The word 'plastic', from the Greek word for mouldable, originally described pliable materials that could be shaped by hand or tool pressure as distinguished from 'glyptik' shaping processes relying on stock removal by carving, engraving or grinding. The term aptly describes all of the modern materials, commonly called plastics, which are all soft and mouldable at some point in their manufacture. It also describes the natural materials that are their technological and functional forbears, such as horn, rawhide, turtle shell, natural rubber and gutta percha. The general historical progression of the use of these materials furniture is from the natural materials through the semi-synthetic to the entirely synthetic modern plastics.
The many uses of plastics in furniture include structural members, veneers, inlays, knobs, fittings and decorative components, upholstery foams and textiles, adhesives and coatings. They were used from the very beginning to copy, often slavishly, more costly and rare natural materials just as the cheaper and reproducible processes of moulding were used to duplicate the qualities of more laborious carving and polishing. However, plastics, and the technologies of moulding, extrusion, lamination and hot bending, have certainly exerted an influence on design and public taste. Twentieth-century furniture composed entirely of wood often owes a stylistic debt to the forms of manufactured plastics.
Plastic materials cover a wide range of chemical types, exhibit huge variation in physical, optical and dielectric properties and are fabricated in a wide range of forms for different uses. Only a brief review from the perspective of furniture applications can be attempted here. For a more extensive introduction see Young (1991).
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