Designwise in 5: The Unbreakable Beauty of Bakelite

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"I have one word for you, 'Plastics'..."—a favorite line from a favorite movie, 'The Graduate' directed by the late master Mike Nichols...

Despite our discoveries that plastics aren't the earth's best friend, a girl can still have a crush on the many and varied objects this synthetic material has produced in decades past. And this particular chick is absolutely mad for a plastic popularized in the Depression Era, Bakelite. Created accidentally in 1907 in New York by a wealthy inventor Leo Baekeland (who happens to share my November birthday) looking for a replacement for the protective see-through sealant shellac, this discovery began the mass production of plastics. It's been remade and rebranded, but Bakelite is the original, and by any name is still as fabulous...

From heavy machinery to game and firearm pieces to contemporary Breitling watch boxes, there are few aspects of daily life that haven't benefitted from this miraculously strong, cheap, easily moldable material. Billiard balls have always seemed like candy to me—like the ultimate 'everlasting gobstoppers'...

I recall Martha Stewart saying once that she is a collector, which is not at all a surprise as classic kitchenware abounds in the substance. This pic from The Recylcista blog on Bakelite shows off the deadly design mix of flawless uniformity and visual enticement that the best of everyday objects possess.

 

Few objects have achieved the collectable status of Bakelite jewelry from the 20s and 30s. Pros say the best way to tell the real thing is to give a piece a good rub and sniff for formaldehyde. But whatever you do don't break it because production sometimes included asbestos. Put those jewelry pieces on display taking as much care as you would with your finest china. They deserve this treatment as true objets d'art!

 

Objects produced en masse were the perfect fit. Don't know anyone who didn't own one of there, including our digital design director, who's 15 years younger than me...

My personal favorite retro Bakelite piece is the phone. Rotary style is sorely missed. Can't imagine today's iphone will have the nostalgic appeal of this black beauty...

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  • Roxie Mae
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