NEW YORK - In 1957, French philosopher Roland Barthes penned a diatribe against plastics, a material that ruffled his highly developed sensitivity to the physical world. ``Despite names that would suit a Greek shepherd (polystyrene, phenoplast, polyvinyl, polyethylene), ... this is a graceless material, lost between the exuberance of rubber and the flat hardness of metal. ... Its noise undoes as does its colors, for it seems capable of acquiring only the most chemical colors; it retains only the most aggressive forms of yellow, red and green.''
Barthes, who died in 1980, won't get a chance to visit The Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the ``Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design'' exhibition runs through Aug. 27. If the philosopher could have seen the show,he might have found the material grace he was looking for nearly four decades after his literary snit.
The Mutant Materials exhibition, described as the first major industrial design show in eight years at the MoMA, takes a global look at more than 200 products and prototypes made of traditional and newly created materials. Besides plastics, rubber and composites, the exhibition also includes a wide selection of items in glass, wood, metals and ceramics.
The exhibition, and accompanying book, are the creations of Paola Antonelli, associate curator in the museum'sdepartment of architecture and design. Her intent was to demonstrate the ``really fabulous'' balance between the design process and the materials employed to accomplish a design.
``My goal was to describe contemporary design to the public and to describe how beautiful it is,'' Antonelli said. ``The material was in itself a form of design.''
In her book, where she also cites the Barthes essay on plas-tics, Antonelli lists the various sources of inspiration for the exhibition. The title, she explains, came from ``Space 1999,'' a science-fiction television series from the mid-1970s featuring Maya, a character who was a ``beautiful mutant.''
Many plastic objects in Mutant Materials could be considered beautiful, if mundane. Included are a taillight from the Mazda MX5 Miata, demonstrating multishot injection molding from Mazda Motor Corp. Prototype oil and fuel cans by Neste Oy are of blow molded polyethylene. EMI Records contributed an injection-molded polystyrene compact disc case.
Resin makers Chevron Chemical Co., DuPont Polymers and Advanced Elastomer Systems LP contributed pellet samples. A variety of products and materials made use of recycled plastic.
Some Mutant items simply defy categorization, such as the salt and pepper shakers made from extruded, slip-cast and molded rice slurry or the electrical switch of synthetic rubber and fake fur.
Or the ``Aura'' coffee table by Egyptian-born Canadian Karim England Rashid. The table tops, made of a tinted polymethyl-methacrylate film sandwiched between two sheets of glass, create a variety of optical effects. The legs of the table are of steel and redwood.
And, lest the visitor forget that the Mutant Materials show indeed is staged in an art museum, there are such artifacts as the ``Table Made with Music,'' by Italian Gaetano Pesce.
The designer attached nearly 20 tubes to the circumference of a ``round plateau mold.'' Into the mold he poured a polyurethane resin with a catalyzing time of about 20 minutes. The tubes are connected to a compressor, which pipes air and recordedmusic (British rock group Pink Floyd) to the mold where the uncured resin is agitated and aerated. The result is a tabletop with a swirling, psychedelic effect.
The exhibit also features hands-on items, which Antonelli said is essential for giving the viewer a tactile understanding of the materials. One of her favorite plastics is PU, because of its ability to assume so many different states.
``That's really the mutant material,'' she said. ``It's really quite amazing.''
At Advanced Elastomer Systems, the MoMA exhibit coincides with a growing marketing effort aimed at the design industry for the company's soft-to-the-touch Santoprene polymeric elastomer. Several items featuring Santoprene are in the show, including grips for ski poles, knife handles and binoculars.
``It's gratifying to us to have some of these applications highlighted,'' said Robert S. Lis-kiewicz, AES marketing director for the Americas.
To raise Santoprene awareness among designers, who are influential in specifying materials, AES is preparing a direct-mail piece tied to the MoMA show and has purchased about 50 copies of the exhibition books for distribution to key designers.
Viewing industrial and commercial products ``on a pedestal'' in a major art museum was ``sort of strange'' but enjoyable for Tucker Viemeister, vice president of Smart Design Inc. in New York. The industrial design firm has one of its products in the show, the ``Good Grips'' Santoprene knife handle for cutlery maker OXO International.
He said the exhibit may influence the thinking of designers for years to come.
``Somehow, the way the objects were displayed as really beautiful examples of design, it was inspirational to me,'' he said.
About 1,600 visitors a day have seen Mutant Materials since its opening May 25, Antonelli said. For those who won't be in New York this summer, the museum has an Internet version, with a home page address of http://www.sva.edu/moma/mutantmaterials.
The 128-page Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design book is available in a paperbound edition for $24.95 from the MoMA Book Store, (212) 708-9888. A special edition by designer Pesce, which has a hand-molded PU cover, is available for $45.