next to one another comfortably are no rarity. More than a few of these giants, which weigh well over 100 tons, can withstand the pressures that prevail at a water depth of more than one kilometer, thanks to steel walls that are thicker than the width of a hand. The manufacture of such colossal equipment is a feat in its own right. To prevent against predetermined breaking points, these huge pressure cookers are made of one massive piece of steel an art which has been mastered by only a handful of companies worldwide. To bring these reactors to their place, cranes are needed, which in turn are delivered by a dozen semi-trailer trucks. The conduit systems which supply these monsters with material, solvents, and coolant comprise several kilometers of piping and although computer programs are available for the planning of these mega-plants, there are engineers who can recognize the trademark style of the planners from the construction of the complex manufacturing plants.

A focus on atoms In the further development of the long chain molecules from which plastics are made, researchers are now concentrating on the individual atoms. With polypropylene, for instance, scientists are not only paying attention to whether the molecules interlink to form long chains, but how they do so. Under an extremely strong microscope, polypropylene molecules look like long spaghetti with little sideshoots. And the mysterious substances which chemists have used since Zieglers work in the 1950s to make, say, polypropylene, are just as effective as enzymes, i.e. the metabolic factories of Mother Nature. With the help of these substances, chemists today are able to arrange these offshoots randomly, in zig-zag fashion, or to rigid specications on one side of the chain. The result are polypropylene types with completely different properties, as polymers with the offshoots arranged on one side can be positioned parallel to one another, making the plastic stiffer and giving it a higher melting point which is ideal for electric shavers and television housing, shock absorb-

ers and car interiors. Zig-zag polypropylenes, on the other hand, are extremely crack resistant. A further disadvantage of many plastics is also gradually being ironed out their comparatively low melting point. Polyethylene, for instance, can melt depending on the mode of manufacture at temperatures as low as 105C, but in the immediate vicinity of car engines the temperature can be as high as 140C. What can be done? Polyaryl ether ketones (PAEK), some of which were rst developed in 1977, can help. These substances can withstand temperatures of up to 250C but have to be injected in molds at temperatures exceeding 400C. Other special plastics like Polybenzimidazole (PBI), which were developed for NASA, are now used to make bers for protective suits worn by remen; and polyphenyl sulde (PPS), another newcomer on the plastics market, could with a continual service temperature of up to 240C embark on a career as a material for mass production of hot fuel cells.

for a long time. Even the insulating properties of the most famous polystyrene, Styropor, have been improved considerably in recent years. And its young cousin Neopor inhibits thermal conductivity as well as energy losses from heat radiation due to built-in graphite plates! Roughly every second plastic product that left warehouses in the year 2000 was made of polyethylene or polypropylene. That same year, more than a third of the worlds polyurethane production (some 8.5 million tons) was used to manufacture soft foam. The predominant part of it four-fths was utilized in furniture and mattresses. Even today, more than 50 years after Otto Bayers discovery, for such products there is no alternative to long-lasting, comfortable, hardness-adjustable polyurethanes. In 2003, around 50 million tons of polyethylene in the form of bottles, canisters, pails, owerboxes, and foils made its way to stores. The some 30 million tons of polypropylene produced in 2006 was used in housings, e.g. for household appliances, in foils and bers, and in more exotic applications: as polypropylene foam inside automobile bumpers that absorbs energy during an accident.

High service temperatures needed Even simple polyamides, practically the forebears of todays synthetic materials, can be made more heat resistant if their chain molecules are stiffened by special components. Under the inuence of temperature, they dont move as easily and thus stay hard for a longer period. Alternatively, the chains can be made longer than usual, since the longer they are, the more entangled they can become. Other high-tech polymers consist of structural elements that t together purposefully and thus are constructed almost like hard crystal. Such plastics can withstand temperatures of more than 300C, and the thinner the threads that are pulled out of them, the more durable they become. Styrene plastics, too, have long since shed their image as rudimentary synthetic materials. When high surface quality and gloss are desired, designers today naturally opt for ABS. The high scratch and abrasion resistance of this polymer ensures that the products made from them look decorative

5. Polymers alone are not enough

Todays plastics are so efcient solely because the molecules they consist of have been constantly improved, but also because researchers have gradually learned to enhance the properties of the promising materials using additional components. As mentioned above, the considerable brittleness of the rst polystyrene, as well as of nitrocellulose and Galalith, made these materials impractical. New materials are well and good, but if they have to be treated as gingerly as glass, then they are not really suitable for everyday use.

Plasticizers go back to the beginnings of plastics The solution was provided by softening sub-

A polyethylene molecular chain.

Helmut Btzners plastic chair BA 1171 was manufactured out of glass-ber reinforced polyester in 1964. It is not only an example of timeless design, but also bears witness to plastics advancements in the last 40 years. Today similar chairs are on offer at every do-it-yourself store. Nowadays injection molding machines churn them out by the minute. The material of choice today is simple polyolens.

stances known today as plasticizers. One of the rst people who tried to use plasticizers to make plastics was an ambitious inventor named Alexander Parkes. He added wood tar and vegetable oils to plastics to make them more exible. The result, called Parkesine, could indeed be processed simply, but the products made from it did not retain their shape for long. A short time later, in 1869, an inventor named John Wesley Hyatt was more successful. He mixed a substance called camphor, which smelled like cold balm, with nitrocellulose. That marked the birth of celluloid, a material whose hardness and brittleness could be controlled in relatively many areas via the amount of camphor added. Still today, two-thirds of the camphor produced worldwide is used to make celluloid! Soft and malleable rather than hard and brittle: The development of modern plastic processing methods is directly linked to the invention of plas26

ticizers. For example, cellulose triacetate, another modied natural material, which was used to make aircraft windowpanes until the 1940s, was rst processed using injection molding when chemists working for Bayer AG, refounded after the war, managed to be make it pliable using a plasticizer. At the beginning of the 1950s, the material, which was dubbed cellite, was used to make radio housings, dashboards, combs, barrettes, screwdriver handles, and glasses frames. Plasticizers were also indispensable in the rubber industry. Although natural rubber is an extremely elastic mass, during vulcanization it transforms into a material that is anything but soft. As a result, rubber chemists began early on to add all kinds of liquid components to their recipes to soften them coal tar, bitumen, oils, parafn, Vaseline, and camphor!

Concealed know-how
Thus, the advancement of plastics to the materials we know today not only went hand in hand with the discovery of ever-newer polymers, but also with the development of built-in additives. Many of the plasticizers still used today date back to the beginning of the 1930s. Phthalic acid and glycerine esters are found in paints, cable sheathing, adhesives, and foils; dicarboxylic acid esters make soft PVC elastic at low temperatures. Phosphates very similar to the ones used in laundry detergents are found, for instance, in rubber and miniature lm. Other materials, in principal distant relatives of margarine, make oorings soft. Even citrus and tartaric acid have been successful in this chemical zoo. The leading material in terms of number of additives is rubber. Up to 25 different substances are added to it. What do all these plasticizers have in common? They are much smaller than the plastic molecules themselves. And they enable the molecules to slide past one another like ball bearings. So its no surprise that the rst truly successful plasticizer was camphor, as the molecules of this natural material are shaped like tiny balls. Although there are families of plastics whose members differ only in terms of the properties of additives added to them, these additives are seldom listed in data sheets. The choice of an ideal additive is an essential part of the know-how of a plastics manufacturer. In order to, say, change the re properties of a plastic without impeding properties such as owability or monochromaticity, a lot of ingenuity is required. So is not only the nature of the actual plastic, but also the additives that have a decisive inuence on the performance of products made of plastics. We will return to this topic in a later chapter.

The history of old plastics has not come to an end. Modern variants of Bakelite are still used in the automotive industry for example, where dimensions have to remain stable at high temperatures. And this sponge is made of melamine resin.


Plastic Art
1. The early years
Today plastics are viewed as free materials that can be used to realize almost any design idea. For a surprisingly long time, however, this promise could not be kept indeed, it was not until the beginning of the 1960s that synthetic materials were fully exploited for this purpose. Still, chemists and engineers were not the only ones who were enthusiastic early on about the possibilities of the new materials from the reactors of the chemical industry. Artists, too, had previously made use of polymer materials. But up until the 1930s and 40s, they had a rather matter-of-fact attitude toward plastics, primarily using Bakelite and aminoplastics. Initially, these materials served as substitutes for natural materials that were difcult to obtain (and hard to deal with), such as horn and tortoise shell; only later were they viewed as distinctive materials connected with distinct design ideas for example, the socalled streamline design from the 1930s and 40s, which nds expression in electrical devices such as Table Lamp No. 114, created by Walter Dorwin Teague in 1939, or Isamu Naguchis Radio Nurse, from 1937, both made of Bakelite. The mainstream design idea, though, was to allude to classical forms which in principal also could have been fashioned out of wood. The compression molding material produced at the beginning of the 20th century, for example, compelled designs to have smooth surfaces, rounded edges, and no cuts in the back. Wood imitations were sought intentionally and consciously, through correspondences to the typical grained look and color of wood. Polymer materials were rst used as a distinct means of design at the dawn of the plastic age, as the 20th century was often referred to. And this tendency only really took off in the 1960s, contrary to what many people might think today. In the previous decades, the truly versatile, modern plastics (apart from bers like nylon) were generally only discussed behind the closed doors of the DuPont, ICI, and IG Farben factories, from which the plastics giants BASF, Bayer, and Hoechst later emerged.

Eero Saarinens Womb Chair from 1946 was produced from 1948 to 1993. It is the rst chair to have a seat shell made of glass-ber reinforced polyester. But the polymer material was hidden behind a cloth cover.

Typical streamlined design: the Jumo table lamp (Ets Jumo, 1945), made of Bakelite, wood, and chrome.

Exciting furniture paves the way Those who place the beginnings of plastic design in the period when the rst furniture was made of polymer materials (and justiably so), surely identify this big bang with the work of Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen. These artists turn to plastics was in retrospect consistent with their development. However, it was not the new materials and what could be made out of them that was the driving force behind their plastic works, but rather the idea born in the early 1940s of creating an unusual, curved shape for an armchair that could not be realized using wood. When Saarinen nally found the solution in berglass (reinforced polyester resign), he still concealed it behind fabric; his Womb Chair (1948) does not pay homage to the material which made it possible to begin with. The situation was different with Charles and Ray Eames. Their PAW chair openly displayed the polyester resin they used (which, incidentally, was actually their second choice after aluminum!). That plastics at that time were not the ideal materials they are considered to be today is reected by that fact that the plastic chairs, including Eames Chairs, still had to be supported by legs made of conventional materials. Although Saarinen did not hide the plastic of his Tulip Chairs (1956), he still had to use metallic feet, a limitation he considered a big deciency. Today it is hard to understand how revolutionary the use of polyester

In 1951 Eero Saarinen did not hide the polymer materials in his chairs. But for his Tulip Chair No. 151 (1956) he still had to use cast aluminum the plastics available at the time were not stable enough to bear the weight of a human being.

The PAW chair by Charles and Ray Eames (1948) no longer conceals the material it is made of. Even the glass bers in the material can be seen something which is avoided in plastic products made today

resins in furniture design was at that time. For even at the end of the 1950s, the plastic age was not noticeable in many areas of everyday life. Although practically all of the polymers that are important today were discovered back in the mid-20th century, it took decades before they were introduced on the market, let alone achieved production growth and sales at todays accustomed level. Thus, it is extremely interesting to follow how the history of plastic design was inuenced by the successes of material developers and how designers dealt with the limitations of modern plastics in the early days of the material.

2. The beginnings
The 120,000 tons of plastic produced in West Germany in 1950 were still considered like their Bakelite predecessors an alternative to conventional materials. For this reason, objects from the 50s look antiquated compared to the technological-revolutionary formal language of the 60s with its big international echo (Pop Art). A design competition staged by the burgeoning polystyrene giant BASF devoted to dishes made of Luran, a styrene-acrylonitrile plastic, showed as late as the 1960s pieces that could have been made of ceramic. Modern aspects were suggested primarily by the wealth of color; the round, owing shapes associated with the plastic design explosion of the 60s, however, were not yet in evidence. German designers embraced the Bauhaus ideal and Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) long after

the end of the war. In the mid-1960s, their primary interest regarding plastic-oriented forms was still the lower density of the materials. Exploiting new design possibilities was not an issue. Essentially, conventional ceramic designs were transferred to plastic; at most, plastic cups were equipped with a larger bottom, as due to their higher center of gravity they tended to fall over more easily than their heavier ceramic counterparts. Consumers slowly came to the realization (among other things, on account of the success of the indestructible Tupperware, which had gone on the market in 1949) that plastic products were more than just substitutes. They were convinced by the materials low weight and unbreakability. With plastic coffee pots, the lower thermal conductivity of the material was important. Only gradually did artists and young designers discover the growing plastics family as a means of expression not necessarily because they could foresee the new possibilities afforded by the plastics or understood the technology behind them, but because they wanted to take a different path from their teachers.

Plastic dishes known from the days of melamine resin, but still subject to the design conceptions of the glass and porcelain era. Nevertheless, new colors were created!

Plastics still arent stable enough Among the rst plastic objects associated with the characteristic 60s style in Germany, as elsewhere, were pieces of furniture whose organic look called to mind leaves or plant parts. Their owing forms, reminiscent of Art Nouveau, were, however, only partially the result of a predilection for imitating nature. The main reason for these shapes was that designers did not consider these soft or brittle, still rather unstable plastics to be suitable for more extravagant forms. Indeed, when creating plastic pieces that had to absorb forces, designers tried to avoid straight surfaces and right angles at all costs, because the materials were simply not stable enough (see below). On the other hand, arced, bulbous organic forms optimally transfer the forces acting on them, a reason why no right angles occur in animate nature. Racing cars built in the 1930s (and thus long

Today large raw materials companies cater to designers and their work. They produce the colors designers desire and tailor surfaces to their specications many things that were inconceivable 30 years ago are a matter of course today.

before plastics were used in this area) had similar, typically streamlined shapes so here, too, the aim was not to imitate aesthetic forms found in nature, but the reasons purely had to do with aerodynamics. Streamlined racing cars were constructed of metal long before plastics were introduced in this domain. Synthetic resins commercially available from around 1941 and, after the war, in combination with glass bers (berglass) stable enough to be used for large-scale building parts were utilized to build race cars mainly because they weighed less than steel or even aluminum. As is well known, Luigi Colanis aesthetic roots lay in the construction of streamlined plastic car bodies only later did he start transferring the design principles he recognized there to other objects. Thus, early designers of plastic furniture oriented themselves to natural forms due to factual constraints and made a virtue out of necessity. Organic structures emerged in the early days of plastic design because the designers solved the tasks they faced using the same methods as nature itself.

In the years to come, the image of plastics as disdainful surrogates gradually shifted to one of a new family of materials that could be used to make and do unusual things. Plastics were never cheap to begin with. Even today in terms of weight they

Luigi Colani the designer who today is associated with round, organic forms.

are around ve times as expensive as steel. In addition to furniture designers, artists started taking an interest in the new materials in the late 50s and early 60s. In art galleries, transparent polyester resins and colored styrene copolymers appeared more and more often alongside granite and wood. And the plastics industry catered to their needs. For example, specialists from the BASF chemicals group helped Victor Vasarely transfer his world of color onto the plastic Luran. The rst polystyrene foams were soon used to make lost forms using the full mold casting method. In the early 60s, this very light material, which could be processed elegantly using heated wire loops, began to replace wire models, pieces of fabric stuck together, and papier mache. The speed of this development is reected by the following fact: At the Documenta 3 art show in 1964, there were still far more works made of bronze, wood, and stone than of plastic. Just your years later, many of the participating artists relied on the new materials. In the eld of glass painting, the brittle, inorganic material glass now had to compete with the less vulnerable and more modern-looking plastic polystyrene. Other designers were fascinated by the idea of serial mass production of injection molding objects. This led to a turn away from unique products and toward cheap yet aesthetically appealing ones for every man.

Artists like Victor Vasarely became proponents of multiplied art; the aim was for beautiful sculptures to be affordable like, say, a good book. However, typical plastic mass-production methods were not only used to create works less expensively, but because artists continually sought to combine serially produced plastic units in major works. Artists such as Gaetano Pesce countered the tendency to use methods of mass-producing plastics to create constant replicas. While for his series of originals Pesce had employed serial techniques since the 1960s, the individual design of each work was a top priority for him.

Plastic furniture much more sophisticated than was thought The threshold to a more contemporary understanding of materials in furniture design could gradually be crossed thanks to the development of increasingly high-performance polymer materials. Starting in the mid-1960s, for instance, it was nally possible to do without legs or stabilizing material made of wood or steel, as Gnther Beltzigs Floris chair from 1967 shows although this object visibly owes its stability to the aforementioned recourse to structural principles found in nature. Verner Panton went a big step further. He was among the designers who recognized in plastics materials that could be rea-

Bright colors commonplace when it comes to plastics! New colors were developed.


lized virtually devoid of technological constraints. The most prominent milestone of 1960s design was the Panton Chair from 1969 the rst cantilever chair made of plastic. This object excellently illustrates the development of plastic applications technology in the 60s and 70s. The extremely high level of plastics processing technology today with its high output of cheap plastic products cannot be transferred to the situation in the second third of the 20th century. The manufacture of plastic furnishings was absolutely high-tech for the time, in keeping with their mystique, and was only temporarily interrupted by the traumatic experience of the oil crises in the 1970s. The methods available to engineers at that time cannot really be compared to todays rapid mass-production procedures. Even a chair is only a simple product at rst glance. So it was not only the exciting designs, but also the technological development work behind the design highlights of that period that was groundbreaking in many ways. For whether a plastic seat is stable enough to bear the weight of a person sitting in it depends not only on the geometry of the object, but also on the stiffness of the material. Incidentally, Gaeano Pesce took up this idea much later when he created his Pratt Chairs in 1983 chairs that differed not only in color but

The legendary Panton chair: through the decades a good indicator of what could be manufactured out of plastic.

also in terms of stiffness. The softest model couldnt even stand on its own legs, and the next softest was stable, but couldnt be sat in. Thus, the materials technology of the early masterpieces of plastic design was also extremely sophisticated. To implement the bold curve of a backrest in practice, at rst the weight had to be determined that the chair would later have to bear long before such problems could be solved by special computer programs at the press of a button. To this end, prototypes were made by hand out of proxy plastics, which were then subjected to extensive weight tests. The individual manual production of prototypes using the synthetic resinlamination method was extremely elaborate and it was easy to make mistakes (see the chapter entitled

Gnther Beltzigs Floris chair (1967): The use of organic forms permits optimal distribution of force legs no longer had to be made of stiffer materials.

