Bakelite the first ‘plastic’

AD-65 Radio, Designed 1932; manufactured 1934

Circular green Bakelite housing with semi-circular station dial at top front above circular brown textile-covered speaker with three vertical metal rods as grille; three circular control knobs below speaker; two angled feet at base.

The first entirely synthetic plastic was Bakelite, the trade name for phenol-formaldehyde or phenolic resins. It was patented in 1907 by Dr Leo Baekeland. He founded the American General Bakelite Company to put his invention into commercial production in 1910. It became the Bakelite Corporation in 1922, and the Union Carbide and Carbon Company took it over in 1939. 

Product design material

With Baekeland’s creation of the Bakelite Corporation of Great Britain in 1922, Bakelite also impacted Europe. Although originally laminated phenolic resins were used to manufacture gears, Bakelite subsequently emerged as an essential new product design material. 

This followed the Baekeland patents expiry in 1927 when, under various trade names, many new variants of phenolic resin became available. This new competition forced prices down and also produced brightly coloured variations of a material that had been black or dark brown in appearance before. 

Smooth, light, durable

In the United States, many industrial designers were enthusiastic about the smooth, lightweight, and durable shapes that were quickly produced using the new resins. 

For example, for his celebrated 1929 design for a Gestetner duplicating machine, Raymond Loewy used Bakelite to emphasise the smoothly rounded casing effect. 

Bakelite was displayed at the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition, keeping the product firmly in the public eye. 

Bakelite Products

In Britain, Bakelite also had extensive currency, especially in the innovative radio cabinets produced by E. K. Cole Ltd. such as the rounded shape of the Wells Coates designed Model AD65 radio (1934) and Serge Chermayeff’s elegant Model AC74 radio. 

As in the commercially successful French outdoor café range launched in 1932, Manufacture d’Isolants et Objets Moulés also used phenolics in furniture production. After their introduction in the years before the First World War, phenolic laminates were used in various applications for several decades, from decorative panels to clothing fabrics.

Serge Chermayeff. Radio (model AC74). 1933 | MoMA

Serge Chermayeff. Radio (model AC74). 1933. E. K. Cole Ltd, est. 1924. Bakelite. 17 15/16 x 14 15/16 x 10 7/16″ (45.5 x 38 x 26.5 cm). Gift of George R. Kravis II, in honor of Juliet Kinchin. 1165.2013. Architecture and Design

Sources

Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing.

Woodham, J. Bakelite. In A Dictionary of Modern Design. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www-oxfordreference-com.ezproxy.csu.edu.au/view/10.1093/acref/9780191762963.001.0001/acref-9780191762963-e-70.

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