This exhibition was on display from June 08, 2019 to January 02, 2022.
See all the exhibitions.
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.