Uncovering the History of Bakelite – The First Plastic

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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 over in 1939.ย 

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 emerged as an essential new product design material.ย 

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 an appearance before.ย 

Smooth, light, durable

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

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 in the public eye.ย 

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.ย 

As in the commercially successful French outdoor cafรฉ range launched in 1932, Manufacture d’Isolants et Objets Moulรฉs 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.

Bakelite costume jewellery

Bakelite jewelry became popular in the 1930s due to its use by prominent designers such as Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. It was cheap and popular with matching necklaces, earrings, bracelets and rings. Women of all ages wore dress clips, bangles, brooches and pins. Hair ornaments finished off the effect, and all these accessories could be stored in jewellery boxes.

Radio (model AC74) designed by Serge Chermayeff
Radio (model AC74) designed by Serge Chermayeff

Additional Resources

American Chemical Society – Educational Resource

Sources

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

Woodham, J.ย Bakelite.ย Inย A Dictionary of Modern Design.ย : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 24 Jan. 2021

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