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THE GOODS

Derided and adored, used and abused, plastic has managed to bend but never break. Now a new book looks at love-hate affair with the material that can fondly be called . . . : Old Reliable

August 20, 1996|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tt was the perfect party to launch Stephen Fenichell's new book, "Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century." Staged last month at the Fashion Cafe in New York's Rockefeller Center, the event featured a runway fashion show spotlighting designer apparel (Nicole Miller and Betsey Johnson) made from recycled soda bottles.

The EcoSpun designs were "surprisingly beautiful," Fenichell said. "The fabrics have really improved--they didn't have that nubby, leisure-suit look."

Plastic, he acknowledged, always requires an apology. "I call it the Rodney Dangerfield of the consumer world," said Fenichell, a New York freelance writer. And after almost two years of research for his 350-page book (published by HarperBusiness), which traces the strange progress of plastics from 19th century celluloid dentures to the high-styled Tupperware of the 1990s, Fenichell is still ambivalent on the subject. "Plastic was a miracle material that went bad," he said.

Having started its life as a cheap substitute, plastic has never been able to shake off its trashy trail of Ban-Lon, Orlon, Lucra, Leatherette and pink flamingos. Even though it was adored by consumers in the 1950s as symbolic of everything new and clean (Tupperware alone changed the face of leftovers forever) and embraced in the 1960s by pop artists (Christo wrapped a mile of Australian beach in sticky polypropylene plastic), by the mid-'60s it was becoming a joke among sophisticates. The social backlash was immortalized in the 1967 movie "The Graduate" when Dustin Hoffman is given the smarmy career advice: "I just want to say one word to you, Ben . . . Plastics."

In the five decades since the end of World War II, Fenichell writes, plastic has crept unceasingly, often invisibly, into our homes, offices, even our bodies, with plastic joints and valves: "In 1979, the global volume of plastics production outstripped that of steel. At precisely that point in our industrial development, we entered the Plastic Age." He thinks that label is more appropriate than the customary Age of Information.

Although he writes with authority about laboratory manipulation of synthetic polymers, Fenichell is not a scientist but "an all-around journalist." A contributor to such periodicals as Mademoiselle, New York magazine and Connoisseur, he has written two other books, "Daughters at Risk: A Personal DES History" (Doubleday, 1980), about synthetic estrogen, and "Other People's Money" with Lawrence Charfoos (Doubleday, 1985), about financial fraud.

It was while doing research for a DuPont industrial film that he got hooked on the subject of plastic. "I saw that plastic really was an invisible conquest," he said in a phone interview, "but despite this omnipresence, it has been essentially unexamined."

Although there are many books about design and plastic, or the history of synthetics, Fenichell was looking at a social revolution and saw the book as a lens for the entire 20th century with the products themselves--from the first women's nylons to football AstroTurf--defining our lives.

And as a writer who seeks the narrative pull in his material, he was fascinated by the industry's colorful pioneers, who included Thomas Edison and George Eastman but also many lesser-known scientists.

Scottish dye maker Charles Macintosh coated canvas with coal tar in the 1820s, and in Yonkers, N.Y., "Doc" Baekeland spent years heating formaldehyde mixtures to produce Bakelite in 1907, the first true synthetic material fashioned entirely from man-made molecules. Science itself, in the early days of industrial chemistry, was a colorful activity--haphazard and chaotic, Fenichell said. "Things were always blowing up and the amount of accidents was extraordinary."

In fact almost every invention was an accident: Trying to find a coating for billiard balls in 1868, John Wesley Hyatt saw a spilled bottle of collodion and it gave him the idea for celluloid. Elsewhere, a cat knocked over formaldehyde and turned a bowl into plastic. There were cinema fires and hotel fires and occasionally synthetic garments melted with alarming speed.

Some laboratory work was done in other countries, but it was Americans who thrived at creating the fake reality and marketing it. "Plastic is an American phenomenon," Fenichell said. "It defines the way the 20th century has evolved into an artificial landscape with DisneyWorld and shopping malls and theme parks--things that are all about surface."

Our love-hate relationship with plastic, he noted, stems from the fact that its vice and virtue are so connected: Made to last forever, it does, so that the same kitchen cabinet applauded for its sturdiness continues to be sturdy even after a kitchen remodeling has relegated it to the landfill. It's the Rasputin of modern materials, Fenichell writes. "You can break it, chop it, dice it, shred it, burn it and bury it, but it refuses to die."

After living with the subject for two years, Fenichell is not taking sides. "I am not a big fan of plastic as it is currently constituted," he said. But he does appreciate its whimsical fun and admires the way a good high-tech designer can make a neat GorTex jacket or high performance ski. "Plastic can be cool," he said.

These are signs, he thinks, that plastic has a brighter future as industry becomes more skilled at polymer engineering. From the clumsy attempts of the '80s to market "biodegradable" plastic bags that were an environmental joke, researchers are concentrating on warmer, fuzzier bioplastics, including Warner-Lambert's Novon, a biodegradable plastic made entirely from cornstarch, and Cargill's Eco-Pla made from a byproduct of fermented sugars.

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