Vitra Design Museum’s new exhibition highlights how plastic is remaking our world
Chief curator Jochen Eisenbrand explains why young design studios of today can be a part of the solution.
16 May 2022

As the co-curator of Plastic: Remaking Our World, created together with V&A Dundee and maat, Lisbon, Eisenbrand explains that the exhibition, which opened a few weeks ago at the museum located in the city of Weil am Rhein in southern Germany, is divided into three parts.

— First, there is an introduction in the form of a film installation by Asif Khan, who is also responsible for the exhibition design. Since you are in a room with screens on both sides, this is a truly immersive experience. In the film, the 200 million years it took to extract fossil raw materials like oil are contrasted with the 150 years of plastic development.

— The second part is dedicated to the history of plastics. The plastics that were developed at that time were the first man-made material — a miracle in those days. In this context, we also show a map entitled Synthetica, which appeared in the American Fortune Magazine in 1940. On the map, you can see a continent made up of countries that all have names of different plastics. That’s how it was perceived at that time: as a new continent with a lot to discover. In the exhibitions, we also want to convey this enthusiasm for plastics in that era.

— The third, contemporary part deals with different approaches to solutions: mechanical and chemical recycling, reinventing the material on the basis of renewable raw materials, biodegradable plastics and, of course, systemic considerations concerning the circular economy, such as the deposit system. Here, we also have an interactive element in the form of machines from the Precious Plastic network, where visitors can experience how plastic waste is recycled.

Plastic: Remaking Our World at Vitra Design Museum.

What’s your view on plastic as a material onwards? How will we use it?

— A world entirely without plastic is not possible and it doesn’t make sense. Plastic is a great material with which we can do things that are not possible with other materials. But we really have to rethink the way we deal with it, understand them more as valuable materials, and use them more sustainably.

The world, Eisenbrand shares, is now even talking about the age of ”the Plasticene”, in reference to the Anthropocene.

— The exhibition title points out that the world has changed a lot because of plastics. And plastics are simply everywhere — even where we don’t want them to be: in our oceans, in our drinking water, even in our bodies. So the title is also a call to action. We have to re-evaluate and change the way we deal with plastics. And we need to understand plastics as materials that should not only be used once but should be part of a cycle.

What role do designers play in problem-solving?

— Designers have always played a mediating role between industry and consumers. In the period after the Second World War, when new plastics were being developed all the time, they showed what was possible with the material. In the past, designers fulfilled a purely formative, creative function. Nowadays, they consider the entire life cycle of a product. They not only have to think about where the material they use comes from, but also about what happens to it afterwards. Can the material be biodegraded in the end or can it be returned to the economic cycle? This is a big challenge for designers because they have to think in a much larger context than before, says Eisenbrand. He adds:

— But we also observe that many young design studios are interested in exactly that. They think they don’t need the umpteenth new chair or the umpteenth new mobile phone. Because it’s all there already — and actually too much of it. For many, it is more interesting to think more fundamentally. Material research is a very important topic in contemporary design, also with regard to plastics.