Plastic Forms And Materials

The term "plastic" means capable of being formed, molded, or modelled. Unquestionably then, wood, metal, and the new plastics, to be detailed later, possess qualities in varying degrees according to their physical structures.

In his book on Modern Architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright says, "Plasticity is of utmost importance. The word implies absence of constructed effects as evident in the result. This important word 'plastic' means that the quality and nature of materials are seen 'flowing or growing' into form instead of seen as built up out of cut-and-joined pieces. 'Composed' is the academic term for this academic process in furniture. 'Plastic' forms, however, are not 'composed' nor set up. They, happily, inasmuch as they are produced by a 'growing' process, must be developed . . . created."

In this text, starting with the volumetric casing, the designs grow into form by a truly creative process; and thus their development has been plastic, and the different parts of the pattern are integrated one with the other, and thus molded into a homogeneous plasticity. But in this text, the term "plasticity," while including the growth of the design out of the materials, will include the following quality: the actual appearance of furniture after being formed, molded or modelled, and the actual plastic possibilities of the different materials, as the flowing, growing qualities of metal, wood, and so on.

As we look at a piece of furniture, we realize its degree or stage of plasticity by means of its light and shadow, for

without these, there would be no form for us to see. Important, too, for its plastic qualities, is color; for certain colors, as yellow and red, seem to advance, while blue and blue green are receding. Applied to furniture, they tend to mold or model it by causing certain parts to advance while others seem to recede. Experiments with colors applied to walls prove conclusively their capacity to enlarge or to contract room space; and, as space is important to the designer, color will be found to play an increasingly important role.

Paralleling the advance in the use of color, the element of plasticity daily is gaining attention. The vogue for boxlike furniture with its nonplastic, stripped appearance is abandoned for greater plasticity.

To make this question of plasticity clear, for a moment let us think of the plastic qualities seen in types of period furniture. Queen Anne furniture, for example, represents a fully rounded plasticity, with many corners rounded off and genial rounded curves much in evidence, but with enrichment not flowing from the structure but something stuck on; while, in certain types of Louis Sixteenth furniture, plasticity developed far in excess of the material, with the inevitable consequences in weakened construction. By many, these fully rounded plastic patterns are considered as effeminate and little adapted to this, the machine age.

Much period furniture possessed light-and-shade qualities based on the cylinder and sphere, with fully rounded, bulbous forms and turned elements of great complexity. Indeed, wood was made to do many antics quite foreign to its plastic capacity.

Some contemporary designers look with disfavor upon the extreme plasticity of past periods, feeling it to be out of sympathy with the times, little fitting to the material, especially objecting to the misuse of materials, and naturally mistrusting plasticity which interferes with the proper functioning of an object. As a reaction from roundness and softness, modern designers lean toward simplicity, towards the crisp directness of straight lines, sharp angles, clean-cut, often deep shadows, and the glitter of brilliant high lights.

Plastic Types

At this design stage, it is necessary to study three types of plasticity prevalent in modern design. The first type of plasticity is termed the blocked ontf and is characterized by a design in which the volume has been but slightly penetrated, disturbing its form by removing a small amount of space and leaving much more mass than space.

The plastic effect of this type of design, illustrated in Figure 53, Plate 6, and in Figures 66 and 75, pages 81 and 85, is that of permanence and dignity plus solidity. Its degree of plasticity is not particularly marked, and consists of sharp angles with their clear-cut shadows. To relieve the monotony of the large, unbroken surfaces, typical of this type, inlays and veneers are frequently utilized.

Analyzing the symmetrical clock case of Figure 53, Plate 6, shown only fn its mass-and-space stage, we see a vertical thrust pattern, emphasized by recessed base, typical of the blocked-out type of plasticity, with the light and shade at the top balanced by the dark base band. The problem of space-and-mass balance enters into this blocked-out pattern as a minor problem.

The second type of plastic treatment is called penetration, in which the volumetric mass is penetrated frequently to considerable depth but rarely cut completely through the volume. In this type of plasticity, illustrated by Figures 50 and 54, Plate 6, much more space is removed, producing deeper shadows than is the case with blocked-out plasticity, and bringing with it problems of tonal balance directly concerned with these shadows. Penetration of the volume by space may be deep as in Figures 51 and 54, or moderate as in Figure 56; but, with either moderate or deep penetration, the amount of space removed from the volume is greater than in blocked-out plasticity, and the effect is towards lightness.

