Nature By Design: Plastics From molded tortoiseshell and vulcanized rubber to bioplastic pellets and semi-synthetic yarn, the beauty of natural plastics and the creativity achieved with these pliable materials are explored in this surprising range of objects from Cooper Hewitts collection. The animal and plant kingdoms were the original sources for materials with a quality known as plasticitythe ability to be bent or molded into virtually any form. Natural thermoplastics like tortoiseshell and horn can be split into thin, translucent sheets that become malleable with heat. Rubber and leather can also be molded with heat, but harden irreversibly to become strong thermoset materials. Semi-synthetics, such as rayon or celluloid, are made from plant materials processed, purified, and reconfigured to change their properties. Enthusiasm for natural plastics led to the overharvesting of raw materials; some animal species became endangered. To keep pace with consumer and industrial demand, scientists developed synthetic substitutes starting in the late 19th century, going on to create a flood of inexpensive petrochemical plastics in the 20th century. Produced and discarded in vast quantities, these petroleum-based plastics now present a global environmental crisis. In light of their harmful impact, we have come full circle. Designers, manufacturers, and consumers today are exploring traditional and non-traditional natural materials, investigating novel approaches to their use and processing, and creating renewable and biodegradable bioplastics as sustainable solutions for everything from packaging to home goods.
Tortoiseshell, like horn, is a thermoplastic which can be shaped using heat, moisture, and pressure. Working the material was a laborious, costly process. Objects made from tortoiseshell were considered luxury goods. The simple cylindrical form of this birdcage is embellished with extravagant materials including form-fitting curved tortoiseshell veneer around the base, intricately carved ivory feet, and lavish accessories.are
The luxurious fabric of this sample, accented with gold and translucent cellulose acetate sequins, is composed of two different materials: overtwisted rayon, used to produce the crepe texture, and acetate, with which its soft hand would have ensured the effortless drape of this proposed design.
The fashion industry embraced the wide range of new fabrics woven with semi-synthetic fibers to produce stylish clothing. The shape of this embellishment indicates it is a sample for the neckline of a woman's garment and is made from a shimmering mix of natural and semi-synthetic beads.
The American Viscose Corporation was one of the leading domestic manufacturers of rayon, the first semi-synthetic fiber. This educational booklet was part of the company's marketing campaign to promote viscose rayon as a modern and technologically innovative product that was an affordable, good quality alternative to natural silk.
Trained as a cabinetmaker, Wenzel Friedrich immigrated to the U.S. in 1853, settling in San Antonio, Texas. In 1880, he realized the potential of the Texan stockyards’ plentiful supply of steer horns for use in furniture design. It is likely Friedrich was inspired by furniture he had seen in Europe where antlers and other emblems of the hunt were used as decor as early as the 15th century. Friedrich’s longhorn furniture fulfilled the Victorian fancy for the unusual, as well as symbolized the Wild West. Heating the horn made the material pliable, allowing Friedrich to create exagerated curves for his pieces.
This is a rare shoe horn from about 1600—only 17 examples from this period are known to exist. The detailed decoration of what was typically a plain, utilitarian object suggests that it may have belonged to a toilet table set. The engraved designs may relate to blackwork embroidery.
Cellulose nitrate was used to replicate different costly materials, including tortoiseshell. This fan's materials were only able to be discerned under ultraviolet (UV) examination and magnfication- its fluorescence and the presence of dispersed dyes indicates that it is cellulose nitrate, not natural tortoiseshell.
A souvenir from the 1939 World's Fair in Flushing, New York, this scarf commemorates the various buildings and monuments at the fairgrounds. The Chemical and Plastics Building, sponsored by DuPont, featured displays of research labs and manufacturing processes. Included were a rayon spinning machine, a machine that added bristles to toothbrushes, and a debut display of DuPont's nylon stockings.
This souvenir of the 1939 New York World's Fair was woven on-site in an exhibit demonstrating mechanized weaving with DuPont rayon. It illustrates the DuPont Chemistry Wonder World, a building designed by Walter Dorwin Teague and R.J. Harper, which featured a spectacular 105-foot, test-tube-shaped tower.
This fan represents an experimental period when substitutions for costly natural materials were being explored. The cellulose nitrate has been colored to mimic and exaggerate the natural striations found in ivory. The material's inherent vice of giving off or "off-gassing," harmful acids has led to its darkening and the deterioration of the silk ribbon.