The polystyrene variant of the Panton chair had to be equipped with reinforcement ribs to guarantee the desired stability. With polyurethane hard foam, which did not ensure production anywhere near as effective, thickening of the load-bearing structures was sufcient.

The AXA Art Conservation Project). A modern possibility of stabilizing load-bearing structures is to reinforce them with thick walls containing molded plastic struts. But this technique could scarcely be used in the early days of plastics technology. For as plastics are poor heat conductors, in the infancy of injection molding there was the problem with too thick construction parts that the heat of the hot molten plastic could not be removed from the molded blank quickly enough; but uneven heat removal leads to tension in the component, and in the worst case to deformation of the material. Inlaying metal parts and then injecting plastic around them was problematic for a similar reason: As good thermal conductors, inlaid metals make the molten plastic cool down too early. And once the injection-molding tool was elaborately produced, it was hardly possible to modify it, as this equipment is extremely expensive.

hard foam manufacture had matured and plastics could be foamed with fuel gases. This gave rise to ultra-stable sandwich components with smooth surfaces and a foamed core, which gave some of the bold- shaped design icons of the 1960s and 70s their stability. The so-called integral foams were similar in their inner structure to the soft foam materials found in furniture and mattresses, with the difference that the foamed material had a closed surface and was not soft but hard. A great deal of know-how is needed to make these foams, for to obtain products like these in an appropriate quality, the foam cannot harden too early or it will not ll out the mold but not too late either, or the gas bubbles will bubble up and the foam will deate at the wrong time. With soft foams, too, the properties of the product depend to a large extent on criteria such as pore size, elasticity of the cell walls, thickness, and abrasion resistance of the skin. Entire development departments of plastics manufacturers and of the mechanical engineering companies that produce the processing systems are

The Panton Chair shows whats possible The situation only changed when polyurethane

still working on rening foam recipes so that these materials harden optimally. Thus, the Panton Chair is not only a design icon but also a barometer for modern plastics application technology. The prototypes of the Panton Chair, like Eames chair, were still made of polyester resin in an extremely elaborate procedure, large parts of which are more reminiscent of skilled craftsmanship than industrial mass production. From 1969 to 1971 polyurethane hard foam was used which, however, needed a certain nishing, so that at rst no more than three chairs could be produced in an hour. In 1971, the chairs were made suitable for mass production for the rst time and manufactured with polystyrene plastic (which had been developed at the end of the 50s) in an injection molding procedure. Later polyurethane was used again (from 1983), and then polypropylene (1999) the polystyrene intermezzo was discontinued due to the poor aging properties of the plastic. We will return to this topic in the next chapters.

A modern creation made of polyurethane: the Bouche sofa by the French designer and artist Louis Durot, who makes veritable furniture sculptures out of polyurethane. Durot was an assistant of the French sculptor Csar Baldaccini (Csar), who experimented with polyurethanes back in the 1960s. The object shown here pays tribute to Salvador Dalis famous lip-shaped sofa from 1936 with a three-millimeter thick, robust polyurethane skin over the soft core.

3. Showing how we should live

Revolutionary materials The music synthesizers that emerged in the 1960s could produce sounds never heard before, thus enabling musicians to free their music of associations always present when classical instruments are played. In a similar way, designers and artists tried with the new materials to create an entirely new aesthetics which, unburdened by the subtexts of well-known materials, t in perfectly with the mood of social upheaval of the 60s and 70s. Even today, when the plastic formal language of this century has lost its innocence and has long since been imitated, a wooden stool triggers different associations from a polyurethane stool with the same design. At the cusp of the 1970s, plastics played an increasingly important role in the typical revolutionary discourse of the day about new societal forms and new living concepts. Plastics became a

substrate of ideas, as it were, which could not be implemented without these materials. They seemed to be able to bring abstract concepts down to earth, to make them realizable. Comprehensive models like Colanis Ylem show a world permeated by plastic utopias. Conversely, if a piece of furniture had a shiny plastic surface it was automatically labeled modern, even if the design ideas behind it werent necessarily novel. For the wild designers of the 1970s were not all as progressive as is often claimed today. Thus, Colanis ball kitchen design, which could only be realized using plastic (perhaps not his original intention), still aimed to make the woman at the stoves chaining to her workplace more bearable, with her traditional role afrmatively stylized by modern design. A few years later, concepts were developed to free people from their isolation by means of open, exible constructions; (foam) seating furniture was designed as exibly as possible, so that it could be regrouped depending on the occasion (a wild party or a reading in the bosom of the family). Even the arrangement of the

space in the home was supposed to be as variable as possible, to enable the ground plan of ones own four walls to be changed at any time. Mass production of plastics was supposed to make all of this possible. But shiny plastic surfaces and foam landscaped interiors were part of almost all of these living visions. Ultimately, a roof over our head is our most important basic need after food, health, and clothing. At the same time, there are few areas of everyday life in which products from the chemical industry have become popular on such a wide front
Eero Aarnios Bubble Chair (1963 to 1965, produced with interruptions until 1987). Polyurethane is a material used by furniture designers today more than ever before.

not only in the form of comfortable seating furniture, but also for creative portrayal of the modern, individualized aura.

Comfortable and attractive! In the second half of the 20th century, many designers considered the discovery of polyurethane soft foam (the rst blocks of this material were manufactured in 1951) to be a veritable revolution. For comfort is a basic human need. Even the oldest furniture known to us around 5,000 years old and discovered in prehistoric stone buildings on the Orkney Islands in Scotland were lled with moss to enhance comfort. The Egyptians rested on beds with a low wooden frame that was covered with tightly woven ax cord. In the modern age, seating and sleeping furniture were upholstered with straw and horsehair. But the discovery of polyurethane soft foams broke with conventional padding materials in a special way: For the rst time there was a material that not only promised comfort, but virtually demanded creative shaping. The UP series designed by Gaetano Pesce consisted of foaming, large-scale

seating furniture which thanks to vacuum-packaging were practically reduced to ten percent of their volume and unfolded by themselves in the living room: visions of a new living culture that ignored conventional manufacturing methods and realized entirely new transport and living ideas. Roberto Sebastian Mattas Malitte seating group (1966), the unbeatably casual Sacco created by Piero Gatti, Caesare Paolini, and Franco Teodoro (1968, PVC, lled with little polystyrene balls), and Colombos science ction-like Total Furnishing Unit (polyurethane) have gone down in design history and, like Ero Aarnios ball chair (in production from 1966 to 1980!) and Verner Pantons polyurethane cave landscape, which caused a sensation at the end of the 60s, were more than just furniture: They were sociopolitical statements against routine living. The fact that Wohnen (to live in German) stems from the Middle High German buonan (meaning I am) shows the revolutionary importance of these designers as they sought to put an end to the rituals of bourgeois life by means of modern design. And plastics were nally stable and mature (for example, the plastic ABS was referred to as the steel pipe of the 60s!). Helmut Btzners plastic chair BA 1171 (produced from 1966 to 1984) even actively survived the shock of the oil crisis! From that point on, chemists provided designers with the materials they needed to show us how we should live. And these designers took advantage of the opportunity to reshape society not only in abstract discussions, but also in concrete material form in a revolutionary sense. This development was even promoted by some plastics manufacturers. With its study Wohneinheit 80 (Living Unit 80) in 1971, BASF put a concept up for discussion in which the then sociopolitical discussions were extrapolated to the 1980s; in this context one can also mention the groundbreaking Visiona exhibitions mounted by Bayer AG in the late 60s and early 70s.

completely new, in part surreal designs. An example is the Capitello chair designed by Studio 65 (1971), which casts a soft material in a form that creates the illusion of a hard one (marble) like the seating object Il Piede by Gaetano Pesce, perhaps the boldest piece of his UP series, which is reminiscent of the Constantines marble foot in Rome. The moon landing and utopian lms like Stanley Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey also helped plastic design break out of the living sphere and make plastic a material that could be used to make the world more livable. Inexpensive plastic houses

Plastic houses? In the 1970s plastic design had become so exible that even anti-design movements emerged, which, thanks to plastic, countered the stiff classics with

In the 1950s and 60s, polyurethane soft foams gradually started replacing conventional upholstery materials like horsehair and straw. A welcome development for those seeking comfort, thought it took a while before furniture designers departed from traditional forms and customers accepted the new ideas.

Hard or soft? Plastics enable designers to stray from what is expected of conventional materials and to play with appearance (the Capitello chair made of polyurethane foam, Studio 65, 1971).

affordable for people with average income. But their hope was not fullled: stone, glass, wood, steal, and concrete remain the unrivaled and mostly ideology-free building materials.

4. Not fast-selling items!

From todays perspective, we should be cautious about viewing the 60s as the high point or even the birth of plastic design. This appraisal may be appropriate in light of the creativity displayed with the help of the new materials. But before the new ideas could prevail in the face of traditional consumer behavior and bring about todays conception of a colorful plastic era, tastes had to gradually change over decades, on the one hand, and on the other the mass-consumption population had to become economically stable before plastic design products could become more widely distributed. As late as the mid-1960s, plastic was still primarily used as a wood imitation material in furniture construction, and plastic furniture was still were supposed to liberate oppressed people from tenements, and plastic automobiles were supposed to make cars affordable for everyone (automobile were coveted at that time but not yet as commonplace as they are today). Incidentally, even the development of the self-service system at that time in its infancy but today a mainstay would not have been conceivable without plastic packaging. Houses were actually built out of plastic. And not only the media took an interest in them. An inhabitable pipe made of berglass-reinforced polyester was built as a prototype in the densely populated Ruhr region of Germany and bought by a wealthy American for the substantial price of 85,000 deutschmarks. The inventors of the pipe hoped that the price would fall to less than half in the coming years on account of mass production and thus also be

Number seven from Gaetano Pesces Up collection: the famous Il Piede foot made of polyurethane soft foam today unfortunately no longer in top condition.

Polypropylene is a relatively longlasting material. Above: Konstantin Grcics waterpaper basket called Square.

the exception in German homes. Design furniture mainly adorned the premises of companies that wanted to convey an innovative image. Nevertheless, the expansion of the plastic universe triggered by the design wave of the 60s still has an impact today. Those who choose to use the expression big bang in this context are welcome to. It is also a suitable epithet for an entirely different reason. Like the universe of astronomers, the universe of designers and artists is much less static than people thought for decades and the objects in it change over time more than had been expected. Indeed, the possibility of encountering one of the many polymer witnesses of its time today in its authentic, original form is virtually nil. Plastics age usually faster than their inventors, users, and collectors.

Not conceived to last forever The development of polymer materials was notwithstanding all the cooperation with artists and designers primarily technologically driven. And that did not only have positive consequences from todays point of view, because the plastics sold on the market were in the very rst place optimized to meet the needs of mass-production methods, which ultimately led to their enormous distribution. Today the big chemical companies directly inquire about the needs of users and designers so that they can adapt their materials to the requirements of this target group. Four decades ago, creative minds made use of what was available the properties were so new, and the impressions that could be created from them so varied, that at rst there was no need for special designer plastics. However, in the early development period of todays mass plastics, factors that are a matter of

course today, such as having as long a life possible, were not the focus, but rather technical aspects, which are generally not so important to artists, for example reduction of brittleness, better ow, higher temperature resistance, and acceleration of injection molding procedures. Thus, unlike today, designers and artists were compelled to used materials for their experiments with the new plastics and for their rst designs that were not primarily optimized to be more stable. Only in the last two decades and even more urgently since the year 2000 have designers, curators, and collectors become more aware of the aging properties of the materials.

Excursus: plastic and music

The development of sound art, from the sophisticated tones of elite high-delity equipment to acoustic noise pollution, is closely tied to the development of high-tech plastics. In 1877, the New York engineer Thomas Alva Edison made the rst attempts to conserve sound events, in 1877,

on a tinfoil cylinder. For this idea (which came to him, by the way, as he was printing Morse signals in wax paper), he even put his work on light bulbs on the back burner. Once the idea had been developed, almost every new material he and his colleagues could get their hands on was used in the experimental kitchens of the audio pioneers. Emil Berliner, the inventor of the gramophone record, experimented with celluloid and hard rubber and with their help laid the foundations for mass production of musicians output, which lasted until the digital revolution of the music industry in the early 21st century. The recordings were initially etched in wax-covered zinc discs, which were subsequently used to produce hard rubber molds. Disks were pressed from these molds rst with celluloid, later with shellac. Incidentally, shellac remained the material for record manufacture for some 60 years. It was heat resistant, hard, and not susceptible to water; as a result, it could even outperform Bakelite. At the same time, however, the typical sound of a shellac record attests to the disadvantage of this plastic, for this material secreted by an insect dwelling in India has to be stretched with soot, bone black, or graphite and rock our to make it hard enough. Up to three fourths of a shellac record consisted of such admixtures, which rubbed against the needle and caused the static that can be heard on old records.

Vinyl takes the world by storm Thus the switch from shellac to PVC so-called vinyl was a quantum leap. Vinyl records were lighter and no static-causing lling material had to be added. Thanks to the greater strength of the material, the grooves on a vinyl record could be around three times closer together; as the moldedin sound events could now be reproduced much more nely, starting in the mid-50s record buyers could enjoy a much more extensive frequency response. The last shellac record was sold in stores in 1958. In spite of its advantages, the PVC record (apart from a limited market for fervent vinyl enthusiasts), had a comparably short, albeit intense, life. The switch to optical data storage via CD, DVD, and todays successors occurred in 1982. The introduction of the CD was only possible after a suitable plastic was available to make it. The readout via infrared laser required an extremely transparent material, which had to be stiff enough so that it didnt warp when touched, heat resistant enough to endure a few days on the hot back seat of a car, and above all which didnt wave when it came into contact with water vapor. The pits on the aluminum layer of a CD are packed together so closely (and even more closely on a DVD) that fractions of millimeters decide between music or noises. So Plexiglas was not used as a material, but a plastic called polycarbonate, which hitherto had been discussed as a material for impact resistant visors. In 1999, each of the some 6,000 CD production machines worldwide used 50 tons of polycarbonate a total of 300,000 tons, which made its way into households in the form of around 17.6 billion audio CDs or data carriers.

A shellac record, a vinyl record, and a modern CD (from top to bottom)


CDs are another item that would be inconceivable without plastics, which are permeable to laser light and do not deform in day-to-day usage for example, when they are taken from a cold car and inserted in a warm CD player. Above: a modern CD production facility.


Not a Material That Lasts Forever?

1. Introduction
We are accustomed to regarding artworks as something that will outlast us. After all, cave paintings executed using ash, coal, blood, and plant dyes have survived for 30,000 years. Sculptures from Antiquity may be devoid of color, but their substance is more or less the way it was when they were created thousands of years ago. Even 1,000-year-old paintings that we admire in museums can look timelessly fresh and young. But as we all know, nothing and no one escapes the ravages of time. The at times fast, but usual noticeably slow inuences of our environment leave no artwork untouched. Colors fade or disappear gradually behind deposits, acidic aerosols erode buildings, textiles become brittle over time. So its no surprise that the aura of masterpieces from the early days of plastics and plastics mass production fades with time sometimes falling victim to terrifying processes of dissolution. While the decient age-resistance of many plastics used to give people food for thought (for example, synthetic leather, which was long considered versatile and hip, lost its good reputation in the 1970s because it didnt last long enough), it is astonishing how quickly athese collectors items degenerate. Foams become brittle, dyes fade, paints peel, supporting parts break and this after only a few decades. If classical art materials like Carrara marble or ultramarine pigments decomposed as fast, its hard to say how much they would be worth to us. Still, a relatively short shelf life is not a feature unique to plastic art, but a characteristic of many materials of our epoch. Electronic devices from past decades also have limited life spans after some 20 years the interior of most highly integrated semiconductor components is so destroyed that the failure rate increases enormously. This is not only due to the imperfect manufacturing techniques in the

early days of electronics, but is simply the result of daily use. The temperature uctuations connected with the switching on and off of the chips inside the devices wear down the sensitive semiconductor structures until at some point they collapse. Wooden musical instruments from past centuries can still be played today if they are cared for properly and constantly maintained. Music synthesizers from the 70s, on the other hand, wont be able to produce a sound in a few more years.

Plastics last for a long time but they lose properties What is surprising about the pitiful state of some designer objects from the 60s and 70s is the fact that plastics have for decades had a reputation as being everlasting (indestructible). A radio housing carelessly thrown into the woods still has the same shape years later, and plastic bags seem to be made to be used by generations of people. So why cant valuable collectors pieces make it through the decades? Why do unprotected polyurethane foams degenerate in just a few years? The answer to this question is at once simple and complex. For the gradual destruction of most plastics basically occurs via two paths: rst, via the gradual washing out of additives which give the plastic many of its properties (for example, its elas-

Plastic waste does not belong in nature. Contrary to popular belief, however, plastic bags and bottles do not permanently dele natural surroundings they normally degrade after a few decades. Synthetic materials cannot endure concentrated attacks by microorganisms, oxygen, and UV light.


ticity); and second, via the gradual destruction of the long chain molecules of which a plastic consists. The second scenario occurs in many different ways. And theres not much that can be done to stop the destruction once it has begun. The idea that molecules can break up may come as surprise. But the fact that marginal processes that cant be followed at all with the naked eye can have such devastating effects is even more astonishing. In any case, the idea that plastics per se are indestructible is a misconception. The only thing that all polymers have in common is their more or less regular structure consisting of constantly repeating components. But they share this trait with many other materials found in nature. Starch, for instance, consists of strings of sugar molecules; so it is a sort of sugar polymer. Silk, spider webs, cotton, wood, and hair are all composed of polymers that developed in nature over millions of years of evolution. And since these natural chain molecules have existed for such a long time, living things including humans have found ways of breaking down these materials to use their components for other purposes.

With thicker, massive plastic pieces natural degradation takes longer but only because the molecules are not served up to microorganisms in bitesized pieces.

Plastics on the meal plan To observe how the polymer components of wood so-called lignins degenerate over time, all you have to do is take a walk in the forest. But other plastics such as polyester and so-called polyesterpolyurethanes contain components that can also serve as food for microorganisms. Whats more, plastics which seem robust at rst glance like polypropylene and polyethylene are broken down in free nature but very, very, slowly. This occurs so gradually not because nature has no means to attack these materials. After all, there are bacteria that can even digest crude oil you can nd them in the vicinity of every gas station (polypropylene consists of the same building blocks that oil is composed of). The degeneration is slow because microorganisms can only decompose plastics from the ends of the molecular chains. And the latter are mostly found in the unreachable interior of the tangle of molecules.

The polypropylene that plastic bags are made of is simply not served to soil organisms in bite-sized pieces; the thicker the object, the longer it stays intact. On the other hand, if plastics production was stopped today, in a few decades we wouldnt be annoyed any more by the sight of discarded plastic cups on forest walks. Cut into tiny shreds, a car tire would also be digested in few days by the corresponding organisms. But even if a plastic object were stored in a germfree environment or protected from microbiological degeneration (there are actually plastics additives used in the medical eld, for example, which prevent the material from being infested by bacteria), the plastic would still not last forever. For there are extraordinarily many other inuences that affect plastics among other things, daily usage or simply storing them in suboptimal conditions.

2. What actually happens?

Plasticizers & co. In the eyes of the general public, the term plasticizer has negative connotations. But people often forget that nature knows plasticizers too, and uses them all the time. The most natural plasticizer is water. Without a certain proportion of water, natural bers such as silk, wool, or cotton would be fragile. The job of water molecules is to lie between the bers like ball bearings so that the bers can shift against one another. Muscles built out of protein polymers also only become really supple thanks to water molecules between the bers which people feel as they get older, as the water is increasingly replaced by fat, which, however, is less conducive to this task. Even in areas where nature does without plasticizers in creating its polymer materials, their effect can be observed. This is the case with quartz, for example, an extremely hard material. Synthetic quartzes, which contain around 0.1% water (about

ten times more than its natural model), are as mobile as plaster at 400C, while virtually waterfree natural quartz hardly softens at temperatures of around 1000C. Incidentally, even wood can be made moldable with the help of a similar principle here mixtures of ammonium and organic solvents are normally used. As soon as these substances evaporate, the material returns to what it was: solid wood.

Many plastics are inherently brittle Plasticizers are even more essential in the plastics industry. There are natural rubbers which couldnt be processed into synthetic rubber without plasticizers, since without these additives they would remain stuck in the kneader. Without plasticizers some plastics, too, would adhere to the spray nozzle rather than willingly ow into the mold. Even PVC is almost as brittle as glass in its natural form. It is thanks to plasticizers (usually up to 55 percent of the total content) that it transforms into the elastic, anti-skid material we know. Even hard PVC can

Plastics are only very rarely used in the form in which they come out of reactors. Normally additives, colorants, and plasticizers are added to them. When these substances are ushed out over time, the properties of the plastic change.


contain up to 12 percent plasticizer. These additives comprise up to 10 percent of the volume of ordinary plastics, and up to 60 percent in elastomers. Some exotic plastics consist of up to 95 percent plasticizer. Even paper can contain up to 5 percent. Today plastics technology knows approximately 400 substances that are used as plasticizers in some form; around 100 of them are commercially important. In the mid-1990s, more than 4.2 million tons of plasticizer was used. Today around 90 percent of all plasticizers are processed into PVC.

How plasticizers work In a certain sense, manufacturing a plastic part is like cooking a package of spaghetti. First you add hard pasta (the granulate) to a pot of boiling water. Then the noodles soften in it. Although they get tangled up in the pot due to frequent stirring, they can normally be poured easily into the strainer corresponding to the injection of molten plastic into the mold. But as soon as the noodles dry, two phenomena can be observed: The cold noodles form a cake which reproduces the form of the strainer in surprising detail, and, secondly, it is very difcult to detach individual portions.

Since the properties of the noodles have not changed from when they were poured into the strainer to when they cooled down, there must be another reason for the effect. Indeed, the spaghetti can be poured so easily after they are cooked because the water between the noodles functions as a lubricating lm. Once the water has evaporated, they remain stuck to one another. Italian food lovers know what to do about this: They add oil to the boiling water. Oil does not evaporate as easily as water does and keeps the noodles supple. In terms of plastics technology, plasticizers are to plastics what olive oil is to spaghetti. They enable the chain molecules to remain mobile even after they harden. Pure PVC, for instance, consists of molecules which adhere very well to one another. This prevents a block of unmodied PVC from reacting elastically to external force the molecules are rigidly arranged like atoms in a crystal. And the material looks correspondingly stiff and brittle. Only when plasticizers lubricate the molecules, so to speak, can they slide past one another if need b that makes the material loose and mobile. So plasticizers are a blessing for technology. But they can make life hard for collectors of plastic art. For since plasticizers make plastic what it is, a loss of plasticizer makes the material what it was: brittle and fragile.

Additives are cosmetics for plastics: Many of these materials only obtain their properties when substances are added, substances which, for example, protect them from UV light or simply make them supple enough to detach from the mold without any difculties.

Greasy hoses and insidious spots And this danger is anything but abstract. For plasticizer particles are like water as mobile in plastics as honey in a coarse-pored sponge. Over the years these particles inevitably migrate through the material to the surface, where they evaporate or are removed when the object is cleaned. In rubber parts, so-called eforescences become apparent. These are portions of solid additives which partially due the mechanical strain resulting from the exing work make their way to the surface where they can look like mold infestations. And everyone knows the somewhat slimy look that PVC types strongly enriched with plasticizers have this is due, among other things, to the fact

mechanical tensions, which, say, have lessened due to uneven heat removal when the part created by injection molding cools down, can discharge. Nothing will happen as long as sufcient plasticizer has made the material elastic. Once the plasticizer is gone, however, the part in question can break when subjected to the slightest strain. Indeed, the plasticizer problem is one of the most important points that restorers think about today. An example: the spacesuits that the Apollo astronauts brought back undamaged from the moon. Built into them were PVC hoses which were made elastic with the aid of plasticizers. The problem: After 30 years in a museum, these liquids migrated out of the polymer, which made the supply hoses brittle. Who would have thought that spacesuits have a much shorter tether than medieval knights armor? Meanwhile, the plastics industry has become wiser. Nowadays there are plasticizers that are rmly connected to polymer molecules so that they can no longer migrate through the material. But they have one big disadvantage: They can no longer be dosed as easily in the plastic raw material as their liquid counterpart, which when needed can simply be added in the necessary amount. Another alternative would be plasticizers with voluminous molecules, which are simply too immobile for extensive migrations due to their sheer size. The problem: They would no longer sufciently fulll their plasticizing function. So it seems that collectors will have to live with the plasticizer problem for a long time to come.

A polystyrene butter dish after being washed in a dishwasher: The course of the cracks indicates that tension built up in the material during the injection molding process (probably because the material cooled down too quickly) and discharged upon contact with hot water and tensides (dishwashing liquid). Higher-quality products cool down more slowly and are thus more resistant to such deformations.

that plasticizer has migrated to the surface. Some of these substances can be seen with naked eye, and look like ne droplets. The deplorable state of some of the famous objects from the Blow series designed by Paolo Lomazzi, Donato DUrbino, and Jonathan DePas (1968 to 1969, reissued from 1988 to 1992) is decidedly due to the gradual loss of such plasticizers. And a similar effect is responsible for the well-known violet-brown spots that form under the rubber feet of household objects. The culprit here is an anti-oxidant added to the polymer which can escape from the material over time and cause spots. But the spots are less of a problem than the loss of functionality caused by the additives. Every molecule that the plastic loses in this way detracts from its original properties. When plasticizer migrates out, the material becomes harder and more brittle. And when the plasticizer comprises a large part of the original volume of the plastic (for example in PVC), a depletion of these additives leads to substantial shrinkage. Both can be fatal especially in cases where the manufacturing technique had not been perfected at the time of production. Then

Rancid butter and designer chairs When butter is left out in the sun for a long time, it becomes rancid. Though not an everyday occurrence, it is not an unusual one. But what does this have to do with plastic art? A great deal! For butter consists of fats and fats contain fatty acids, which in turn are composed of hydrocarbons. And these hydrocarbons are very similar to the ones that polyethylene and some kinds of rubber consist of. It is easy to explain what happens to butter in warm air: Heat and the suns rays, as well as oxygen, gradu-

this is what makes the material typically plastic elastic to begin with. When the chains break, however, the bond gradually dissolves. Another problem: The degradation products that emerge from these reactions including organic acids can speed up further damage to the plastic. Decomposed PVC even produces hydrochloric acid. The consequences vary. There are polymers which when subjected to too much strain actually soften and in extreme cases for example, in tires on overloaded forklifts even become liquid. Even today, especially tenacious rubber masses are now and then made pliable through strong kneading (so-called mastication) and the many long chain molecules are slowly broken up, giving rise to short chains that are more mobile. But gradual chain breakdown makes most polymers brittle and fragile. Padding made of this material gets sandy over the years, and crumbles when you rub it between your ngers. On the one hand, this is because solid lling materials like chalk, which is added to soft foam to improve its stability, are no longer integrated in a springy network and reveal their true nature. On the other hand, it is due to the fact that the chopped-up plastic molecules have lost their elasticity.

The aging behavior of plastics can be observed as though in fast motion in special simulation equipment. Material samples are irradiated with UV light and heated up in the presence of moisture. Under these conditions, polyurethane foams look in just a few hours what they would normally look like after years.

ally break down the butter molecules into smaller components. And they not only can move more easily than the big molecules of which they are fragments, they have a pungent odor. And what does this have to do with the Panton chair & co.? Its very simple: The same inuences that act on butter (and also on biodiesel fuel, by the way) can impair the chain molecules of plastics. Unpleasant smells occur only rarely, for when an around 20,000 hydrocarbon atom-long chain is cut in the middle, the fragments still have a mass that is over a thousand times larger than, say, bad-smelling butyric acids. But when chains break, this is of course detrimental to the cohesion of the plastic cake. For what distinguishes a polymer material from, say, graphite, is the fact that the plastic molecules are entangled and thus exterior forces are evenly distributed on all neighboring molecules

3. Gradual degeneration in day-to-day life

Many roads lead to broken chains The processes which give rise broken chains in plastics are as varied as the different plastics that have been invented by chemists in the last decades. Although the manifestation is the same brittle materials, fragile foams the causes can be extremely different. Often many factors work together. Lets begin with the example cited above: Microorganisms that digest plastics are found almost everywhere. Although in principle there is nothing that microorganisms cannot eat (there are even types of bacteria that feed on heavy metal ores!),

they prefer to make a meal of some plastics rather than others. Among the less liked ones are polyolens, polystyrene derivatives, and Bakelite. The more palatable ones include modied natural materials such as cellulose nitrate (for instance, celluloid and Parkesine), natural rubber (a few rubber products), cellulose acetate, and plastics containing casein such as Galalith, as well as polyamides, some polyurethanes, and polyester. The reason for this is simple: In these plastics the monomers were linked by chemical bonds which can be broken with relatively little effort. Mother Nature also makes use of some of the bonding methods employed in them, e.g. in the proteins that spiders webs, silk, and hair consist of so its no surprise that many bacteria have suitable cutlery with them! Sometimes the bonds are so weak that not even microorganisms are needed to gradually separate the components that were arduously linked in chemical reactors. In such cases all that is required to split the polymers are water and slightly higher temperatures. This process, referred to by experts as hydrolysis, can become a problem for the plastics industry. There have been cases of soles of golf shoes on literally dissolving on Asian golf courses, because the manufacturer did not think about the fact that in such areas several things comes together which are not good for the plastics used in the soles: heat, high humidity and the odd bacterium. Incidents have also been documented where entire inventories of plastic products became unusable

because they were stored in moist halls exposed to the suns rays. In such conditions, unprotected polyester-polyurethanes, for example, do not last for decades, but only a few weeks. However, this sensitivity to water and microorganisms is not a drama if preventive measures are taken. Shoe soles made of special polyurethanes that are not sensitive to hydrolysis can survive several humid summers without any problems. But if you own a piece of furniture that reacts sensitively to moisture, you have to take preventive action. The most important thing: Keep water away (including water vapor) and make sure the temperature and humidity arent too high. This applies in particular to foams: They have an especially large porous surface foams consist of 90 percent air! and therefore are particularly susceptible when not stored properly.

To see how aggressive the effects of UV light can be, all you have to do is look down at the oor. Carpeting made of polyamide bers bleaches from exposure to the suns rays. Above: the respective original carpet; below it: the same carpet after irradiation. Left: unprotected, on the right provided with a protective chemical. In the picture next to it you can see that the ber not only bleaches from exposure to ultraviolet light, but also wears out more quickly (left: unprotected polyamide; right: ber made of stabilized material).


By the way, furniture stored in a dry place is safe from microbes, because these organisms need water to move and reproduce. On dry surfaces they fall into a kind of hibernation. But if there is sufcient moisture, they start to wreak havoc immediately. And once the plastic is attacked from the inside, the destruction cannot be stopped. Light and heat But a word of caution: If you keep your collectors items in a kind of desert climate, you may do them a disservice. Even at the ideal room temperature with low humidity plastics may be endangered for example, by light, air, and vibrations through contact with other materials or improper storage. That light is potentially harmful is apparent when we get a sunburn. The latter is an inammatory reaction of our bodies to massive cell damage. For light especially at low wavelengths, i.e. in the UV area can also destroy molecules, and not only those in dyes (which is why advertising placards gradually fade), but also chain molecules such as DNA, and for this reason excessive sunbathing can lead to skin cancer. No wonder, then, that UV light is also potentially able to damage plastics, and remarkably even transparent polymer materials which let light pass through. This not only applies to light at wavelengths visible to us; UV light can also

do damage to water-clear plastics like polyacryline (polymethlyl methacrylate Plexiglas) and polycarbonates; over time the radiation causes tiny cracks in the material. Light does not simply break the molecules in two, it leaves behind extremely reactive fragments that initiate a kind of chain reaction in the material, rmly bonding molecules that previously lay loosely next to one another This is also bad in light of the fact that chain ruptures should be avoided, as bonds in the wrong place are just as harmful as too many links between chains. The latter in particular impair their mobility. As a result, the material gradually gets harder and brittle. Plastics exposed to sunlight for long periods without protection become delicate and take on a yellowish color. This discoloration, incidentally, is due to breakdown products of decomposition reactions, which, like many smaller organic molecules, absorb blue light and therefore show a yellow color a warning sign! There are plastics that are immune to this process. For this reason, blue Bakelite objects sometimes look green. The warm yellow shade may remind collectors of the aging patina that gives bronze sculptures their air. In the realm of plastic art, too, a slight yellow color also means: Im old, Im worth preserving. But the discoloration of old plastic pieces is different from a metallic patina. The main difference: The formation of an aging patina consisting of copper salts and other colored compounds on this metal is normally limited to the surface of the sculpture; they do not impair the properties of the mass of the metal. On the contrary, on certain metals such as aluminum an extremely thin layer of oxygen compounds functions like a kind of coating that protects the layers beneath it from environmental inuences. Things are somewhat different with plastics. On synthetics yellowing can indicate that the material

Before they are mass produced today new plastic pieces are usually subjected to extensive tests to see how weather-resistant they are.


was exposed to problematic environmental inuences that have a negative effect on it. It is not only a sign of authenticity but also a warning signal. While a patina may make a sculpture more robust, the gradual discoloration of plastics can mean the opposite. Thus, changes in the color of plastic works of art are something akin to rust. And it is often only a small step from aesthetically appealing patches of rust to deep-going, destructive pitting. Fortunately, the damage to the material of massive plastic pieces is normally limited to the outermost layers; namely, to the area that radiation can penetrate. This, by the way, is one of the reasons why most light-sensitive rubber articles are black: The carbon black they are lled with prevents light from penetrating too deeply. The chain reactions triggered by UV light can be kept in check if chemicals are added to the plastic which intercept the aggressive fragments that have been activated by the light. However, at some point they are used up, and then the material suffers massive damage from every solar ray like the polyester coatings which were equipped with sun protection on the inside back in the 1940s. So plastic pieces should we kept away from light, and in particular daylight, in so far as possible that is, if you want the piece to last a long time. Speaking of daylight: Where there is sun, there is heat. And high heat should also be avoided as far as possible, because some polymer materials contain groups of components that can react with one another and the warmer it is, the more easily they can do so. For heat is movement which means that the hotter it is, the more strongly the chain molecules oscillate back and forth in their prison consisting of neighboring molecules. This leads to chemical reactions and these can result in neighboring plastics molecules forming permanent bonds with one another. And since any limitation of mobility is connected with a loss of elasticity, caution is advised here too: The plastic can become brittle. But not only polymers start moving under the inuence of heat. Plasticizers and other additives,

This picture shows how UV light can attack plastics (in this case ABS) in the course of time; the sample at the top is seven months old, the one at the bottom eight years old. You can clearly see the bleaching effects as well as the gradual change in the surface. Cracks can be discerned in the oldest samples.

which give the plastic a good part of its properties, also become more mobile in the hot plastic cake and thus move faster to the surface, where they evaporate in the end. The fact that the inside of windshields of new cars fog up on hot summer days is ultimately due to this phenomenon. The layer of fog consists of ingredients that slowly escape from the hot plastic dashboard. Today the problem has been remedied but in the heyday of classical plastic design in the 60s and 70s the technology was not advanced enough yet. Much less spectacular, but of considerable importance over the decades, are temperature changes that occur due to the day-night cycle in normal homes near windows or near heaters! Plastics have comparatively high coefcients of thermal expansion. That means they expand with increasing temperatures and contract when it gets colder. This breathing puts just as much strain on the material over years as extensive use does. Especially in cases where the material has already become brittle

Additives can stabilize plastics even against high temperatures. Left: without a stabilizing agent. Right: with one. The temperature increases from left to right.

