Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Buck Henry, The Graduate, 1967
Art in the sixties, it's been said, was a Cambrian Explosion of styles. As the new materials of the industrial age exerted a heavy influence over what would become Modernism, so was plastic integral to the trajectory of art and design in the sixties. Nowhere was this more apparent than with the wave of work coming out of Southern California and its marriage of Minimalism and plastics.
Two exemplars of this California material style were Craig Kauffman (Untitled, 1968), above, and Donald Judd (Untitled, 1963), below. Judd was based in New York but his work fit in well with the Californians. In both cases, here, the artists use fabricated Plexiglass, a material developed in the early '30s.
This acrylic, which manufactured under many trade names including Plexiglass and Lucite, is a transparent thermoplastic AKA polyacrylate and is derived from natural-gas and is essentially considered a petroleum-chemical based product.
Helen Pashgian was one of the few women—as is often the case in the art world in what was otherwise a boy's club. Most famously, she was the creator of these jewel-like plastic domes and crystal-like balls.
As often happens, before the academic avant-garde is established, there is the authentic avant-garde of early adapters who are simply motivated for something fresh and practical. Before plastic became a rage in design it was an industrial product that found its way into in military applications during World War II. Aircraft and submarine manufacturers were exploiting its high density, durability, and resistance to UV rays.
Polish-born Helena Rubenstein, face cream magnate and richest woman in the world, commissioned some of the earliest furniture made from this dense plastic. As best as can be told from Googling, this collection came about in the late 30s. The advent of acrylic furniture didn't begin until the late 50s. Rubenstein's furniture is now the stuff of museum collections and has gone on in design history for its prescience if not its exquisite taste. (David Hicks would designed the rooms to surround the furniture.)
Here, Katie Holmes adorns the classic chair:
And Rubenstein's equally famous sled-like bed:
Above, the Waterfall Barstool from 1963, and its predecessor the Grosfield House Corset chair from 1939:
Self-taught designer and would be "Prince of Plastic" Neal Small began manufacturing his own collection in the 60s. (Some of his history here.) Below, a table from 1968:
Two from Laverne: The Daffodil chair (above) and the Buttercup chair (below), both from a collection known as The Invisibles from 1957. Built with the idea that clear plastic furniture offers the illusion that it "doesn't take up space."
Cultural icons can always drive up the cache as well:
So much for history and precedents: Jumping to the present, Philippe Starck's Ghost chair: Introduced in 2002, the chair has since sold 1.5 million units.
Adding more plastic to his line, Starck created the Eros chair (below) and the Mr. Impossible chair (second below):
The popularity of the Ghost chair has brought a renaissance of clear plastic into furniture design. Below, Jennifer Hunt's Lucite bed.
The Oste Table from Colico Design harkens back to classic style of lathed wood legs:
Another Ghost chair, this one by Ralph Naute and Lonneke Gordijin:
A variation on the classic dining table in Plexiglass from Alexandra von Furstenburg:
In the kingdom of glass everything is transparent, and there is no place to hide a dark heart.
Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration