My plastics at home: part 4

24 March 2021

Spending so much time at home has really made me appreciate those little items around me that perhaps I was drawn to at the time of purchase, but to which I have since paid little attention. One such object is a waste-paper basket (see image below). On the face of it, a waste-paper basket isn’t perhaps the most riveting of subjects, but it puts me in mind of one of MoDiP’s previous exhibitions, Is that plastic?, that looked at skeuomorphs and metaphors in design. This is an example of a skeuomorph in that it imitates something that has been hand knitted. This imitation does not contribute to its function, but it takes the edge off a purely utilitarian object and, for me, it makes it a bit more interesting.   


Image credit: Pam Langdown

Plastics are a group of materials with no intrinsic shape or colour, and have provided designers with the opportunity to exploit their ability to imitate other materials, something which we readily accept without giving it a second thought. But A.H. (Woody) Woodfull, a pioneer of the use of plastics in product design, was strongly against the idea that plastics materials should be used to imitate another material. Reading through his lecture notes, which MoDiP was fortunate enough to have been given by his family, it is evident that Woody firmly believed design should be true to the nature of the material being used. He was writing at a time when plastics were a relatively new material in the home but the reputation of the material had suffered by its inappropriate use.

In ‘The Designer and Plastics’, 1948, he wrote:

I deplore the extent to which wood effects are imitated in moulding. Plastics are not a substitute for other materials and it is only giving them an inferiority complex through this practice of imitation. They are the materials which in the process of evolution have been invented and found to have qualities which make them more suitable for certain purposes than some of the older materials which they replace – BUT DO NOT SUBSTITUTE.  Plastics should not imitate, in design or colour effect, they have sufficient merit to stand on their own and be treated in an individual manner: if I want wood  I buy wood; if I want plastics I buy plastics, and I have no desire to hide the fact that what I have bought is a moulding. This then is the position with regard to materials – GIVE THEM HONEST USAGE. 


He was clearly very passionate about his profession, and the material.  


In an address entitled ‘Plastic and Proud of It’, given to the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce (undated) he wrote: 

Designers – like dictators – often reflect sadly that it is their mistakes or less successful ideas which linger in the public mind. Good design is so unobtrusive that it is often ignored. This is, I am sure, a major reason for the unfortunate, and largely unjustified, association in the minds of many consumers between ‘plastics’ and such descriptions as “shoddy”, “substitute”, “synthetic” etc. Housewives old enough to remember the immediate post-war period nurse a grudge against plastics for washing-up bowls that wilted when filled with really hot water, for food containers that became brittle and cracked deluging their contents around the refrigerators, for toys that disintegrated after the first good thump from a lusty two-year-old. It all added up to a “nasty, cheap” plastics prejudice which still lingers. 


Image credit: Pam Langdown

I think, on the whole, we are far more accepting and appreciative of the plastics materials around us today, and even perhaps admire some of the achievements of manufacturers to imitate other materials. More often than not we now find that the plastics material chosen for a specific application performs perfectly – no longer wilting under heat or disintegrating under pressure. 


I am not sure what ‘Woody’ Woodfull would have made of my waste paper basket. It is clearly not pretending to be made from anything other than a plastic, and it is obviously not constructed from some sort of hand knitted yarn, so perhaps it is not quite the same argument, but it has borrowed its form from the craft of knitting. Its outer surface has been moulded in a representation of knitted stitches, and in this way, gives a very functional object more appeal. However, this basket has been injection moulded in polypropylene, a material known for its high durability. It is readily available and is one of a range of domestic items in the same design. It was probably made in its millions and was relatively inexpensive to buy. In this instance, the use of moulded polypropylene is a far more appropriate material than a textile yarn which it represents. I would like to think that he would have quite liked it too and forgiven the designers for its nod to another material.  


Anyway, I like it and it has been promoted from waste-paper to duster and cleaning cloth storage duty. I am sure it will perform well for many years, but I will always think of ‘Woody’ when I use it! 



Image credit: Pam Langdown


Pam Langdown 
MoDiP Documentation Officer