on account of other factors, it can no longer handle the to and fro. crack form. At rst the ssures can be so ne that they can only be seen under a microscope; but in the course of time they grow to large-scale material damage. So keep older plastic products away from heat, and avoid temperature uctuations! Even the elixir of life poses dangers Plastics are also endangered by the element that gives us life: oxygen. In fact, this gas is one of the most aggressive elements on earth. Dipped in liquid oxygen, most organic materials will burn without being ignited. Ultimately animal life only exists because the reaction of oxygen with other compounds provides so much energy only nature has learned to split up this combustion process in the cell into countless steps and thus to practically let it run unchecked. The stairs instead of a cliff principle: Innumerable signs of aging in our bodies are ultimately caused by the fact that the body does not always manage to keep oxygen in check over the decades. And the effect of oxygen on molecules is similar to that of UV light: It sets chain reactions in motion which lead to further cross-linking of the chain molecules. Living cells contain enzymes that can gradually balance out damage caused by oxygen yet our skin still becomes less elastic over the years. And oxygen can cause even more severe damage to unprotected plastics molecules. Indeed, the destructive potential of the air we breathe is among the most urgent problems the

plastics industry faces today. Unlike moisture and UV light, polymer materials cannot be kept away from air without a lot of fuss. And unlike light, oxygen can penetrate deeper layers of the material. From the perspective of an oxygen molecule with a few exceptions the densest polymer is hardly any different from a forest clearing for walkers. Microscopically small cracks arising from daily use of plastic are veritable radial highways for the aggressive gas they pave the way for the gas to penetrate deep inside the plastic. While chemistry researchers have developed solutions to this problem too, perfect permanent protection of deleterious inuences is still a long way off. Antioxidants are mixed into rubber, for example. Antioxidants are chemical compounds that oxygen would rather react with than with rubber molecules. But at some point they are consumed too and the last line of defense against the gas collapses. Another method: Waxes are added to the rubber, which gradually migrate to the surface, where they form thin lms that defend against the oxygen and dont let it pass. But they are also consumed or simply washed off after just a few years. What can be done against oxygen? Put plastic artwork in a protective gas atmosphere under quarantine like a quickly spoiling sausage? Not exposing it to oxygen to begin with? This seems very impractical, but vacuum packs are already on offer for plastic artworks and design pieces, arousing the interest of restorers and curators. However, this packing

method cannot prevent against inherent material reactions and thus leads to further problems. No matter how good the airtight packaging is, damage is inevitable when the object is stored for a long time, e.g. in museum store rooms, collectors depots, or art transport storage facilities. The following basic rules should be adhered to: Avoid unnecessary strain so as not to pump more oxygen than necessary into the piece of furniture. And keep the collectors item away from electrical installations or appliances. For the normal oxygen in the air we breathe has an aggressive cousin: ozone. This molecule arises from atmospheric oxygen in the presence of light and electrical discharge and is substantially more destructive than normal oxygen. Even low concentrations of this gas can destroy plastic and rubber in just a few years. And we cannot tell when exactly the ozone destruction process beings. Therefore cellars are not an adequate storage place for plastic furniture because they normally contain electrical installations and equipment that release ozone.

An enlargement of a polycarbonate surface that was subjected to a weathering simulator for a long period. In such equipment water spray and bright xenon lamps are used to simulate the elements. The sample shown here was coated with an unsuitable paint; the coating is peeling off, the once water-clear material has yellowed and shows ne cracks.


Plastics in Art an Overview

As we have seen, the history of plastic is an exciting, successful history for chemists, designers, and artists. The advantages of plastics for modern design and contemporary art are perfectly obvious. No other material is so versatile, has such a wide range of aesthetic features: color, shape, and strength from transparent to opaque, from elastic to stiff. Depending on the additives and color pigments, as well as the creative use of casting molds, the material can be manifested in every conceivable way. In this chapter, a few artists will be presented whose plastic creations gave recent art history a decisive turn. Italian Futurists and Russian Constructivists in search of modern technological material celluloid, Plexiglas, and nylon The rst artists who appropriated plastic to implement their artistic ideas were the two brothers Antoine Pevsner and Naum Gabo. Naum Gabo, n Naum Neemia Pevsner in 1890 in Bryansk, Russia, changed his surname to Gabo to distinguish himself from his brother Antoine, a painter. He studied medicine, natural sciences, philosophy, and art history at the University of Munich. In 1913 and 1914, he visited his brother Antoine Pevsner in Paris, where he met the artist Alexander Archipenko and other members of the Russian avant-garde. During the First World War, Gabo and Pevsner lived in Oslo, where Gabo created his Cubist-inspired gurative sculptures. He executed these works in celluloid and metal. The two brothers regarded plastics as modern technological materials in the machine age, and starting using celluloid in their work in the 1910s. The Italian Futurists Fortunato Depero and Giacomo Balla started using celluloid for their constructions around the same time, in 1913. Unfortunately, many of their objects were lost or destroyed due

to the war, the emigration of the artists, and various moves to different places. After 1934, artists who processed plastics for their work, including Naum Gabo, Pevsner, and MoholyNagy, started making use of Plexiglas or Perspex, which had better aging properties than celluloid. Plexiglas and the English variant, Perspex, are transparent and thermoplastically moldable, and can be worked using saws, les, sandpaper, drills, and the like. In 1946, the artist Alexander Archipenko started using acrylic glass plates for his three-dimensional sculptures symbolizing time and space because these plates could radiate incident light due to their sharp edges. As a result, the objects seemed to radiate and shine from within. At the beginning of the 1960s, the new material plastic played only a subordinate role. At the Documenta 3 art exhibition in Kassel in 1964, only two artists displayed works incorporating plastics. But the situation changed quickly. Just four years later, in 1968, the art show featured as many works made of plastic as objects fashioned out of conventional materials such as bronze, stone, etc. The reason for this was that at the end of the 60s not only these materials were accessible to everyone, but also the technology for processing them, including casting, coloring, etc. Artists had a material at their disposal that had little in common with traditional working materials and was therefore free from all traditions and prejudices. Plastic was a modern material; it spoke of the future. Acrylates, epoxides, polyesters, styrenes, silicons, vinyls, and cellulose butyrates were especially popular in this period. Celluloid, which had been used often in the early 20th century, was now no longer employed on such a large scale due to its poor aging characteristics and dangerous manufacturing properties, and was replaced by other plastics.

Eva Hesse art and anti-art made out of latex and fiberglass
Eva Hesse is considered one of the most important female artists of the 20th century not least because she was a pioneer of material art. In her short, dramatic life, she created more than 850 drawings and 111 paintings, as well as approximately 100 sculptures in a period of only ten years. Born in 1936 in Hamburg as the daughter of a Jewish trial lawyer, at the age of two she was forced to emigrate with her parents to New York via Holland and England. Her parents separated when she was nine. Her father remarried, and her severely depressed mother jumped out of a window to her death. Eva Hesse studied at the Cooper Union School in New York and the Yale School of Art and Architecture, with Josef Albers, among others. In 1961, Hesse participated in a group exhibition for the rst time; her rst solo show followed in 1963 at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York. In 1964 and 65, Hesse and her husband spent a year in Essen-Kettig on the Ruhr River after being invited to come by an industrialist. It was there that she executed her rst reliefs and three-dimensional works. The couple lived on an abandoned oor of a factory building. In this environment, Eva Hesse rst incorporated industrial materials, including various plastics, in her work. After returning to New York, Hesse turned completely to sculpture and her creative output increased dramatically. She preferred to work with two unusual materials that she had discovered: latex (often simply described as berglass or glass ber) and glass-ber reinforced polyester. The special appeal of Hesses sculptures and installations is rooted in the surreal principle of alienation. Her objects are at the threshold between reality and absurdity. The main characteristics of the materials she chose were often translucent, owing qualities; her berglass objects are permeable to light and normally colorless.

Eva Hesse, Accession II, 1936-70; The Detroit Institute of Arts, USA.

Hesses work was strongly inuenced by her encounter with the objects and ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp. Subsequently, she also worked with found objects, which she integrated in her installations. The artist viewed her conscious refusal to use traditional, highly regarded sculptural methods (modeling, chiseling, etc.) as anti-art. An important theme in Hesses oeuvre is evanescence and the processes of change that everything is subjected to. As a result, she consciously selected materials that can leave traces of the creative process, such as berglass and other materials on which ngerprints, etc. are visible. But due to the conscious choice of such fragile and as we know today perishable materials, exhibition makers and restorers are confronted with novel questions and problems that should not be underestimated. Thirty years after Hesses death, a few of her sculptures

and parts of her space-encompassing installations have changed considerably, and some of them can no longer be transported or exhibited. Latex, a material that Hesse started using in 1967, becomes brittle and fades in the course of time. Fiberglass, which Hesse used often starting in 1968, loses its unique transparency and exibility. Despite her early death (1970), Eva Hesses vast oeuvre will never be forgotten in expert circles. Retrospectives and extensive catalogues in the 1980s and 90s focused on her sculpture, reliefs, gouaches, and drawings. Today her works are worth millions on the art market.

and soldered them, creating his trademark sculptures. With these works he made it clear that objects with the same function by no means have to look exactly the same, but can possess individual features. This fact only becomes apparent in the accumulation, though. In 1964, Arman started making accumulations cast in polyester, and in 1970 invisible ones, as the accumulated objects were cast in concrete. He did a series of organic Poubelles in 1971. As they were cast in polyester, he no longer had to pre-select objects based on durability.

Arman: accumulations in casting resin

The Frenchman Arman, whose full name is Armand Pierre Fernandez, is one of the most important international object artists and a co-founder of Nouveau Ralisme. Born in 1928, he studied from 1946 to 1949 at the Ecole Nationale des Art Dcoratifs in Nice, and subsequently for two years at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris. Arman met the artist Yves Klein in 1947, and on a trip with him and Claude Pascal decided to give up his surname and seek fame under his rst name. In the period from 1947 to 1953, Arman dealt intensely with Buddhism, astrology, and the Rosicrucians. Armans work was inuenced by that of Kurt Schwitter, among others. In 1955, he executed his neo-dadaist Cachets (stamp prints), followed by his Allures (prints of objects dipped in paint), and later his Coups (cut-up objects). But Arman was more well known for the Poubelles (objects in the form of Plexiglas boxes lled with garbage) he made at the beginning of the 1960s. His most well known works, however, are his accumulations with which he ironizes mass production. In these works he piled up objects which he left unchanged or destroyed (such as forks, cars, banknotes, etc.) in object boxes made of wood or Plexiglas, covered them with casting resin, mounted them on wood,

Arman (Armand Fernandez), Torso, 1970, Polyester

Niki de Saint Phalle giant female figures made of polyester

The painter and sculptress Niki de Saint Phalle was born on October 29, 1930, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris. Her full name was Cathrine MarieAgns Fal de Saint Phalle. Her father, a banker, descended from French landed gentry, one of the oldest families in France, and lost his entire fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. His mother was an upper class American. During the fascist period the family lived in America, later returning to France, where the child living with her parents for a while, with her grandparents, and at a boarding school. Her childhood at different places was characterized by a strict Catholic upbringing and confrontation with stereotypical female roles. At the age of 11, Niki de Saint Phalle was sexually abused by her father. Before turning to art, she was a very successful model and took acting courses. She had two children, in 1951 and 1955, with her rst husband. But during this period she had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental hospital in Nice because of the danger of her committing suicide. The experiences she had during the painting therapy she underwent there convinced her to become an artist. Her rst encounter with the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely in 1955 in Paris had far-reaching consequences for her work. Tinguely introduced her to sculptural work, gave her rst plaster sculptures purchase with wires and iron parts, and gave her help and advice. A year after her rst meeting with Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle had her rst exhibition in Switzerland. A short time later she left her husband and two children and moved in with Tinguely in Paris. In the 1960s, Niki de Saint Phalle was a member of the circle of avant-garde Parisbased artists called the Nouveaux Ralistes, whose other proponents included Yves Klein, Arman, Csar, Jean Tinguely, and Daniel Spoerri. Her garishly colored, lavish women gures made of polyester, called Nanas, are world famous and

Niki de Saint Phalle, Schwarze Nana, 1968-1969; painted polyester; 293 x 200 x 120 cm

garner high prices on the art market. With these works, Niki de Saint Phalle made her artistic breakthrough in the 1960s. Until that time nana had been a slightly salacious word for a cheeky girl or brat in French slang. Many people equate the cheerful, colorful, normally dancing, often larger-than-life, baroquely fashioned women gures with vitality, femininity, and abandon. The burlesque female gures, some of which have oversized genitalia, met with mixed reactions from the public and press. In 1966, the artist was invited by the director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Pontus Hulten, to install in the museum a 29-meter-long, lying female

gure made of polyester, which she created in collaboration with Jan Tinguely, who was responsible for the construction. The sculpture, called Hon, could be entered through the vagina and harbored a planetarium in its left breast and a milk bar in its right. The Swedish audience was thrilled, as was the press. In Switzerland, however, a citizen of which de Saint Phalle would become after marrying Jean Tinguely in 1971, people were shocked. The Bern newspyper Der Bund referred to the work as an obscene faux pas and a monstrous scandal. Subsequently Niki de Saint Phalle placed numerous other sculptures on public squares, in gardens, and in parks around the world. The giant female gures were mostly composed of berglass and polyester, overpainted with acrylic paint. Many of the monumental pieces could be entered or even lived in. The most well known Nanas are the large ones on the banks of the Leine river in Hannover and in the Tarot Garden in Tuscany. The latter, Niki de Saint Phalles largest and most extensive project, was created between 1978 and 1997. But it does not seem that Saint Phalles work will last forever either. Her Ange protecteur, for example, an 11-meter-long, 1.5ton polyester guardian angel, which welcomes and bids adieu to travelers at the main railway station in Zurich, is currently undergoing elaborate restoration. The angel, which initially met with skepticism but now is an integral part of the citys image, hangs from the roof of the building on four steel ropes and now has to be freed of a layer of dirt that has accumulated for a decade. With this commissioned work, the artist had underestimated the various emissions in a train station: Condensation dripping from the ceiling, bird droppings, and brake dust from trains have left behind aggressive traces on the thin layer of acrylic paint on the surface. Niki de Saint Phalle died of lung cancer at the age of 71 on May 21, 2002, in San Diego, California. The polyester vapors she inhaled while working on the gures had cauterized her respiratory tract and the organs connected to it.

Christo und Jeanne Claude packages and wrapped objects

The artist couple Christo and Jeanne-Claude have wrapped an impressive number of objects in different materials, assuring themselves a place in art history. While they have engaged in large projects since 1961, wrapping public buildings, bridges, and even entire islands, rivers, and tracts of land, in his early works Christo also wrapped small objects such as cans, stacks of newspaper, typewriters, bottles, shopping carts, store fronts, etc. It seems that Christo got the idea to wrap things in 1950s. He wrapped his rst object in 1958 in Paris, part of a space-encompassing installation that he called Inventory. The work consisted of a collection of wrapped, painted, or unchanged cans, bottles, steel barrels, and wooden boxes that he stacked and laid on top of each other. Inventory does not exist today in its entirety. But individual wrapped bottles and cans remain as single works and formed the beginnings of further wrapping actions. In the packages to follow, Christo wrapped objects to the point where they could no longer be recognized. The only thing that could be seen was a mantle of material; one could only venture a guess about what was inside. So the identity and function of the wrapped objects were concealed. But the allure of wrapping does not consist solely of making something unrecognizable. Wrapping arouses curiosity, has a certain attraction, upgrades. Banal or merely overlooked objects only become mysterious and of interest to viewers when they are wrapped. The covering makes them more precious. Christos roughly packed objects with ordinary cord can be viewed as counterdrafts to streamlined industrial packaging. They are not design, but improvisation, calling mass production into question.


The temporary large projects require incredibly detailed planning and tremendous energy for their realization. One of the most momentous was the wrapping of the Berlin Reichstag, which was cosponsored by the then AXA Nordstern art insurance company. The latest project: the gates in New Yorks Central Park, a temporary exhibition that is 100% recyclable. From February 12 to 28, 2005, more than 7,500 gates consisting of saffron-colored lengths of fabric and PVC construction frames changed the face of Central Park. The ve-meter-high gates extended for 37 kilometers. The chief criteria for the choice of PVC were various factors which made it a more appropriate material than steel or aluminum bars. PVC is light, doesnt have to be coated, can be painted any color, is extremely light and durable, and is easy to clean. In addition, it can be completely recycled. And one of the requirements of the project was that material should be further processed after the exhibition. The project cost some 21 million U.S. dollars, which Christo and JeanneClaude fully nanced by selling studies, drawings, collages, works from the 1950s and 60s, as well as original lithographs of other works.

for molds for destroyed monuments, ideal for his own work. From 1967 on, Hanson had increasingly turned to explosive social issues; his rst casts addresses subjects such as abuse of power, rape, and suicide. A year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Hanson executed a gure group made of polyester: A white policeman is beating a black man. In 1969 Duane Hanson moved to New York where he worked on his hyper-realistic gures. The life-

Duane Hanson: Lady with Shoulder Bag, 1974; polyester, articial resin, tallow reinforced with berglass, oil paint, items of clothing, wig; height 163 cm

Duane Hanson: more than reality

The American sculptor Duane Hanson was born in 1925 in Alexandria, Minnesota, He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Macalester Collge in 1946 and studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in in Bloomeld Hills, Michigan. From 1962 to 1965 Hanson was an art professor at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, where he started working on large sculptures on a commission basis, which soon made him well known and for which he received a grant for to further develop artistic processing of polyester and berglass. Hanson had become acquainted with the novel material polyester resin when he was studying with the German sculptor George Grygo in Munich and Bremerhaven. Hanson found the new material, which Grygo used to decorate facades and

sized sculptures, which looked realistic down to the last detail, were made exclusively from living models using a casting procedure. As a result, Hanson was criticized for merely copying reality in his sculptures. The criticism was due in part to the fact that Hansons realistic gures represented an enormous break from the abstract tendencies of 1960s. In his art he sought to come as close to nature as possible, and he showed people frozen in the middle of movement. Wigs, clothing, and accessories made the gures look breathtakingly real. Even the skin looks deceptively real from close up, with meticulously created moles, pigmentary abnormalities, and burst veins. In addition to sociocritical themes such as violence, unemployment, alcoholism, and poverty, Hanson uninchingly depicted ennui, boredom and sadness, as well as lonely lives devoid of all glamour. His works never focused on prominent or outstanding personalities, but rather on housewives, construction workers, waitresses, car salesmen, homeless people, cleaning ladies, janitors all of them lower- or middle-class Americans. This second work phase began with the Supermarket Lady, a work whose face expresses boredom, surfeit, and indifference in an especially striking way. Hanson repeatedly varied the motif of the shopping housewife in order to express the satiety of the average American in an afuent consumer society. Duane Hanson died of cancer in 1996 as a result of working with plastics for many years.

long it will last and resist the elements. We know that bronze lasts 2, 3, or 4,000 years. Moore occasionally used plastic for models for his large bronze sculptures as artists since the Renaissance had made bozetti for bronze sculptures out of clay. Except in the several-meters-high sculptures Locking Piece, exhibited in Florence in 1952, and Large Two Forms from 1978, the material plastic was not relevant for Moore. In these rare cases he used berglass as a material solely because of the immense size of the works. Moore asserted: Its only value for me is that it is a very strong yet light material. () in bronze it (Locking Piece) would have weighed several tons. So I had a cast made in berglass and used it. However, very few artists are aware of the limited lives of the materials they use. Artists normally dont seem to think about the durability of the materials they use to implement their ideas and visions.

