Not Created Equal: The history and discernment of plastics in product design


The idea of plastics as cheap substitute materials has been wide spread for decades — sometimes justifiably, but frequently not.

Stretching back to the mid 19th century, the history of polymers is a lot more complicated than most folks realize, as is the array of different materials that fall into that category. There are, in fact, plenty of historical examples of plastics as explicitly desirable materials, known by name and sought after by consumers; and some recent trends indicate that may happen again.

The presentation gives a rapid overview of polymers in history, fads that they spawned and reacted to, and some fascinating bits of cultural background that lead to their alternating embrace and ridicule. Bakelite, for example, was once so popular it was made into jewelry, and Werner Panton’s iconic curvy chair, designed in 1960, had to wait 6 years for ABS to become common enough that it could actually be manufactured. And so on.

The biggest issue at the moment with all of these polymers, of course, is keeping them out of landfills. While potentially the most recyclable materials on earth, public perceptions of polymers and the designs they encourage actually work against this process; the presentation concludes with steps to combat this trend.

Carl Alviani


Carl is a freelance writer and editor, focusing on topics of product design, branding and social media. His education and work history includes one degree each in engineering and industrial design, 3 years in Tanzania as a Peace Corps science teacher, and 30 or so industrial design projects, ranging from consumer electronics and computer hardware to large scale metal and glass sculptures. From 2004 to 2009, he was a frequent contributor and editorial director at online design magazine, and its sister site

He’s fond of very long walks, bikes with baskets, mid-century modern furniture, dirt-encrusted produce, and good beer. He lives near Mt. Tabor with a rambunctious mutt.