The third type of plasticity is piercing, in which space has cut completely through the volume. As space and light are becoming more and more emphasized, particularly in domestic architecture, this type of open furniture increasingly will be in demand. Figure 55, the volumetric mass and space plan for a window stand, is typical of this type of plasticity, allowing as it does, ready access and free passage of light and sunshine. Then, too, the pattern brings to us a sense of freedom, of freshness, of openness and lightness; but which must not be associated with structural weakness, a defect not tolerated by modern designers.

A variation of the pierced pattern is found in Figure 51, in which large sections of the volume are pierced by space, including the desk top as well as the shelving. Piercing may be in either the outer portion of the volume, in its interior, or both.

Comparing the three types of plastic expression herein presented with sculpture, there are the following analogies: blocking out with low relief sculpture, penetration with high relief, and "in the round" with piercing; while architectural, historical progression is marked with gradual progressions from the blocked out to the pierced, the over-pierced, and then back to penetration.

Plasticity is directly related to tone quality: In its deeply penetrated aspects, there are produced deep, rich shadows, usually crisp and sharp. While plastic modeling of the classic forms gave us the softly rounded moldings of the scoria, ovolo, and the cymas; modernism gives angular contours, frequently triangular or square in section, which of course, give in turn a tonal pattern of lights and shades differing from the traditional.

Recently, the traditionalists and modernists have approached a compromise in that a softening of contours and

Set-Back Principle in Volumetric Planning oroer im complexity • highly dynamic masses


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  2. öo. 5ihûle and double setback. increased plasticity in B .


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  2. öo. 5ihûle and double setback. increased plasticity in B .
fi g. 61 .method of planning proportionate relations for tne set-back
  1. 02. ♦ low stand with auxiliary isometric view deep penetration •
  2. 63.h16ht li6ht and note pad fig. 02. ♦ low stand with auxiliary isometric view deep penetration •
  3. 63.h16ht li6ht and note pad planes makes permissible more rounded forms, which, with their grace and beauty, are leading extreme light-and-shade patterns away from extreme harshness into modulations, and stimulating the "growing" qualities of plasticity.

But, whether the plastic effects are of the moderately rounded or angular types, their shadows make tonal notes, varying with the depth of penetration, and must be so balanced as to produce a pleasing distribution.

In Figure 59, Plate 7, is an illustration of the increase in varied plasticity by the introduction of double penetration of the volume, that is, penetration from two directions. While the painter has to represent plasticity on the single plane of his canvas, the wood craftsman, like the sculptor, deals in three-dimensional material; and in such examples as in Figure 59, has excellent opportunities for creative expression in a plastic medium, as long as he stays within the plastic limitations of the material.

In Figure 60, Plate 7, a skyscraper cabinet illustrates the plastic attractiveness of double penetration. Paul Frankl has done much towards developing the set-back pattern, and Figure 60 is a close approximation of his work. The design has a strong, vertical volumetric thrust and, seen from the front, is asymmetrical, with the sequential or rhythmic progression plan of growth for masses and spaces. Popularly known by its title of skyscraper, the design is an outcome of New York building laws, as illustrated in the architectural design of that city by which light, sunlight, and naturally space for their passage to the lower stories of the building, necessitated the set-back of top masses. Though dominantly vertical, Figure 60 has horizontal divisions, giving the sense of compression, while the vertical masses supply the release from compression or mass flow. Thus thrust ahd counter thrust make for balance of thrusts.

The skyscraper design is an example of penetration without much piercing, with typical tone and space balance.

Aids for Systematic Planning of Mass-and-Space Divisions

Realizing the difficulty of space-and-mass planning, there has been developed in Figures 61, 62, and 63, by means of auxiliary views which will aid beginners in limiting spaces and masses, devices for studying, for estimating, and for visualizing proportionate relationships, at least as far as the isometric plan view is concerned.

In Figure 61, Plate 7, a plan of the base of the volume has been drawn in modified isometric as explained in this text. Within the rectangular base of Figure 61, other rectangles were planned in interesting proportionate relationship to the enclosing rectangle of the isometric plan. These rectangles limit the left and right ends and center edges of the masses shown above. By projecting points in these rectangles to their appropriate edges, either the perspective or the isometric view may be constructed. Heights are left to the designer, who estimates them in relation to the points projected from his plan and within the volume, not shown in Figure 61.

Similar auxiliary plans are shown in Figures 62 and 63. Figure 61 is in perspective, while Figures 62 and 63 are in modified isometric. In Figure 61, dark areas mark the tops of the steps and supply an interesting tonal balance to the design.