Plastics in todays art?

Following in the footsteps of the plastics pioneers, many contemporary artists have worked with the material plastic. One of them is Ron Mueck, who was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1958 and today lives in London. Mueck, who is the son of German immigrants and whose father worked as a toymaker, works among other things on Him Hensons Muppets for childrens TV and developed in 1986 the special effects for the lm Labyrinth with David Bowie. Since 1996/97 he has worked as a freelance artist on hyperrealistic gures made of polyester and silicon. Mueck typically tries to alter perception of otherwise thoroughly realistic gures by changing their size. In 1998, for instance, he created a four-meterhigh representation of a boy chewing gum, Untitled (Boy), using polyester, berglass, paint, and material, which at once thrilled and perplexed visitors to the 2001 Venice Biennale. Grown-up visitors felt tiny next to the giant realistic-looking boy.

Plastic art: the art-historical question of its evanescence

Every material has a limited life. But the lifespan of plastics like polyurethane, latex, nylon, etc. is considerably shorter than that of traditional materials such as wood, metal, and porcelain. Are artists aware of this problem? The only skeptical statement we know of came from Henry Moore: I havent used berglass much because we dont know how

Ron Mueck: Boy, Polyester, 1999

In 2002 Mueck completed Pregnant Woman, a 2.5-meter-high gure of a pregnant woman, after working for several months with a pregnant friend of his. The artist again used berglass to implement the gure. The face, however, is made of silicon, since this material is soft and thus enables application of hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes. The National Gallery bought Pregnant Woman in 2002 for a price of 800,000 Australian dollars. Meanwhile, plastic artworks by world-famous artists such as Damian Hirst, Jeff Koons, Maurizio Cattelan,

Mike Kelly, Paul McCarthy, the Chapman brothers, Jason Rhodes, and Matthew Barney, to name but a few, sell for millions on international markets. However, we expect that it will be much more difcult, costly, and nerve-racking to preserve these works than any artworks done previously. The next chapters will explain why we think this will be the case.

The AXA Art Conservation Project

Plastics dont last forever that phrase captures the quintessence of the last chapter. And once damage is done, good advice is hard to come by. What can one do, what must one do when historic plastic collectors items are threatened with decay? First, the bad news: At present only relatively little can be done. For only recently have restorers and restoration experts started focusing on the problems of plastics aging. The wealth of knowledge they have gathered throughout the centuries regarding preservation of wood, stone, and textiles, is considerable; plastics, by contrast, are only very young materials. A further challenge is the fact that the many members of the very extended family of polymer plastics react in different ways to unfavorable climatic conditions and other environmental inuences. Exotic materials are no exception. Even objects made of rubber (not considered a plastic by many although it is an important polymer material) suffer substantially from degeneration. Mies by Archizoom Associati (1969) to cite only one example has lost much of its original exibility in recent decades. Even plastics commonly considered stable, like polyethylene, lose beauty over the years on account of oxidation processes. The chemical industry denes long life plastics as plastics that have a life expectancy of 15 to
Resistance to aging is not only important when it comes to plastic art: foams that age more slowly can help conserve energy. Today industry is also interested in more robust materials.

25 years which is considerably longer than the typical life cycle, say, of a TV or car so this classication is completely justied from the perspective of the consumer goods industry. Another aspect that doesnt make restorers work any easier: In the 1950s and 60s, plastics processing technology was far behind todays level, and as a result museum pieces from this period not only suffer from material inadequacies, but also from manufacturing deciencies that only become manifest after decades. Incidentally, this concerns both the inner cohesion of plastics as well as their connection with supporting structures like steel, which had to be used in plastic furniture in the early period as plastics alone were not yet sufciently load-bearing. Another factor that has to be taken into account: Plastics raw materials today are manufactured much more cleanly than they were 40 years ago resulting in higher-value mechanical properties as well as a longer life, which may not be the case with early polymers due to larger amounts of impurities. However, the fact that plastics age was known to some artists, including Arman, who expressly admitted that his sculpture Torse aux gants (1967) made of transparent polyester resin showed signs of aging. This work is an example of a piece that has suffered aging damage (for example, cracks in the interior of the sculpture) which did not arise in the course of the years but is an artifact of the process of creation a warning to everyone not to begin restoration measures too early! However, most artists can assume that their works will not show signs of degeneration for a long time to come a Beltzig brochure from 1968, for instance, says that plastics are not only robust and cannot degenerate, but that they are even unaffected by sunlight. So when is it necessary to restore a piece? The point of departure for a restoration is always the condition of the plastic object is it degenerating or is it still intact? The next question is: Is this a

The Panton Chair

A particularly instructive example of the efforts made today by many museums to create a basis for the conservation or future restoration of plastic art is an analysis of the state of preservation of eight Panton chairs from the Vitra Design Museums collection with participation by AXA Art insurance. These objects are the rst examples of free-swinging chairs made solely of plastic and no longer containing steel pipe supports. The backrest, seat, and legs of the chair are fashioned out of one continuous piece of plastic. The rst design studies on these chairs were carried out in the late 1960s. The Panton chair had a checkered material history. The rst pilot production models (1967/68) were made of glass ber-reinforced polyester resin. Later, from 1968 to 1971, this material was replaced by polyester integral foam, and starting in 1971 the chairs were produced from a member of the polystyrene family (ASA). The changes in the material used went hand in hand with design changes. While the walls of the polyester version are essentially uniform in thickness, the side walls of the hard foam variant were made thicker to heighten the stability of the chair and this
The famous Panton chair was made out of four different plastics during its production life: polyester resin, polyurethane, styrene acrylonitrile (SAN), and polypropylene.

Production of a high-tech polymer is a very complicated undertaking. Back in the 1950s and 60s the technology was nowhere near as advanced as it is today.

normal development or are there other reasons for this state? Only when visual tests, comparisons, aging tests, and scientic investigations show that the damage has made the object less stable should preventive action be taken, with active measures delegated to an expert restorer. Documentation of the state of the object plays an enormous role in the decision-making process, so carefully scrutinize your collectors items! What did my object look like yesterday, and what does it look like today? How, where, when, and why did it change? Regular checks of plastic art based on photos are essential. From these observations and from analyses of the damage that has already emerged guidelines are developed for optimum handling. Few attempts are made to restore lost properties to material that has already suffered damage, as many aging processes are largely irreversible. Even the closing of rips in foams, something restorers of plastic art are often confronted with, is problematic if the wrong method is used. An example is Cini Boeris endless Sofa Serpentone (1971), composed of polyurethane foam elements. A partial aim has been achieved when the intention of the creator can be shown based on the restored object, when the geometry, purpose, and look of, say, a piece of furniture can be ascertained, even if the object will presumably never again be used in the way originally intended.

also highlights its organic sculptural form. While the polyurethane variant still had to be lacquered, this was no longer the case with the ASA execution, as solid-colored granulate could be used. Meanwhile, the chair made of acrylic-styrene-acrylonitrile ester was provided with rather unaesthetic thick reinforcement ribs in the hollow of the knee. Due to aging problems, however, production of this variant was stopped in 1979. Polyurethane was used again starting in 1983, and since 1999 Verner Pantons work (which has become a kind of cult object) has been made of polypropylene. As this material is relatively soft and thus sensitive to scratching, this variant of the chair now has a matte surface.

The object in the Vitra Design Museum that has been subjected to the most extensive testing belongs to an early series which was made using an elaborate manual lamination technique. Forms whose inner surface, open at the top, practically corresponded to a negative of the frontal view of the chair, were rst coated with a ve-millimeter thin layer of resin (the so-called gel or ne layer). Once this layer had dried, glass-ber padding was added and afxed with polyester resin. This layer of resin was smoothed and compressed using hand rollers. After the hardened object had been removed from the mold, the front and back were further treated by hand with priming and ller and then sanded down and lacquered to produce an attractive surface. As the back was still partially structured by the glass bers under the layer of resin, more of an effort had to be made than on the smooth front. Thus, the process of manufacturing Panton chairs was extremely elaborate, taking almost as much time as the manufacture of a piece of wood furniture. Unfortunately, the great manual effort did not necessarily lead to a comparable life expectancy, as the chair being studied today shows damage in part considerable due to the mode of processing and the properties of the polymer material used. In order to get a detailed picture of the damage, the chair was subjected to meticulous visual testing as well as modern thermographic, mass-spectroscopic, and gas chromatic analyses, and high-tech methods were used to restore it, similar to methods of food analysis and methods used to determine whether athletes are doped. These procedures were used to nd out which materials the chair was made of in its day, how the individual chairs differ in terms of materials technology, and where their weak points lie on account of their advanced age. Today, some 50 years after these chairs were produced, not much can be made of the ingredients listed in the recipes, which include poly ller and hardener and catalyst although the manufacture of the prototypes of this chair has been thoroughly researched.

An old Panton chair from the rst series. The considerable damage can only be recognized at second glance.

parts of the chair. Meanwhile, the gel layer in the parts that are open is so full of microcracks that the fragile polyester material is in danger of falling off and looks yellowish today. There are large nicks on the back of the chair. The causes are very complex. The paint layer is gradually peeling off of the gel layers due to the different aging properties of polyester and of the coating. The air bubbles between the polyester layers are most probably the result of insufcient adhesion of the two layers: The gel layer possibly hardened too fast, so that an adequate bond could not be created. One must also take account of the fact that the recipe for the polyester resin essentially resin, hardener, and catalyst was not yet optimal. Another explanation might be that dirt deposited on the gel layer during hardening, impeding bonding with the glass-ber reinforced layer. In the chairs infancy, this might have been insignicant, but over time the poorly bonded parts could have expanded into larger problem areas. Due to additional gradual embrittlement of the polyester, the layers covering the bubbles became fragile and cracked. The bubbles may very well be the cause of the large blemishes in the gel layer.

Using thermography, hidden damage can be seen.

The damage suffered by these prototypes includes virtually unalterable stains and surface scratches, as well as degradations on the upper layers of paint affording a view of the layer of gel underneath. In addition, the tests found bubbles between the layers of paint and the undercoat, the gel layer; in some places the paint seems to be opening up. Bubbles, some of which are quite large, can be found between the gel-reinforced and ber-reinforced polyester layers. In addition, there are noticeable cracks in the material, particularly in very curved

The orange paint has rubbed off in some places, revealing the layer of articial resin beneath it.

When the different layers of UP resin do not stick together sufciently, they can detach from each other over time. In the process large bubbles emerge in the material, whose walls can collapse on impact.

The ne cracks in the upper layer of polyester are due the natural aging of the material. Without paint oxygen and light can attack the plastic unimpeded. The second polyester layer beneath it, however, is not affected it is protected by the layer above it.


The larger cracks likely formed due to peculiarities of the hardening process. It is known that polyester resin, when processed in liquid form at temperatures exceeding 100C, contracts when it cools down; the shrinkage can comprise six to eight percent of the volume. In the two-stage mode of processing this has a twofold negative effect: The second layer is applied to a surface that has already cooled down and thus has already shrunk, and the surface therefore warms up and stretches again; but the glass bers in the second layer impede the shrinkage of the surrounding plastic considerably, as they show much lower thermal expansion. Since polyester is a very brittle material, the two effects lead to increased tension in the material, which in the ice-cold plastic is practically frozen and later is expressed by the formation of stress cracks. The ne cracks in the exposed areas of the gel layer are due to damage to the material caused by light and oxygen. What can be done about it? First, the patient has to remain as unburdened as possible, for any mechanical strain would enlarge the stress cracks; unfortunately, it is not possible to give the material better elasticity from the inside out either. It is necessary to close the areas of the polyester resin exposed to air and to stabilize the polyester layers full of ne cracks as well as the peeled off layers of paint with the aid of a suitable adhesive. At the same time, the glass bers protruding from the mass have to be sealed, because moisture can migrate along them into the interior of the material and decompose additional polyester right at the important contact surfaces of the glass-ber plastic composite, which is responsible for the stability of the compound (see glossary). However, these interventions have to be reversible so that restorers can retreat them if improved restoration possibilities are found. In addition, certain ancillary conditions have to be adhered to: For instance, the adhesives used should not contain solvents, which could damage the polyester material of the chair. Naturally, one doesnt want to create new aging problems with the adhesive it should hold as long as possible. To be

On account of the layered processing of the hot resin mass tension can build up in the material which later can lead to clearly visible cracks. The cracks may also have been caused by extraordinary strain on the chair or by a combination of the two.

sure, it is not easy to nd an individually suitable, reversible adhesive system, and so expert work is required. In the Vitra Design Museum, some 50 different adhesive systems, which have already been used successfully in restoration work, have been tested, most of them based on vinyl or acrylic polymers, as well as polyurethanes, polyesters, and epoxide resins. A total of 6,000 polyester strips were stuck together, and the effects of the solvent were studied in detail using stereo microscopes.

Il Piede
Thinking back to the 60s, in addition to Pantons strikingly curved chair other unconventional seating furniture comes to mind, including the famous Sacco created by Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini, and Franco Teodoro; Mattas Malitte group, and the Capitello chair by Studio 65; or the UP 7 seat object Il Piede (1969) designed by Gaetano Pesce, a sixfold enlargement of a human foot made of polyurethane soft foam, a material which had been presented to the public just ten years previously. The object is characteristic of this epochs creative dealings with new materials and helps restorers today understand polyurethane aging in several respects. For although it is a kind of polyurethane monolith a foam block made from one cast different areas of

rethane objects from this time, for example with the polyurethane padding of an experimental seat shell designed by Charles and Ray Eames, which was also studied by the Vitra Design Museum. In spite of its age, Il Piede is in relatively good condition. In the Vitra Design Museums collection, there are much younger objects, including a chair called La casa onirica by Denis Santachiara from 1984, whose degeneration is much more advanced. In general one can say that objects made of lacquered soft foams like the Cactus clothes stand by Guido Drocco and Franco Mello (1971) get through the years better than unlacquered ones. But only if the material underneath it is protected from contact with air and UV light. As soon as the coating gets cracked or suffers other damage, the foam starts to degenerate. As a result, nowadays in the restoration of foam design works like the Cactus or the Pratone by the Gruppo Strum, an appropriate retouching medium is used to close the layer of paint on the surface in so far as possible. Back to Il Piede. The state of preservation of different areas of the surface is so different due to the way the object was stored. On the bottom and in protected areas between the toes, the material hardly came into contact with air; hydrolysis and chain decomposition due to the effects of oxygen or UV light are extremely limited in these areas. The situation is similar on the back of the Puffo (1969
The bottom of the Il Piede chair is virtually unscathed it was well protected from air. An important rule for storing other foam objects can be derived from this: keep air away as far as possible!

A suitable adhesive system was sought to stabilize the bubbles and to close openings in the surface. After thousands of tests, an appropriate adhesive was found.

the object show different states of aging. Nearly the entire surface of the foam has strongly degenerated. In many places the foam has become brittle, and the foam is still exible only at the bottom of the foot and between the toes. Large parts of the closed, thin plastic skin that covered the object have peeled off, exposing the open-celled foam beneath it; the surface has opened in the form of ne, short cracks, particularly on the shaft and above the ankle. The skin is only closed on a kind of seam which once formed the dividing line between the two molds. Similar observations can be made with other polyu-


to 1970), designed by Giorgio Ceretti, Piero Derossi, and Ricardo Rosso (Gruppo Strum); it was not subjected to the damaging inuence of light either and so the damage is less pronounced than on the front. Polyurethane objects that were closed up in dark containers for years are in a remarkably good state today. The skin of the Il Piede is not uniform everywhere on account of the manufacturing process. At that time, a hollow mold was constructed in whose shaft the two liquid polyurethane components were poured. While it reacted to create nished polyurethane, this mass foamed up more and more until it nally lled out the whole mold. In places where the cast material hit cooler points namely, on the wall of the mold pore formation was suppressed, and as a result a closed surface with thin skin could emerge, which gave the object a smooth feel and at the same time protected the pores of the foam from impurities. In the early days of polyurethane technology, foaming methods were not mature enough to enable the material to have the same thickness everywhere. The foam was compressed at the shaft, while in the sole and toe area larger pores formed. One can assume that the skin was either thinner

Lacquered polyurethane objects such as the Cactus clothes stand (1971) by Guido Drocco and Franco Mello can endure the harmful effects of atmospheric oxygen longer than foams whose pores are exposed to air.

