In 2019 I was one of the Artists in Residence at the Bow Arts Trust for the project Raw Materials: Plastic. The project looked at the origins of the plastics industry in the Hackney area. The residency offered a fascinating opportunity for me to historically contextualise my product FORMcard which has become an anonymous business running alongside my design work. The residency involved visiting a series of museum and document archives around the UK to learn about the material cellulose nitrate, and culminated in production of new works for an exhibition at the Nunnery Gallery in Easy London.
The origins of plastics arguably began with organic materials such as bois durci (blood and wood dust compounded under heat and pressure), shellac (beetle excretions) and rubbery gutta percha and natural latex, but the first step towards a synthesizing of these materials began* in earnest with the Victorian Alexander Parkes in 1856 who melted cellulose fibres (wood, paper and often old soiled hospital rags) with nitric acid to create a gloopy material called cellulose nitrate. When compressed this would harden and could be sliced and worked much like a dense consistent wood.
The initial application of this material was for the replacement of ivory billiards balls which were suffering a shortage due the Victorian’s commitment to killing elephants (14,000 per year). Parkes won a competition to replace the balls with his new material branded first Parkesine which in fact was highly flammable causing various fires in billiards rooms around the empire. The material is highly unstable and is a challenge for conservators in the archives we visited. (One of my favourite visits during the project was to the Science Museum archives where absolutely EVERYTHING was covered in red hazard labels.)
The first workshop where Parkes experimented was in Hackney Wick, but then he moved to larger premises at 124 Homerton High street with his business partner Daniel Spill eventually renaming the factory ‘Ivoride Works’ where they successfully produced semi moulded items such as hair combs, prayer book covers and, later, white plastic shirt collars. The material underwent various changes to its recipe and rebranded as Xylonite (‘xylo’ Greek for wood) and also Ivoride among others. The business resided there until a large fire necessitated eventually moving production to Brantham and Walthamstow where it went on to make the world’s entire pingpong ball supply.
It was during a trip the Museum of Design In Plastics (MoDIP) in Bournemouth that our research group uncovered the exact location of the factory in Homerton before the fire destroyed it, and I was mildly surprised to discover that it was, no less, the site of my own studio that I had just moved into. Some roads have been renamed, and the house numbering shifted, but 186 Homerton High street (the well known big white NHS building on the corner opposite the church) is where it all happened. This was pretty weird I have to say.
I had entered the residency with the intention of using my brightly coloured formcard material somehow. I have amassed large amounts of the clipped off injection moulding ‘sprues’ that I wanted to make some larger works with.
As I progressed through the research aspect of the residency, I became increasingly interested in the notion of a semi-synthetic material. A hybrid, sitting somewhere between the natural world and the man made. The pieces were also pre-injection moulding so although it was a new industrial material, it was still worked by hand, sitting the early pieces between factory made and craft worked.
I began working with hand carved wooden moulds / patterns, and later chainsawn moulds which then had a selection of ‘natural’ colours moulded into them. A series of large box cabinets clad with repeating ‘natural’ tablets emerged. One in bark colours, one in skin tones, and one in ‘fruit’, peachy, citrusy, raspberry. Later these took the form of dishes and bowls in mud colours, the wooden textures fanning around.