Analytically considered, the thrusts of Figure 61 are mainly horizontal, contrasted and brought into equilibrium by the vertical minor mass at the top. Simple vases or figures will bring this top member into harmony with the lower parts. In plastic analysis, the entire design belongs to the rather deeply blocked-out type, with the minor masses showing deep penetration. The solid and compact form of this design is characteristic of the blocked-out plastic mold.

Figure 62 is that type of plasticity generated by a deeply penetrated volume, almost pierced in its outer areas by space. The lightness of pattern inherent in this type of plasticity—lightness with some solidity—is clearly evident. A touch of style, of individualism, is supplied by the black glass mirrored top, which must be tonally balanced by the shadows below the stand.

As a study the thrust pattern of Figure 62 is rather interesting. The top, a square, is purely static in its thrusts and proportions, but the small partitions give a lively counter thrust which seems to supply life and vitality to the static top member. The auxiliary isometric view and its connection with the isometric is self-evident. A stand of this type is planned deliberately as a static form to stabilize and form an attention-arresting point in the plan of a dynamic room.

In Figure 63 is a double-duty object—a low-candle-power night light with a paper pad for telephone calls, notes, and other necessary night communications. The auxiliary isometric view contains rectangles for the setback theme of the design, with the diagonal assuring the similarity of the proportionate relationships of the base rectangles as detailed in Plate 4, Figures 40 and 41. Belonging as it does to the deeply penetrated class, it is an example of double penetration and the modeling inherent in the type.

All patterns on Plate 7 are typical of modernism with simple, direct, and functioning parts, and all must be planned within a volumetric casing, an unvarying procedure. Clearly to illustrate plasticity, the examples on this plate have been carried into the form stage, to imply that modern space-and-mass planning is against that complexity which obscures construction and towards the simplicity which clarifies design and supports construction. Throughout, the flowing quality of plasticity is emphasized by absence of obvious constructive features. In these instances, this term is construed as meaning the absence of legs, brackets, projecting table tops, and similar constructive parts.

The New Plastics

As a phase of the growing interest in the natural and applied sciences, there has been evolved new materials known as plastics—synthetic substances made by combining certain chemicals into plastic masses capable of being molded under heat and pressure and frequently developing high decorative possibilities for the designer, while others are purely functional and adapted to machine parts or as electrical insulation.

For the designer, the most important are the phenolic resins. Popularly known under their trade names of bakelite, durez, resinox, durite, etc., they are composed chiefly of phenol and formaldehyde. Noninflammable, acid proof, tough and durable, they are used for radio cases, clocks, telephone instruments, door and cabinet knobs; while a host of new applications are awaiting the designer, challenging him in new forms, new functions, and new processes ready for his creative efforts.

The phenolic rfsin group may be cast into tubes, rods, and sheets, easily cut and carved and even turned into desired forms. While molded phenolic resins are limited in color range, the cast forms are obtainable in almost any range of color, and very often are amenable to decoration.

The urea resin group, known commercially as plaskon, unyte, and beetleware, and made from urea and formaldehyde, is used for cups, dishes, radio cabinets, etc., and has an unlimited color range.

Laminated plastics are sheets of paper, fabric, rubber, or fiber soaked in liquid plastic material with heat and pressure applied. Here is material for table tops, paneled walls, with growing decorative possibilities.

Other groups include the vingl resins, used for synthetic glass, etc.; the caseins; the inflammable nitrocelluloses, as pyralin, fiberoid, celluloid, and the cellulose acetates, used for lamp shades and other thin articles.

Many new uses will be found for plastics. Meanwhile they are available for inlays in other materials; or, as is the case with Micarta, a laminated plastic, become receptive of inlays. Dyed aluminum inlays in black micarda are brilliantly attractive. Many plastics can be supplied either in high gloss or attractive satin finish. Formica, another plastic, comes in many light shades; while the black material is effective for trays, inlaid with a bright contrasting metal.

Other New Materials

Glass, metals, and mirrored glass are adding their quotas to the list of new materials and suggesting new forms and new construction. Vitrolite, a heavy, black glass, is growing in popularity. With their reflective properties and ability to extend the illusion of space, mirrors of different colors are bound to increase experiments into space extension; while plastics as means of securing tonal balance open attractive possibilities in the direction of sophisticated contrasts, as black and aluminum, black bakelite and monel metal, vitra-lite, aluminum and ebony, purple mirrors and glass.

Plasticity must always be within the possibilities of the material and never overstress its legitimate field. It is only by adhering to this rule that the atrocities of the past are avoided. Sticking a putty-like substance on wood or tacking metal patterns to it surely are not methods of developing plasticity that would have any appeal to a contemporary designer. Each material speaks to the designer; learn its language.

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