From Blood and Sawdust to Lycra

Plastics started to be used by technologists, inventors and entrepreneurs over two centuries ago but it is only in the last fifty years that plastics materials have been used as ‘first-choice’ by artists and designers.

Simple plastics moulding technologies were developed 300 years ago using natural polymers like horn and tortoiseshell but with the introduction of semi-synthetic plastics in the second half of the 19th Century artists had access to families of new materials like Vulcanite, Celluloid and Shellac.

By the 1920s the art lovers would have seen on public display works by Gabo and Pevsner utilising the new transparent ‘Celluloid’, a trade name now synonymous with that ‘modern’ art, the art of the cinema, impossible without plastics. As the 20th Century evolved, so did the technology of plastics and when, after the Second World War, the plastics industry turned to oil as its raw material we saw the introduction of new plastics, polyethylene, PVC, polystyrene and nylon. Artists and designers have always explored new frontiers with new materials as they become available and it is no surprise that plastics in the form of solids, foams, fibres, films and even paints have been increasingly used, unwittingly or deliberately, to make works of art that surprise, delight, challenge and mystify us all.