Plastic, that omnipresent malleable material we associate with disposable goods, Hollywood personalities, and instant-gratification charge accounts. It contributes to the ever-growing class of indistinguishable items that clutter our lives, yet makes possible the essential devices and practical minutiae we rely on each day; imagine a world without toothbrushes, bicycle helmets, and (gulp) iPods. The spectrum of harm and benefit is as elastic as the material itself, simultaneously the evil villain and superhero of the material world.
The breadth of plastic chairs is no different from the diverse characters of the material—from the omnipresent backyard bucket to a high-tech rotation-molded import. So how to differentiate the good from the bad? The popularity and prevalence of plastic chairs have run the gamut over the decades since their inception—from space-age wonder, to commonplace eyesore, to high design. It’s safe to say there is a plastic chair to match every style, taste, and fashion.
Technology has played an integral part in the direction of plastic-chair design. Developments in the manufacturing process have allowed new forms, weights, and colors previously relegated to the imagination. And aside from keeping us from standing all day, these pragmatic furnishings also express our personalities. Chairs are fundamental indicators not just of our salaries but of our values and character as well. The saying may be that you wear your heart on your sleeve, but “seat” might be equally true.
When it came time to find an expert to help us assess the current crop of plastic chairs, we chose none other than Karim Rashid (hoping for the utmost blobjectivity). His Oh chair, released by Umbra in 1999, won an IDEA award, has been added to the SFMOMA permanent collection, and reinvigorated the medium—in addition to making Rashid a household name (at least at our house). Who better to help suss out the brilliant from the banal than the prince of plastic himself?