When Swedish Designers Preferred Plastic

Jugs, ladles, utensils, and bowls are common exhibition fare. However, it’s not often you see an exhibit devoted to the plastic—rather than clay—versions of these items.

On view through July 25 at the Svensk Form gallery in Stockholm, Swedish Plastic Design 1950-1971 features 470 pieces that range from kitschy to elegant, translucent to solid. Selected from the collection of Thomas Lindblad, who purchased all of the items at Swedish flea markets, the objects span plastic’s heyday in Sweden. A few pieces from the material’s advent in the 1940s, as well as three new items by young designers, form the exhibition’s chronological bookends.

“The idea of this exhibition is to show the design of everyday life,” says Stefan Nillson, marketing manager of Svensk Form, the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design. Holding up a triangular blue juicer for inspection, he adds, “We want to make people think, when they look at this, someone had to design this, someone had to decide to make it this shape.”

Swedish designers tend to think practically, Nillson says; this approach accounts for the solid (albeit bright) colors of nearly all the objects on show. The exhibition’s brochure cites American art historian Jeffrey Meikle’s designation of plastic as the most democratic of materials, due to its cheapness, accessibility, and conduciveness to imitation: “To be the ‘material of possibilities,’ where you can own a ‘marble’ soap dish without having to pay a half month’s wages for it!” gushes the brochure.

Plastic’s popularity in Sweden coincided with the establishment of the country’s welfare state. While the state played no official role in plastic’s ascendancy in the ’40s and ’50s, “Politicians wanted to take a large leap from a farming society to a modern society,” Nillson explains. Plastic manufacturers (such as Gustavberg, Perstorp, Hammarplast, and Husqvarna) and designers (including Carl-Arne Breger, Arne Darnell, and Stig Lindberg) created and produced fitting household goods for that symbolic leap.

In the 1980s and 1990s, however, plastic lost popularity as its novelty wore off and its raw material prices rose. The material’s incompatibility with microwaves also may have contributed to its decline in use.

Swedish Plastic Design 1950-1971 traces these trends and translates them into product. For example, in the 1940s, designers were more inclined to use plastic to imitate other materials. Pieces from the exhibition that demonstrate this include a cluster of small blue and yellow containers that simulate wooden barrels and a large green basket of faux-wicker.

Later, designers sought to capitalize on plastic’s intrinsic qualities. Karen Bjorquist, who produced work in the 1970s, felt plastics should come in simple shapes that were easily mass-produced. Her objects in the exhibition include round plates in different shades of red, which stack up Russian-doll style to form concentric circles.

Other changes in plastic’s design involved ergonomic advances, often resulting from studies by Sweden’s Home Research Institute. For example, new knowledge led to more sophisticated and user-friendly dish-brushes and cooking bowls. Plastic itself has also evolved to become stronger, now able to withstand more heat and even its erstwhile nemesis, the microwave.

To a limited extent, plastics have enjoyed a renaissance in Swedish design. Ikea, for instance, uses some plastic in its furniture. Hammarplast, the only remaining Swedish plastics manufacturer, recently sponsored a competition; the winning design—a multi-use, grey cooking utensil—is featured in the exhibition, alongside two competition runners-up.

But on the whole, plastic is no longer a major material in Swedish design. This exhibition is meant to remind Swedes of an earlier era and of the mundane artifacts of their childhoods. Perhaps a visitor or two will even recognize a long-lost thermos or ladle, sold years ago for a few kroners at a flea market.

Swedish Plastic Design 1950-1975 runs through July 25 at the Svensk Form gallery in Stockholm.

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