Industrial designer Karim Rashid's quest to make high-end plastic products for the mass market started with an uncomfortable chair.
While dining outdoors at a posh New York restaurant, Rashid sat in a stiff, institutional plastic chair. It hurt his back and strengthened his resolve.
``It was probably an $8 chair, the sort of thing readily acquired for the home,'' said Rashid, president of Karim Rashid Inc. in New York. ``It gave me the idea to elevate plastic to a new plateau of quality and good taste. It was time to drop the idea completely that plastic was a cheap material.''
So, after opening his design studio six years ago, Rashid delved into plastics. He started with a curvilinear wastebasket called Garbo — a take on both Hollywood glamour and garbage — and recently has developed the injection molded Oh Chair for Buffalo, N.Y., furniture maker Umbra.
That chair, using flexible polypropylene that hugs the body, was meant to be stylish yet affordable enough to be sold at retail outlets such as Target and Crate and Barrel. Gaping holes were cut in the chair's back and armrests to save on material and cut costs.
The chair, which Rashid says speaks a contemporary language, has helped to propel the designer to the international stage. It was a hit at a Milan, Italy, housewares show and elsewhere.
Across the board, other designers have been equally adept at coming up with sophisticated, but consumer-focused, plastic housewares and residential furniture.
Plastics is enjoying a resurgence of sorts as a more sophisticated material for everything from toilet brushes to pasta forks, according to several leading U.S. designers.
As evidence, consider a flurry of entries in the high-profile Industrial Design Excellence Awards, or Idea99, sponsored by the Great Falls, Va.-based Industrial Designers Society of America and Business Week magazine.
Products that either have been the domain of other materials or branded as chintzy-looking plastic are being reinvented with sophisticated designs, said Jim Caruso, executive director of design firm Insight Product Development LLC in Chicago.
``Plastics used to be this wonder product, but then it started to get cheapened in furniture and housewares,'' said Caruso, whose firm is working on contemporary plastic fans and kitchen appliances. ``What's happening now is the infusion of advanced plastic [technology] and the increasing acceptance by consumer and retail buyers.''
One example is the Tropicool personal fan, a low-cost, desktop piece designed to be alluring. Insight, the project designer, used a translucent PP that gives a ghostlike image in such molded-in colors as purple or green, Caruso said.
``It has the color translucency of Jolly Rancher candy,'' Caruso said. ``It projects the bright colors of the tropics.''
The fan's manufacturer, Holmes Products Corp. of Milford, Mass., sends the product to China for molding, said Paul Powers, Holmes marketing vice president. The company has used plastics to create exciting products and maintain better control over design, Powers said.
``We try to explore ways to use plastics in a unique way,'' he said. ``With plastics, you can get such different texturing and layering effects by playing with elements.''
The surge in plastics housewares also has become big retail business. In January, industrial designer and architect Michael Graves introduced a line of 150 products sold exclusively in Target discount stores.
The arrangement with Minneapolis-based Target Stores Inc. calls for the company to roll out close to 300 pieces eventually, in such areas as lawn and garden and home construction, said Linda Kinsey, product development director for Michael Graves & Associates Inc. in Princeton, N.J. The products are sold in Target's more than 850 stores.
The pieces include a bevy of curved and sloped plastic products, including ice buckets, ladles, slotted spoons and spatulas. Most of the Michael Graves kitchen gadgets cost about $3.99.
``Everyone was very aware of the gigantic success that Kmart has with its Martha Stewart line,'' Kinsey said. ``We didn't want to reinvent Martha Stewart's world at another retailer. We felt these products showed good design and had the added value of a world-famous architect doing them.''
Graves' idea was to develop a plastic product that did not skimp on quality but could be sold inexpensively due to larger production volumes, Kinsey said. That vision was formed five years ago when the designer developed a plastic salad bowl for an Italian manufacturer. But the bowl, developed for a high-end picnic, was priced at $30, more than Graves had planned.
``That's exactly why we wanted to go to mass consumers,'' Kinsey said. ``The American public had been used to very inexpensive materials like Tupperware. We wanted to show that good design doesn't have to be expensive.''
At the other end of the spectrum, plastics have found new life with less-glamorous products such as potato peelers and soap pumps.
A concept called universal design has spurred the movement, said Davin Stowell, chief executive officer of New York-based Smart Design. The idea is to design a product that can be used equally well by grandmothers and schoolchildren.
Smart Design's products, primarily for the Good Grips line by manufacturer Oxo International in New York, rely heavily on overmolding and coinjection techniques. The company's soap-pump palm brush for washing dishes uses injection molded Santoprene thermoplastic elastomer overmolded onto PP.
The result is a product that is easier to grip and lightweight, Stowell said. Toilet-brush handles use the same technique, bonding a Santoprene grip with a PP body.
``A toilet brush seems like a mundane product,'' Stowell said. ``But low-flush toilets today are difficult to clean, so we wanted to provide a flexible area on the handle.''
Even clothespins have joined the quiet plastics revolution. New York-based design firm Ancona 2 Inc. has designed a one-piece, injection molded Clip'n Stay clothespin for Ekco Housewares Inc. of Franklin Park, Ill.
The low-cost PP clothespins have a self-contained spring. They feature a horseshoe design in a host of colors. The product was not as simple to design as it might sound, said President Bruce Ancona.
``It couldn't be too strong, or it would be difficult to unfasten or have too much fatigue in the part,'' Ancona said. ``There's always been a high-level use of plastics in housewares. But in the past, retailers were relying solely on price instead of looking for something unique.''
Rashid, the Oh Chair designer, said contemporary plastics now serve two very different markets: tony boutiques and design museums, and the shelves of mass merchandisers. New markets have opened for plastic housewares that bring designers added challenges, he said.
``You have to be willing to work for a crossover audience,'' Rashid said. ``We try to take out any element of elitism with our products, but not a sophisticated approach. The products can't just look good; they have be comfortable for consumers, too.''