The skin that protected the Il Piede seating object for years is now peeling off in large akes. As a result, the material underneath it is subjected to all kinds of harmful inuences which is even more problematic with foam, as due to its large surface it has more points of contact with its environment.


here or it had to bridge larger pores, resulting in bigger problems later. On the seam between the two halves of the mold the foam was also compressed and formed a thicker skin there as well. The advanced stage of degeneration of the polyurethane foam of the Il Piede cannot be reversed using todays methods either. However, an attempt can be made stabilize the current condition of the material and preserve the present state at least in the medium term by means of adequate conservation measures. To be able to test means of reinforcement, polyurethane foam mushrooms were made and articially aged in special testing devices normally subjected to an intense UV source at higher temperatures and increased humidity. If the foam is kept in such simulators for a few hours, it can age years faster than under normal conditions. To determine the extent of damage to the foot, polyurethane foam pads are to be used to see how deeply UV light can penetrate the material; specialists are currently investigating which protective stabilization agent should be applied to the damaged material and how. The possibilities include atomizers, aerosol apparatus, and ultrasound atomizers. To ensure that the foot chair can be rescued in the future at least in digital form, the object was captured in a digital data set in an elaborate procedure using a laser scanner. The reproduction can be seen it its entirety on the screen.

bers differ in hardness and stiffness. Pratt Chair No. 1 is so soft that it cannot be sat in; No. 2 (one of four in the possession of the Vitra Design Museum) was somewhat rmer and able to stand, though it was still too exible to be used as a chair. All of the Pratt chairs were produced in combined polyester molds which were presumably closed and in casting procedures lled with polyurethanes with different degrees of hardness. Several polyurethanes could be used in one chair with No. 2 the consequences are apparent today, namely, that a red-dyed, softer material forms wave patterns in places where it meets black-dyed, harder material in the mold. Unfortunately the properties desired by the artist could not save the chairs in the long run. No. 2 and No. 4 softened increasingly, while No. 6 and No. 8 (in the possession of the Vitra Design Museum) remained hard and immobile for years. Pratt Chair No. 2 (additionally weakened through the combination with very soft polyurethanes) has collapsed and today looks more like a crushed beverage can or a rubber dingy out of air than a chair; the soft material has wrinkles and waves. The ravages of time have left other traces on the object as well. Today the chair has two large cracks, and it is riddled with air bubbles. Some of the air bubbles are compressed,

The Pratt Chair

When is a chair a chair? Gaetano Pesce might have thought when he originated his series of Pratt chairs. This series, produced in 1984 at the Pratt School of Design, consists of nine chairs. All of them have everything chairs normally have: a sitting surface, a backrest, and four legs below the sitting surface. The surface of each chair contains a number of decorative elements that Pesce dubbed parts of expression. What is special about this family of chairs, however, is the fact that its mem69

Number seven from Gaetano Pesces Up collection: the famous Il Piede foot made of polyurethane soft foam today unfortunately no longer in top condition.

Four of the eight Pratt chairs in the blossom of youth. The one on the far left has become so soft today that it can no longer stand.


Pratt Chair No. 2 today.

and on the bottom of the object they are open and show white crystals. Parts of the chairs surface are sticky, and a drop of liquid has formed on the back of the rear left leg and has grown in the last three years. The causes of some of the degeneration have been analyzed. The white crystals in the air bubbles could be identied as polystyrene, which presumably made its way from the polyester mold into the material during the manufacture (while they react into nished plastics polyurethanes can get very hot). Styrene was and still is used to crosslink polyester resins; it is possible that the polystyrene detached from the mold and polymerized into polystyrene in the bubbles. The sticky liquid that deposited on the surface of the material consists as chemical analyses have shown of polyurethane components that remained after the building blocks reacted with one another; either the wrong amount of the two components was added or one of the two reacted with other substances (for example water) and thus escaped from the mixture. The remaining components have gradually been pressed out of the material. The most striking features of Pratt

Chair No. 2, however, are the unintended softness and suppleness of the material. As here too there is currently no way of chemically stabilizing the material, and thus restoring it to its original state, the object was digitally scanned using a 3D scanner manufactured by the company Konica Minolta; with the help of the data obtained, a CNC milling machine (see glossary) was used to make a support out of massif wood which is perfectly adapted to the current shape of this chair/design object with all its damage and irregularities. A transparent polyester Melinex foil was laid between wood and chair to prevent direct contact with the carrier; previously the chair had been stored on a polyolen foam block; but some of this material stuck to the sticky polyurethane surface and is hard to remove. A special case is the long crack in the right side of the chair. This is an example of why restoration work done on art objects should be reversible if at all possible for this crack was already glued once. Apparently the epoxide adhesive that was used did not live up to the hopes placed in it. The crack should denitely not be lled again for, as tests on similar materials have shown, it can open further if

subjected to strain. The old adhesive was carefully removed with a scalpel. Before a new one can be applied, a suitable adhesive system has to be found this time with a higher life expectancy. The adhesive system has to face considerable challenges. The material not only has to ushly combine a thin adhesive strip with a surface only ve to ten millimeters wide, but also has to have lling material properties as the crack does not t together perfectly in all areas. Nor can it be clamped while it hardens. Yet it still has to bear the not inconsiderable force exercised after the adhesive is applied on the exible side of the chair. Here, too, the gluing has to be reversible if possible. To nd the right adhesive for this task, the AXA Art conservator Kathrin Keler carried out numerous extensive tests at the Vitra Design Museum using samples of comparable polyurethane elastomers.

A sticky drop has formed on one of the legs and continues to grow. The substance leaking out is a polyurethane component that was left over when the plastic hardened.

First aid: In the future the chair will be stored on a wooden rack that exactly ts its contours. In the foreseeable future, the material will not be able to be stabilized using chemical methods.


Conclusions The AXA Art Conservation Project, in cooperation with the Vitra Design Museum and other research projects devoted to conserving valuable plastic art and design objects at museums with their restoration workshops and at university labs, come to one main conclusion: once an object has suffered damage, an extremely elaborate process is required to return it to its original aesthetic state. As traces of aging can no longer be reversed, the motto is: prevent the worst from happening to begin with. Important information and helpful tips are provided in the next chapter.


Anti-Aging Prevention
What helps? Tips for collectors
The treacherous thing about all the inuences described in the previous chapters is that once damage has been done to collectors pieces made of plastic, the damage is very hard to reverse. In many cases, this cannot be done at all. By using a moisturizing cream, you can make your skin taut again temporarily. But it will never look like an 18-year-olds skin notwithstanding all the promises made by the cosmetics industry. The same applies to plastic furniture or design objects that have fallen victim to the ravages of time. With the help of appropriate preventive and restorative measures, the life span of plastic art objects can be prolonged, and their life becomes more pleasant again. But molecules that have been broken or cross-linked, as well as brittle materials, cannot be repaired. So the aim is to deal with the plastic object with foresight to prevent worse things from happening. Here the collector has a few possibilities. Some have already been mentioned, others will be discussed briey here. Five golden rules should be followed. Pay attention to moisture and temperature, keep lights dim, think of the damage to the ozone layer, treat surfaces the entryway for damaging inuences gently, and nally: put as little strain on the piece as possible, so as not to aggravate invisible damage that may have been done, such as microcracks. Important: Aged plastic objects always look sprier than they actually are. Also be careful with intense electric light! Avoid light sources that emit a higher amount of shortwave radiation, for example halogen lights. Get advice from an expert. Fifty lux is a compromise after all, you want to be able to see your piece de resistance. The light should be off if no one is in the room.

Air and climate With many plastics small quantities of moisture are enough to cause permanent damage to the material. Once condensed water has deposited in micr one cracks, it has difculty evaporating due to capillary effects and increases the damage to the material. Therefore, make sure that there is always a balanced climate in the room with low humidity. Note: People release a lot of humidity into their environment bear this in mind if you intend to make your collection accessible to larger groups now and then. The climate issue is particularly relevant during transports: Try to keep the temperature and moisture changes to a minimum!

Handling and cleaning If simple water is enough to transform a foam chair into a crumbling, brittle mass over time how sensitive must these objects be to more aggressive cleaning agents? Indeed, even hand sweat contains traces of acid that can diffuse in the material and speed up the process of decay. So wear gloves, ideally made of white cotton. Important: Each time you use them wash the gloves in lukewarm water with no detergent and dry them carefully. Dust and dirt are to be avoided, as water-absorbing particles cavort in them or extremely ne, acid-containing scales of skin. But absolute caution is advised when cleaning your objects cleaning agents, no matter how mild, are out of the question. They not only contain aggressive chemicals, but often also scouring agents that can quickly ruin shiny

Light Make sure that your collectors items are never exposed to direct sunlight. UV light splits plastics molecules and, moreover, leads to new cross-links which make the material brittle. Window glass is not sufcient although you cant get sunburned behind a windowpane. Use blinds or laminated glass that absorb energy-rich light and reect heat.

surfaces. Today there are coatings that are almost as hard as glass and that protect plastics from abrasion 50 years ago this technology did not exist. After all, most plastics are soft materials. It is preferable to gently wipe the piece with a soft, absorbent dusting cloth or use a vacuum cleaner with a soft brush. Should moist cleaning be required, then do so as quickly as possible, and subsequently dry the piece carefully and thoroughly. Do not use a hair dryer due to the heat a dry cloth is sufcient. Should the plastic art object become dull over time, feel sticky, or start to glisten with moisture, this plastic patina is not necessarily a bad sign. These phenomena can be caused by plasticizers that have migrated to the surface. It is better not to wipe the piece immediately with a cloth, but to ask an expert what to do. The plasticizer lm can potentially prevent further ingredients from diffusing out. In addition, it might protect against penetration of aggressive aerial oxygen.

places. If the objects nonetheless have to be packed in additional protective material, the latter should be absolutely acid-free suitable materials include rm polypropylene foams with bleached lining and acid-free, archival safe paper. PVC in any form is not appropriate the material releases plasticizer! And avoid using wood as packing material. All kinds of wood and especially chipboard release reactive substances over time that can damage plastic, including gases that combine with moisture in the air to form acids. Stickers are also an absolute no-no no matter what material theyre made of. The reason: Adhesives also contain plasticizers which migrate into the plastic or which, like paint thinners, can dissolve out components of the undersurface. Both would change the substrate in an undesired way. While today there are adhesives that work without plasticizers and that can be applied safely to fresh car paints, for example, there have been no experiences with such sensitive goods as plastic collectors pieces. If you have any pressing questions regarding storage, you can always seek the advice of an expert restorer. Speaking of PVC, inatable objects made of this plastic are a special category. If they are stored folded up, plasticizer that migrates out of the foil over time can stick individual layers together. If you try
Caution: Unsuitable packing materials can stick to the object and may be hard to remove.

Storage As mentioned, dark rooms with an appropriate climate are best for storage of plastic art objects. Those who want to be especially kind to their collectors items may feel the need to store them in the safe connes of boxes. In small boxes, absorbent materials can indeed provide for a dry microclimate; and it is dark enough in there as well. But do not store your pieces in closed containers that are too small. For the degradation products that arise from gradual degeneration of plastics have to be able to be transported in the circulating air or they can cause further damage to the material. The plastic art objects next to them can also be affected. So separate well-preserved objects from ones showing signs of decay. And regularly scrutinize your collectors items to see if their state has changed, especially if you pack them in closed boxes. In the latter case, it is essential to change the box regularly, at least once a year. As a result, you should store plastic art objects so that they are as open as possible in dust-protected

to separate them, you can destroy the object due to the increasingly brittleness caused by the migration of the plasticizer. It is better to store them pumped up! If you blow them up orally, bacteria inltrate the object, which can literally devour the beautiful chair. The main danger here is not necessarily the PVC, but the plasticizer a feast for many microorganisms (and, by the way, a reason why waterbeds should only be lled with germ-free water).

Conclusions Plastic objects from the 20th century are as a rule more sensitive than they seem at rst sight. The

complex decomposition processes occur gradually and are accelerated by daily use and everyday conditions. The consequences are often noticed late, usually too late. Once the material has become brittle, there is not much you can do about it and the object loses considerable value. But by treating your polymer treasures right, you can help preserve them for posterity. And once damage has occurred, expert restorers can treat and tend to the objects in such a way that the character of the objects is preserved to a large extent in a gurative sense it is perhaps not the original, fresh, trademark composition, but the artistic idea that remains preserved for us.

Alexander von Vegesack, director of the Vitra Design Museum, on La Chaise by Charles and Ray Eames. Designed in 1948, the chair is in an enviable condition but the piece of furniture made of glass-ber reinforced polyester was rst produced in 1990.


Inatable objects like the Blow chair (1967) created by Paolo Lomazzi, Donato DUrbino, and Jonathan DePas should only be stored in gas-lled conditions, even if it takes up more space. Otherwise there is the danger that leaking plasticizers will stick to the foil.

Abbreviation of acrylonitrile-butadienstyrene

Aminoplastics The predecessors of modern

plastics. They are based on formaldehyde, which makes them very similar to Bakelite. In aminoplastics, however, formaldehyde is combined with other components. Aminoplastics are so-called duromers.

Acrylester-styrene-acrylonitrile ASA. A
so-called terpolymer, consisting of acrylester, styrene, and acrylonitrile. Its chemical structure is similar to that of SAN plastic; but additional interspersed acrylester components make the plastic considerably more robust and unbreakable. Acrylester-styrene-acrylonitrile is more weather-resistant than the more widespread plastic ABS.

Articial resin Generic term for a class of

duromer plastics made with different polymerization reactions normally from liquid components (resin and curing agent). It is difcult to differentiate them from other plastics; articial resins are normally dened as materials that can be processed using casting methods. Polyester and epoxide resins belong to this family, but not polyurethanes, which are, however, processed in a similar way.


ABS. A terpolymer composed of acrylonitrile, butadiene, and styrene. Both acrylonitrile and butadiene are monomers used to manufacture synthetic rubbers they make the thermoplastic ABS very robust so that it can withstand impact; this fact, coupled with the brilliant surface of this plastic, make it ideal for use in device housings and many items of everyday use, including furnishings. A special property of ABS: the material galvanizes well (chrome-plating).

ASA Abbreviation of acrylester-styrene-acrylonitrile. Bakelite A duroplastic that is formed when phenol and formaldehyde polymerize in the presence of acids. The molecules of Bakelite are interlinked in an especially varied way in principle a Bakelite piece can be viewed as a single supermolecule.

Additive Generic term for an extensive group

of substances added to plastics to improve their workability or their properties. Additives include plasticizers, mold-release agents, and substances that improve the ow of molten plastic for the injection molding process. Other additives are antioxidant agents that ward off attacks by oxygen, UV stabilizers, which block this short-waved light before it can do damage, and ozone protection waxes which, for example, form a thin lm on rubber surfaces which prevents damage from ozone. However, many of these additives are destroyed over the years by the agents that they initially protect the material from, and consequently the material is susceptible to inuences.

Camphor A natural product that smells like cold

salve and one of the rst successful plasticizers. Camphor molecules are almost spherical, and so when they are situated between nitrocellulose molecules they have an effect like ball bearings. As a result, they are responsible for the elasticity of celluloid.

Casein A protein found in milk. The coagulation

of this material makes cheese and curd rm. By means of formaldehyde, casein was processed into one of the rst usable plastics (Galalith) and is thus a natural monomer.

Adhesive Adhesives also consist of polymers!

They provide adhesion because the chain molecules in them latch onto tiny parts of material. Important: adhesives can contain large quantities of plasticizer, which in the worst-case scenario can migrate into the substrate and damage it.

Catalyst A chemical compound that enables reactions between other molecules but remains unaltered itself. Catalysts play an important role in plastics manufacture. Low-pressure polyethylene is formed when a catalyst strings ethylene molecules piece for piece into long chains. Without a catalyst this reaction can only occur at very high pressures and temperatures.

Celluloid One of the rst plastics. Celluloid is

manufactured from nitrocellulose (also called gun cotton) and camphor, which serves as a plasticizer. Celluloid is combustible and very susceptible to degeneration.

ties of the plastic are not only modied but also taken to a new level. This is the case, for instance, with polyester resins reinforced with glass ber matt.

Cellulose triacetate Another plastic besides

celluloid obtained by modifying the material cellulose a polymer found in nature. Played a role as a material for lm.

Duroplastics Generic term for a family of plastics that cannot be melted as their decomposition temperature is below the melting point. Examples of duroplastics are UP resins, polyurethane, and Bakelite.

CFCs Chorouorocarbons extremely sluggishly

reacting chemical compounds used as propellants. Unfortunately, it became apparent over time that these purportedly inert or non-reactive substances could be split after all by UV light and are primarily responsible for the ozone hole. Ozone-damaging CFCs are no longer used in Western countries; they have been replaced by FCs (uorocarbons) or gaseous carbons such as pentane. CFCs are non-toxic and not harmful when used in plastics.

Ebonite A material made of rubber. The term suggests a link to ebony, which has a similar appearance.

Eforescence Term for the gradual, mold-like

deposits of solid additives on the surface of plastics or rubber. This phenomenon is normally coupled with losses of properties in materials. Elastomers Elastomers (natural rubbers) are polymers from which synthetic rubber is manufactured. They are distinguished from plastics for historical reasons. There are polyurethanes which have rubber-like properties. Today there are a number of elastomers which differ, among other things, in their resistance to heat and oxygen. Among them, natural rubber is by far the most delicate.

CNC CNC stands for Computerized Numerical

Control. Thus CNC-driven machines, including milling machines and lathes, are not run manually but by a computer. This enables greater precision and reproducibility. Moreover, a CNC milling machine can make use of 3D data generated previously on a computer or read in data using a 3D scanner.

Ethylene A colorless, combustible gas accounting

for up to 20 percent of natural gas and a byproduct of natural gas mining. Today the largest quantities of ethylene are produced in so-called steam crackers, in which natural gas is broken down into ethylenes and other gases. Ethylene is the main component of the plastic polyethylene.

Collagen Collagen is a natural (bio)polymer and

the main component of human and animal hair as well as tendons and ligaments. Strictly speaking, collagen is a protein but its components (amino acids) are more similar than those of other members of this family of substances (such as enzymes). In addition, it has extraordinary tensile strength.

Fiberglass Another term for glass bers. Due

to their great tensile strength, glass bers are often used to reinforce articial resins. Today natural bers are occasionally used instead.

Compound Term for plastics to which additional

components are added to provide them with special properties. Such components can include nely ground mineral llers, which can make the material harder, or, conversely more brittle; and glass bers which give the compound great tensile strength. Some compounds are also called composites but this expression is generally used when the proper79

Filler Usually very ne-grained solids which are

added to polymers when the latter are being processed into products in order to make the products harder or to save plastic. The most well-known ller is carbon black, large quantities of which are added

to rubber and which is responsible for the black color of many rubber products. In reality elastomers, like most other polymers, are colorless. A borderline case are ameproof additives used to prevent a plastic from catching on re if worst came to worst. These additives are also often solids. High quantities of llers can make plastics brittle; this can be counteracted by adding plasticizer.

Injection molding One of the most important

plastics processing methods. In injection molding the plastic is melted and injected into a conned cavity under high pressure. After the material has cooled down, the mold is opened and the nished piece removed. The cycle time i.e. the time between two injections is today just a few seconds. Despite the simple principle injection molding technology is extremely sophisticated. Optimal tool construction as well as the owability of the molten plastic, the locking pressure of the mold mounting, and optimal cooling are extremely important.

Fogging When volatile ingredients in plastics

evaporate and deposit on colder surfaces, this is termed fogging. This problem occurred when plastic was rst used in the automotive industry ingredients of seat foams and dashboard linings fogged up windshields on hot days. Now the automotive industry has this problem under control to a large extent.

Insulating material Term for foams used

to minimize heating costs. The effects of these materials have little to do with the plastic they are composed of; rather, the principle is due to the fact that the air caught in the pores conducts heat signicantly more poorly than the material in which it is caught. As a result, insulating materials only work as long as the pore walls are not violated; once they ll up with, say, water (a good heat conductor) due to condensation and capillary effects, old and brittle foams can become a heat bridge. The most widespread insulating materials are foamed polystyrene and polyurethane.

Formaldehyde When combined with phenols

and heated up, formaldehyde can be used to make duroplastic materials phenol resins. It is combined with amines to make aminoplastics.

Galalith Term for a plastic manufactured from the

milk protein casein and formaldehyde. Unlike other duromers produced using formaldehyde, including phenol resins and aminoplastic, Galalith has almost completely lost its importance today.

Granulate The most common delivery form

of thermplastic synthetics. Freshly produced polymers are melted down, pressed through ne nozzles and trimmed to size yielding grains only a few millimeters long which are easy to dose during processing.

Integral foam A special foam in which the porous core is covered by a skin. This effect (which is desired and often requires elaborate technological methods) is, strictly speaking, possible with both soft and hard foams; as a rule, however, only hard foams are considered integral foams. Compared to massive pieces made of the same material, integral foams are not only much less dense, but also more stable, as due to the pore structure forces can be distributed excellently.

Hydrolysis Strictly speaking, a process in which a

molecule splits under the inuence of water (hydrolysis means dissolution by water). For plastics formed by polymerization that undergo dehydration (polyester, polyamide, as well as Bakelite), contact with water (particularly warm water) can be detrimental. These plastics are especially susceptible to hydrolysis. In a broader sense, hydrolysis is also dened as gradual degeneration caused by microorganisms as the latter need water to cause destruction.

Laminate Much more than just a substitute

for wooden oors. Laminates are materials with a surface composed of melamine or phenol resins which link the different layers. Laminates were used in living rooms and kitchens long before plastics became innovative materials used to make furniture.

Lignin The natural material wood has a polymer

basis too: lignin. Lignin chain molecules are composed of several monomers and alongside cellulose are the most common polymers on earth.

Linoleum Today virtually synonymous with

plastic ooring, linoleum was actually one of the rst plastics consisting of a mixture of such disparate components as linseed oil, resin, cork, and jute. Extremely susceptible to the effects of aging due to its natural composition.

Molecules are very small: a drop of water contains several quintillions of molecules. Of course plastics are also composed of molecules some of the chemical bonds in them are very vulnerable to attacks by substances such as acids or ozone.

Monomer Chemists dene monomers as the

smallest component of a plastic. Every polymer consists of many monomers like a string of pearls except that the latter are strung on a chain, while monomers in polymers link together on their own in a reaction called polymerization.

Mastication Term from rubber processing.

There are rubbers which are too tough to be further processed in cylinders and mixers. To make them more supple, they are kneaded strongly (masticated) which makes them softer. But in this process the rubber molecules are broken up, which impairs the properties of products made from the rubber.

Natural rubber Natural rubbers are polymers

used to make synthetic rubber. They are distinguished from plastics for historical reasons. There is a technological difference between natural and synthetic rubbers. The latter normally cater better to the requirements of modern technology.

Metastyrene Term for a gel that forms when

the ethereal oil of the storax plant is left out for a long time. In principle it is a polystyrene, a combination of many styrene molecules. The discoverers of metastyrene in the 19the century did not yet know about the possibility of polymerization and only found out that the gel has the same composition as styrene itself the prex meta (Greek for after) ultimately makes a statement about the true nature of the material.

Nitrocellulose (Actually cellulose nitrate, also

known as gun cotton). Main polymer component of celluloid. Becomes a plastic after a plasticizer like camphor is added.

Nylon Fiber made of polyamide. The great success of nylon at the beginning of the 20th century triggered a worldwide search for new, similarly multifaceted plastics.

Mixing head The main component of a polyurethane processing facility. In the mixing head the liquid polyurethane components are blended at high speed so that they can be delivered as a viscous mass before they solidify. There are mixing heads for every purpose: for spray applications, for depositing in hollow molds, and even one in which the polyurethane being made is mixed immediately with glass bers giving rise to extremely stable products not dissimilar to manually laminated polyester resins.

Oxygen An aggressive gas comprising some

21 percent of the air we breathe. Oxygen is extremely reactive which is apparent from the fact that the top layer of the surface of the earth (oceans and rocks comprising the earths mantle) consists almost solely of oxygen compounds! Due to its aggressiveness oxygen is responsible for a large part of the deterioration that can be observed in plastics. It can convert carbons into organic acids, for example, and is capable of splitting chain molecules.

Molecule Chemists smallest building blocks

after atoms. Molecules consist of atoms linked together in a characteristic way via chemical bonds.

Ozone An especially aggressive variant of oxygen. Formed from electrical charges or the effects of UV light on air and makes rubber porous and even robust materials like polyolens brittle with time.

Paints Paints consist of plastics which are nely

distributed in a solvent; when the solvent dissolves, the polymer molecules that remain form a lm that protects the surface beneath it. Therefore in order to make paints last a long time, the same principles apply as with plastics and even more so, as layers of paint are normally very thin and can be damaged by UV light not only supercially.

Parkesine The predecessor of celluloid, which,

like the latter, consists of nitrocellulose and plasticizer. The inventor of Parkesine, Alexander Parkes, did not manage to make his material stable enough to hold up in the long term as the plasticizers he used did not work. The breakthrough was made by John Wesley Hyatt with his celluloid, which, however, was based on the same structural principle.

they were used to make Nylon stockings, which many people found attractive, early on. Polyamides have a very wide spectrum of applications: they are used to make shing lines as well as casing and machine parts. On account of their constant further development, polyamides are today among the classical plastics that can withstand the highest temperatures. Polyamide 6 has an interesting peculiarity: it is the result of polymerization of a component that has the properties of two components as though styrene acrylonitrile were produced from a component that was styrene and acrylonitrile in one.

Polycarbonate A transparent plastic from which

discs, glasses lenses, front headlights, CDs, and DVDs are manufactured.

Phenol resins Articial resins composed of

formaldehyde and so-called phenols. The most wellknown phenol resin is Bakelite. Phenol resins were not only used at the turn of the 20th century: even today they are employed in robust technological articles or in laminates.

Polyester A widespread family of plastics which

includes polycarbonates and the bottle plastic PET (polyethylene terephthalate). Today thermoplastic polyesters are processed into housings and foils, among other things. Special polyesters, so-called polyester polyoles, are in turn components of polyurethanes. The way the monomers are linked together in polyesters is also found very often in nature; as a result, polyesters are very susceptible to hydrolysis.

Plasticizers Important components of many

plastics and types of rubber. They are normally liquids which are added to the material. Plasticizers work in plastics like ball bearings, making the chain molecules more mobile. Most plasticizers can move freely in synthetic materials; over time they can migrate to the surface and evaporate. As a result, the material made soft by the plasticzer gets brittle again with time. Adhesives also contain plasticizers; with the help of these substances, adhesive labels can dissolve out dyes from their substrate. Some plasticizers so-called phthalates (pronounced ftalate) have fallen into disrepute because of the health dangers they pose. That does not apply to the entire plasticizer family, however. Most plasticizers are harmless based on todays level of knowledge.

Polyethylene A polyolen like polypropylene

and at the same time the simplest plastic there is. Polyethylene is produced from the gas ethylene and consists exclusively of carbon and hydrogen. Polyethylene (PE for short) is processed as a thermoplastic material in injection molding procedures; but other products can be made from the molten mass as well, among them foils. The fact that polyethylene is a simple material does not mean that it cannot be used for major accomplishments. For example, special PE variants are used to make articial femoral heads. Polyethylene is not very suitable as a packaging material as it is oxygen-permeable.

Polyacrylate Colloquial term for polymethyl


Polymer A word consisting of the Greek components poly (many) and meros (part) which chemists use instead of terms like chain molecule. Polymers are long molecules consisting of thousands of the same repeated components. Under a strong micro82

Polyamides Among the rst modern plastics,

scope they look like long threads. Most polymer molecules are very exible and mobile; plastics are rm solely because the many chain molecules in them are interlocked and thus less mobile. There are, however, relatively rigid polymers and their strength is due to the fact that the rigid threads are mounted on one another. Intermediate forms are also possible. All plastics are polymers, but not all polymers are plastics: natural materials like wood and silk are also polymers but consist of natural components.

example of the heights that high-performance plastics have reached as materials in the last 50 years.

Polypropylene A polyolen with extremely

wide-ranging uses today. Created from polymerization of the gas propylene and found in car interior ttings as well as in cable sheathing, piping, and foams. Polypropylene foils can be printed on after appropriate pretreatment. The material is not attacked by hydrolysis and hardly assaulted by microorganisms and therefore is one of the most durable plastics. In recent years chemists have learned to control the properties of the material through precise shaping of the molecular structure in many areas. In the foreseeable future polypropylene could compete with much more expensive special plastics and is therefore regarded as a material that will gain in importance.

Polymerization Term used for a number of

chemical reactions through which plastic components can string together to form chain molecules. The polymerization of the corresponding basic elements into polyurethanes, polyolens, polyamides, and polyesters occurs in entirely different ways. And the ways in which polymerisation that has already occurred can be reversed are just as varied and in some cases can lead to the destruction of the polymer material. Hydrolysis is one example.

Polystyrene One of the most well-known

and oldest modern plastics. Pure polystyrene is a relatively brittle material; the members of the large polystyrene plastics family can only unfold their enormous variety in combination with other components such as acrylonitrile and rubbers, which provide the material with built-in shock absorbers. Such mixed styrene polymers are marketed under the names SAN and ABS, for example. Many modern products are made of these materials.

Polymethyl methacrylate This plastic (PMMA

for short) is known by the (patent protected) name Plexiglas and today is used to manufacture transparent domes, records, and discs. The material is increasingly facing competition from polycarbonate and SAN. Polymethyl methacrylate inspired designers to create many famous UFO automobiles that were supposed to move through the air.

Polyurethane Polyurethanes are duromer

plastics composed of so-called isocyanates and polyoles two liquid compounds which are normally combined shortly before processing. Polyurethanes are extremely multifaceted materials: depending on the component and mode of processing, they can be used to make hard and highly shock-resistant device housings as well as foams and elastic plastics for shoe soles, for example. In addition, polyurethane is used to coat textiles (high-quality articial leather) and make paints. In the casting process they can be worked by hand. The hardness of the product can be adjusted by simply varying the mixture often without plasticizer.

Polyolens Generic term for plastics composed of simple, unsaturated carbons such as ethylene or propylene i.e. polyethylene and polypropylene. Different Polyolens have many common properties, for instance their water-repellent nature.

Polyphenylene sulde: PPS. Thermoplastic

which due to its remarkably high melting point of around 285C (polyethylene: around 130C) is used for products that have to withstand very high temperatures. Only mentioned here as an

Polyvinyl chloride The thermoplastic material

polyvinyl chloride (PVC) has been known since the beginning of the 20th century and can be processed in many different ways in addition to injection molding, in the form of spreadable gels, for instance, for articial leather and other textile coatings. Due to its chlorine content polyvinyl choloride has been brought up in discussions about the environment and re protection; nevertheless, in plastics application technology it is still considered an extraordinarily multifaceted plastic for which there are very few alternatives. From a conservationist standpoint, it is important that PVC can contain large quantities of plasticizer; degeneration of polyvinyl chloride can yield hydrochloric acid.

foams is extremely complex; different kinds have different pore sizes, the walls of the bubbles have different strengths, and the links between the pores have different thicknesses. Some soft foams are, depending on the manufacture, covered with a more or less thick and robust skin which protects the interior. To produce soft foams and to deal with the many possibilities, in addition to the plastic raw material itself a number additives are used in production to control bubble formation, including emulsiers. Open-celled foams or foams whose thin bubble walls have already deteriorated,have an extremely large surface and are therefore particularly sensitive to environmental inuences.

PPS Abbreviation for the plastic polyphenylene


Styrene acrylonitrile SAN. A transparent plastic primarily used in the consumer goods and cosmetic packaging industries. Due to the addition of acrylonitrile, SAN is more chemical-resistant and somewhat tougher and therefore less delicate than pure polystyrene. But most SAN worldwide is used for ABS.

PVC Abbreviation for the plastic polyvinyl chloride. Restoration Restoration doesnt mean making
something new again is the title of a traveling exhibition focusing on the topic. The aim of a restoration is always determined by the condition of an object. A restoration does not give rise to a new object. Restoration is a means of restoring the readability of art and cultural assets. Additions can be made to a limited extent. The restorer should use techniques which have only a slight inuence on art and cultural assets, as well as materials which are as light as possible and which can be removed completely without posing any risk to the original. None of these measures should be taken with deceitful intent. (Code of Ethics for Restorers, 1989).

Styropor Polystyene transformed by foaming agent into a light, stable, multifaceted foam. The main area of application is the insulation and packaging sector; Styropor was and still is used for model building, however, To that end, the material is normally processed using electrically heated wires.

Terpolymer A plastic composed of three different components.

Thermoplastics Generic term for plastics that

can melt. They are usually processed in a molten state i.e. in liquid form. Typical thermoplastics include polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, and polyamides.

SAN Abbrevation for the plastic styrene acrylonitrile. Shellac Known as the plastic used to make
gramophone records until the late 1950s. The key polymer in shellac is a resin produced by the socalled lac insect. Around 300.000 of these insects were needed for one kilo of shellac raw material.

UP resin Abbreviation for articial resins composed of unsaturated polyesters. UP resins are plastics formed under high heat build-up from reactions between carbonic acids and alcohols; to process UP resin these components are dissolved in styrene, which further interlinks the polyester chain molecules. UP resins can be processed manually; to this end the liquid raw material is cast in open molds. Glass

Soft foam Foams made of plastics, in furniture

often of polyurethanes. The manufacture of soft

bers are simply laid in the mold to further stabilize UP resin. UP resins are a popular material for the manufacture of large-format sculptures some of which have especially smooth and shiny surfaces.

UV light Short wavelength light and thus especially rich in energy. Invisible to the naked eye. UV light can sever chemical bonds and thus break up molecules. This usually gives rise to extremely aggressive fragments which can further damage the irradiated material.

Vulcanization Process in which synthetic rubber

arises from natural rubbers or elastomers. Classical vulcanization is a process that takes place when elastomers are mixed with sulfur and the mixture is heated. Sulfur atoms link the elastomer chain molecules together. As a result, rubber-elastic polymers turn into hard yet elastic solid bodies. Today other vulcanization reagents are used in addition to sulfur.


The following overview of specialist literature is intended for people who would like to learn more about the history and development of plastics chemistry and who are interested in the great challenges involved in collecting plastic artworks and design pieces. At present, there is relatively little literature devoted to plastics conservation, but many more works on the subject will surely be published in the future thanks to conservators, restorers, designers, artists and collectors increasing awareness of the dangers posed to works made of plastic. The Vitra Design Museum, for example, is planning a comprehensive publication dealing with aspects of conservation and art history which will supplement the ndings of the AXA Art Conservation Project in cooperation with the Vitra Design Museum. Friederike Waentig: Kunststoffe in der Kunst. Michael Imhof Verlag, Petersberg, 2004. Professor Waentig ist Lehrstuhlinhaberin am Institut fr Konservierung und Restaurierung von Kunstund Kulturgut an der Fachhochschule Kln. Ihr kompetenter Rat ist in der conservation community sowohl als Chemikerin und Restaurierungswissenschaftlerin wie auch als praktisch versierte Restauratorin international weit gefragt. Sie untersucht in diesem umfangreichen, uerst informativen Standard-Werk ihrer Promotion die Entwicklung von Image und Material sowie die Ikonologie der polymeren Werkstoffe und deren Alterungsverhalten; Fallbeispiele zur Restaurierung und Konservierung runden das profunde Werk ab. Der aktuelle Stand der Kunststoff-Restaurierungswissenschaft wird in einer umfassenden Bibliographie bestens dokumentiert. Christian Bonten: Kunststofftechnik fr Designer. Hanser, Mchen, 2003. Der aktuelle Stand der Herstellung von Kunststoffprodukten und des Gestalten von Kunststoffbauteilen, fachlich auf hohem Niveau zusammengefasst. Es zeigt Designstudenten und im Beruf stehenden Gestaltern, was heute praktisch geht und was nicht

und hilft ihnen, mit den immensen Mglichkeiten der heutigen Kunststofftechnik pragmatisch sinnvoll umzugehen. Philippe Garner: Sixties Design. Taschen, Kln, 2003. Die Sixties wurden nicht nur durch Kunststoffe geprgt, sondern auch durch Filme, (Plakat-) Kunst, Architektur, Musik und Mode. Der Autor fgt all dies zu einem stimmigen Gesamtbild. Chris Lefteri: Kunststoff, Material Herstellung Produkte. Avedition, 2002. Was alles Designer an schnen Gebrauchsgegenstnden des Alltags aus Kunststoffen machen und was kommt demnchst auf uns zu? Dieses exzellent bebilderte Buch gibt faszinierende Einblicke von Aschenbechern aus Melaminharz bis zur leuchtenden Folie aus modernen Spezialpolymeren und darber hinaus auch ein weiteres Glossar, einen Index und Website-Adressen, die speziell den Sammler von Kunststoff-Design interessieren. Thea van Oosten, Yvonne Shashoua und Friederike Waentig: Plastics in Art. History, Technology, Preservation, herausgegeben von aus der Reihe: Klner Beitrge zur Restaurierung und Konservierung von Kunst- und Kulturgut, Bd. 15, Mnchen 2002. Dies ist eine weitere Sammlung von Fallbeispielen zur Erhaltung von Kunstwerken aus Kunststoffe. (Englisch) Ijsbrand Hummelen, Dionne Sill (Hrsg.): Modern Art: Who Cares? The Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Arts and the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, Beeldrecht Amstelveen, 1999. Ein sehr umfangreiches Werk, das die Arbeiten der Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Arts und des Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage sowie einige Seminare und Symposien zum Thema Erhaltung moderner Kunst dokumentiert. Auch wenn es hier nicht nur um Kunststoff-Kunst geht, ein hervorragender Einstieg ins Thema, das auch breiter ber die Herausforderungen restauratorischer Arbeiten informiert. (Englisch)

Otto Krtz: 7000 Jahre Chemie. Nikol Verlagsgesellschaft, Hamburg, 1999. Die Chemie der Kunststoffe ist nur ein wenn auch wichtiger! Teil einer Wissenschaft, die weitaus mehr Interessantes zu bieten hat. Otto Krtz fasst die Historie dieses Fachs auf ber 300 gut bebilderten Seiten mit lockerer Hand zusammen und ordnet die Kunststoff-Forschung ein in einen groen Bogen, den er von der Alchemie bis zur modernen Biochemie schlgt. Anita Quye und Colin: Plastics. Collecting and Conserving, herausgegeben Williamson, Edinburgh 1999 Dieses Buch ist eine sehr gute Einfhrung in die Problematik der Erhaltung der Kunststoffe. Es stellt alle wichtigen Kunststoffe und deren Alterungsverhalten vor und ist sehr allgemein verstndlich geschrieben. (Englisch) Stephen Fenichell: Plastic. Rtten & Loening, Berlin, 1997. Kunststoffgeschichte in elf Kapiteln ansprechend beschrieben, voller Histrchen am Rande, die Pionierarbeiten an der Schwelle zum Plastik-Zeitalter beraus lebendig darstellen. Florian Hufnagl (Hrsg.): Plastics. Arnoldsche, Stuttgart, 1997. Ausgezeichnet als eines der schnsten Bcher 1997 ist dieses Werk in einem Schuber aus recyceltem Kunststoff schon selbst ein KunststoffKunst-Objekt. Hier wird die Kunststoff-Story vom Sessel aus Papiermach bis zum Grcic-Papierkorb aus Polypropylen vor dem Leser sehr kenntnisreich ausgebreitet. Hervorragend bebildert; lesenswert sind auch die Zeitzeugen-Berichte. Ulrich Giersch, Ulrich Kubisch (Hrsg.): Gummi, die elastische Faszination. Dr. Gupta-Verlag, Ratingen, 1995. Eine umfassende Behandlung zahlreicher Aspekte der Gummi-Geschichte in ber 70 verschiedenen, gut lesbaren Aufstzen, die sich nicht nur mit der Entwicklung typischer Gummiartikel wie Reifen und Handschuhen auseinandersetzt, sondern auch einen Blick auf interessante Nebenaspekte wirft von der Wrmasche bis zur Gummizelle. Sehr gut bebildert jedoch nur in Schwarzwei. Udo Tschimmel: Die Zehntausend-Dollar-Idee Kunststoff-Geschichte vom Celluloid zum

Superchip. Econ, Dsseldorf, Wien, New York, 1989. Ein fulminanter, gerade auch fr Nicht-Chemiker gut zu verfolgender Streifzug durch die Kunststoff-Historie mit vielen lesenswerten Anekdoten und Photos der Forscher, die mit entscheidenden Wegmarken die Forschungsrichtung vorgaben. Sabine Weiler: Plastik Welten. Elefanten-Press, Berlin, 1985. Eine Produktion aus Bestnden der Sammlung Klsch, Sammlung Broeg, Museum fr Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, Werkbund-Archiv Museum der Alltagskultur des 20. Jahrhunderts und ein inspirierender Streifzug durch den Alltag des 20. Jahrhunderts und seine Kunststoff-Facetten, dokumentiert anhand vieler zeitgenssischer Photos und Exponate. Leider grtenteils in Schwarzwei.

In addition to the authors, various publications by BASF AG (Ludwigshafen) as well as Bayer Material Science AG and LANXESS AG (both based in Leverkusen) were extremely benecial for the preparation of this brochure. Some of the publications appeared in specialist press on plastics, while others could be consulted in the archives of the abovementioned companies. Also of great assistance were abstracts of talks held at symposia and workshops mounted by the Vitra Design Museum in recent years featuring internationally acknowledged specialists in the contemporary conservation community. The authors would like to thank all of the companies and experts for their willing and helpful support. The chapter devoted to the AXA Art Conservation Project in cooperation with the Vitra Design Museum includes excerpts from ndings of research carried out by Kathrin Keler, AXA Art Conservation Fellow from 2003 to 2005. Thanks to her involvement in organizing international symposia including members of the contemporary conservation community and workshops at AXA Arts international branches, the subject of plastic art conservation could be presented for the rst time to a broader public and addressed in popular art literature as initial impetus for more detailed and serious dealings with the subject.

The Authors
Dr. Stefan Albus: studied chemistry at the Ruhr-Universitt in Bochum; wrote his doctoral dissertation at the Max Planck Institute for Carbon Research in Mlheim an der Ruhr. Received his PhD from the Kaiserslautern-Universitt in 1994. Subsequently spent two years doing research at Rijksuniversiteit Groningen in the Netherlands; since then has worked as a freelance science journalist and author. Dr. Albus has continually received grants and awards for his work; he has written for various media, including Westdeutsche Rundfunk (radio), the Sddeutsche Zeitung (newspaper), and MaxPlanckForschung, a science magazine published by the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. His work focuses on issues related to plastics and rubber and he prepares science and engineering research ndings for interested laypeople and non-experts. Dr. Christian Bonten: studied mechanical engineering in Duisburg and plastics technology at the Rheinisch-Westflische Technische Hochschule (RWTH) in Aachen. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on welding of plastics, and subsequently worked in managerial capacities at the RWTH and for the engineering services provider IKM GmbH. He has worked for BASF since 2002; in his current post as Global Product Manager he is responsible for the worldwide business of the plastics Terlux and AMSAN, as well as for the design factory ( Dr. Bonten has written many articles and books, including Kunststofftechnik fr Designer, Ageing of Plastics, Welding of Plastics, and Produktentwicklung. He lectures at Duisburg-Essen and Karlsruhe universities. Katrin Keler: a certied restorer (FH), she completed her studies at the Institute for Restoration and Conservation Sciences at the Fachhochschule Kln. Her thesis, entiteld Celluloid a Material Decomposes, made a contribution to preservation of early plastic objects made of celluloid. After working for the Landesmuseum fr Technik und Arbeit in Mannheim, she received a Getty grant to work at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston/USA, before she was en88

gaged for the AXA Art Conservation Project in Cooperation with the Vitra Design Museum from 2003 to 2005. Since November 2005 she has headed the restoration department of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. Gabriella Rossi: studied art history and German Language and Literature at Basel and Bologna universities. She received her M.A. in 2002 after completing a thesis on female portal sculptures at Reims Cathedral. During her studies she gathered experience at auctions and in art trade circles, and worked for Sothebys in Zurich in the 20th century art department from 1998 to the end of 2000. From the beginning of 2001 to 2003 she was a research associate at the Art Focus gallery in Zurich. Since 2003 Gabriela Rossi has worked as an art appraiser for AXA Art Versicherung AG in Zurich. Dr. Thomas Wessel: studied classical archeology, ethnology, and art history in London, Paris, and Venice, among other places, completing his doctorate on Venetian rococo in Freiburg/Bresgau. Since the end of 1984 he has held various managerial positions at Nordstern Kunstversicherung. As Director Art Expertise Management, he supervises core business tasks and group projects of the AXA Art Group and for the art collection of AXA Versicherung AG in Cologne.

Distributor: AXA Art Versicherung AG, Cologne Colonia Allee 10-20 D-51067 Cologne Phone.: 0221-148 324 47 Fax: 0221-148 325 59 Redaktion: Dr. Thomas Wessel Lektorat: Anna Sophia Herfert Design: Rolf Kuhl, Kln Cologne, October 2006 AXA Art Versicherung AG, Kln, and the authors


AXA Art a success story

Following the discussion of the vagaries of plastic in art, now a little insight into our leitmotif: insuring art responsibly. At the beginning of the 1960s, we were asked by important art dealers in Paris to do more for collectors than merely offer them home owners insurance. Paris was considered the worlds center of art at that time. Everyone had their eyes on Informel, Art Dco, Style Nouveau, Art Brut, and the beginnings of Nouveau Ralisme; New York and London still played second ddle. In those days, the good old Nordstern art insurance company in Paris was considered a seal of approval for competence and customer service thanks to its close ties to the art trade, which still judges us today based on how exibly and carefully we act for the benet of their greatest good, namely collector customers. This reputation in Paris found in the 1980s an echo in other European countries: Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany (including Austria and Denmark), Spain (including Portugal), France, Italy, Great Britain (including Norway and Sweden), and last but not least the U.S., which had in the meantime become the epicenter of new styles, as well as Canada and Hong Kong. In 1999, the Nordstern art insurance company, which had been internationally oriented from the very outset, merged into AXA Art Versicherung AG, which as an independent unit of the large AXA Group (also based in Paris) sought to extend its market leadership in the vast eld of art. The founder of the art insurance company, Raymond Schmidt (+ 198x?), is an unforgettable gure. Prominent art dealers recall that with subtle commitment he engaged in a virtually inimitable dialogue artistique. He could empathize with collectors, dealers, and museum directors thanks

to his historical, technical, and not least commercial knowledge of the material a successful mixture whose essence was strongly inuenced by the tradition of our company. For collectors accustomed to discretion and judiciousness do not want to haggle over ordinary insurance conditions and premiums, but want to receive impeccable service, which makes them loyal to us in the long run. Add to this is the nancial strength of a global company, which constantly faces competition on the worlds markets and which stands out from the usual measure of persuasive sales arguments and continually wants to improve its performance. It is no secret: nothing ventured, nothing gained. And what we venture is based on mutual trust and technical control of pragmatically realizable safety for cultural assets in (nearly) all parts of the globe. Art is expanding to a challenging degree: Electronic media, synthetic composite materials, complicated exhibition technology, extremely demanding transport, and unparalleled numbers of visitors are important issues for an art insurer that provides best practice solutions in the service of public and private interests, issues which often require intense work persuading people to refrain from traditional practices. No other company worldwide has been able to position itself as a special provider the way that AXA Art has. And our success story is progressing in a positive way. Further markets in northern and eastern Europe as well as Southeast Asia are waiting for specialized providers who understand, in the face of exponentially growing art market prices, how to provide the rapidly accumulating art treasures of very wealthy collectors, private and public museums, internationally active art dealers, art trade fairs, and restorers with reasonable safety concepts and nancially strong coverage. Our 50 art experts do

their very best, and have experience dealing with art, their market, and many complex conservation issues. Since the interests of customers and art insurers coincide in precisely this point, namely enabling enjoyment of artworks with as little damage as possible over years, the AXA Art Group puts the lifespan of art at the center of all efforts. And we would not be successful without permanent dialogue in an international framework. So here we would like to thank readers for contributing their own mite of knowledge regarding the preservation of plastic art. A true partnership in the art community requires deeds. AXA Art exemplies this through numerous sponsoring partnerships with scientic art institutes (see the preface AXA Art Research Grant), and our daily activities preventing cultural assets from suffering damage and restoring damaged artworks contribute to saving cultural assets for posterity. Experiences such as Hurricane Katrina, oods in all parts of the world, brutal robberies with armed force, terrorist attacks like the ones on the WTC, as well as, unfortunately, extremely careless handling all of this is part of our business with art and capital in a double sense: It is a cultural asset entrusted to us that we not only feel responsible for but devote ourselves to protecting in these dangerous times. So success is a result of increasing daily awareness of severe and catastrophic damage to art, which would be inconceivable without art insurance.

AXA Art has published the following brochures (in German): Flschungen Gewhrleistung Prfungstechniken Typologie by Klaus Irle Photographie Sammeln Transport Prsentation Archivierung, with contributions from Birgit Filzmaier, Moya Tnnies and Marjen Schmidt Designobjekte Design zwischen 1900 und 1980 by Peter Gromotka Silber Ein Wegweiser fr das Sammeln von Silberobjekten, by Stephan Demmrich and FranzXaver Schlegel Glasobjekte Ein Leitfaden fr Sammler und die, die es werden wollen, by Stephan Demmrich Sitzmbel Von der Renaissance bis zum Beginn der Moderne, by Britta Hoppe Collectibles Sammeln als Leidenschaft by Volker Wienecke Porzellan Vitrinenkunst und Tischkultur by Thilo Tuchscherer Englische Mbel Eine kleine Geschichte englischer Vorlieben und Bedrfnisse von der Georgian bis zur Edwardian Period, by Senada Spika Biedermeiermbel Ein klassischer Stil erobert die Wohnzimmer damals und heute, by Britta Hoppe Graphik Handzeichnungen und Druckgraphik, by Jutta Kleinknecht, Marianne Kffner and F. Carlo Schmid Malerei Deutsche Malerei im 19. Jahrhundert, by Irene Haberland Kunst: Recht & Steuern Schwerpunktthemen fr den Kunstsammler, by Dr. Felix Gantefhrer und Dr. Jrg Wacker Source:


AXA Art Appraisers in Germany Hamburg ofce AXA Art Versicherung AG Postfach 10 42 03 20029 Hamburg Germany Tel.: +49 40-32 972 71 98 Fax: +49 40-32 972 71 20 Cologne ofce AXA Art Versicherung AG Colonia-Allee 10-20 51067 Cologne Germany Tel.: +49 221-1482 35 55 Fax: +49 221-1483 25 59 Munich ofce AXA Art Versicherung AG Postfach 20 02 18 80002 Munich Germany Tel.: +49 89-54 061 81 44 Fax: +49 89-54 061 81 49

Unsere internationalen Dependancen Belgium AXA Art Versicherung AG Meir 12 2000 Antwerp Belgium Tel.: +32 3-205 98 20 Fax: +32 3-225 52 61 France AXA Art S.A. dAssurances 61, Rue de Courcelles 75008 Paris France Tel.: +33 1-44 15 85 85 Fax: +33 1-42 67 20 79 Great Britain AXA Art Insurance Limited Furness House 106 Fenchurch Street London EC3M 5JE Great Britain Tel.: +44 207-2 65 46 00 Fax: +44 207-7 02 00 16 Switzerland AXA Art Versicherung AG Talackerstr. 5 8065 Zurich Switzerland Tel.: +4 11 / 8 74 84 84 Fax: +4 11 / 8 74 84 00 Italy AXA Art Versicherung AG Rappresentanza per lItalia Via Oreci 2 20123 Milan Italy Tel.: +39 02-888 965 1 Fax: +39 02-888 965 59 Spain AXA Art Versicherung AG Sucursal en Espaa C/ Marqus de Villamejor No. 3 1 Dcha. 28006 Madrid Spain Tel.: +34 91-7 81 58 90 Fax: +34 91-5 78 26 41 USA AXA Art Insurance Corporation 4 West 58th Street, 8th Floor New York, NY 10019-2515 USA Tel.: +1 212-415 8427 Fax: +1 212-415 8420 Asia AXA Art Hong Kong Ltd 30/F PCCW Tower Taikoo Place 979 Kings Road Quarry Bay, Hong Kong Hong Kong Tel.: +852 2867 8664

Title: R. Kuhl; p. 6: Zanotta; p. 7: NASA; p. 9: Vitra; p. 10: BASF AG, Ludwigshafen; p. 11: BASF AG, Ludwigshafen; p. 13: Bayer MaterialScience AG, Leverkusen; pp. 14-16: R. Kuhl; p. 17 left: Bayer MaterialScience AG, Leverkusen; p. 17 right: Bayer MaterialScience AG, Leverkusen; p. 18 left: BASF AG, Ludwigshafen; p. 20 right: Krauss-Maffei Kunststofftechnik GmbH, Mnchen; p. 19: Vitra; p. 20: BASF AG, Ludwigshafen; p. 21: Fresenius Medical Care, Bad Homburg; p. 22: Lanxess AG, Leverkusen; p. 23, R. Kuhl; p. 24: Vitra; p. 25: Procter & Gamble GmbH, Schwalbach am Taunus; p. 26 left and right, Vitra; p. 27 left and right: Vitra; pp. 28-29 above: Bayer MaterialScience AG, Leverkusen; p. 29 bottom: BASF AG, Ludwigshafen; p. 30: Lanxess AG: Leverkusen; p. 31 left and right: Vitra; p. 32: Vitra; p. 33: Bayer MaterialScience AG, Leverkusen; p. 34 left: Vitra; p. 34 right: Bayer MaterialScience AG, Leverkusen; p. 35: Bayer Material-Science AG, Leverkusen; p. 36 left and right: Vitra; p. 37: Authentics GmbH, Gtersloh; p. 38: R. Kuhl; p. 39 above: Bayer MaterialScience AG, Leverkusen; p. 39 bottom: R. Kuhl; pp. 41 and 42: Ruth Albus, Herne; pp. 43 and 44: Lanxess AG, Leverkusen; p. 45: Robert Berlich; p. 46: K. Keler; p. 47: BASF AG; Ludwigshafen; p. 48: Ticona; p. 49: BASF AG, Ludwigshafen; p. 50: Lanxess AG, Leverkusen; p. 51: KRD Sicherheitstechnik GmbH, Geesthacht; p. 53: The Estate of Eva Hesse, Hauser & Wirth Zrich; p. 54: 2006, Pro Litteris, Zrich; p. 55: R. Kuhl, 2006 Pro Litteris, Zrich; p. 57: R. Kuhl; p. 59: Dirk Reinartz, Ron Mueck; p. 60: Lanxess AG, Leverkusen; p. 61 left.: Lanxess AG, Leverkusen; p. 61 right: Vitra; pp. 62-66 left: K. Keler; p. 66 right: Vitra; p. 67: Vitra; p. 68: Gaetano Pesce; pp. 69-74: K. Keler; p. 75: Vitra; Backpage: Vitra 91