Acrylic furniture first became available in the late 1930s when designer custom pieces were marketed to chic, glamorous and wealthy clients. The clear resin product was developed in 1933 for use during World War II by DuPont under the trademark Lucite and by Rohm & Haas as Plexiglas. Now there are more than a dozen trade names for high-grade acrylic, often making the terminology confusing. Acrylic was initially used for military applications, including submarine periscopes and airplane windshields, but as the war ended, manufacturers looked to other ways of marketing the product. Within a few years, acrylic was used in jewelry, lighting fixtures, furniture, even handbags.
The style surged during the 1960s, and today that era’s light fixtures, furnishings and accessories are sought after collectables for Mid-Century Modern enthusiasts. By the 1970s, with technology making furniture pieces larger and more affordable, clear acrylic furnishings were a popular design choice.
“The really big pieces tend to look dated now,” says interior designer Richard Neel, co-owner, along with Lori Sparkman, of Richard Neel Home in Tulsa’s Brookside. The store carries a number of acrylic accent pieces, including end tables by Gus* and lamps by Pablo. “People come in with a vision in mind and often want to see our ‘clear furniture,’” adds Sparkman. And although clear acrylic remains the most popular, most lines offer a variety of colorful translucent and opaque choices for each style.
The current popularity of transparent furniture can be traced back to the introduction of Philippe Starck’s Louis Ghost Chair for Kartell in 2002. But this chair is not acrylic. It is fabricated by pouring polycarbonate into a mold. Polycarbonate is also used as bullet-resistant glass. But it wasn’t the first of Starck’s “invisible” chairs. Earlier, the la Marie came out, but its stackable design was simple and straight.
“The Ghost chair is a play on form,” explains Brian Hughes, showroom manager at SR Hughes. “It is a familiar French style but done in an exciting way that brings old and new together.”
Neel recently matched Starck’s classic chair with an ornate Asian writing desk. “The desk was an important piece, so I used a Ghost chair,” says Neel. “It was minimalistic and basically disappeared, so the desk was featured.”
High tech manufacturing utilizing polycarbonate has produced an array of designs over the last decade. “Because of the indestructible nature of this furniture, it works in commercial applications as well as residential,” adds Hughes. “And since it is mass produced, consumers can get high design furniture that is both durable and affordable.”
According to Hughes, SR Hughes gets numerous requests for two of Kartell’s newest high-style “plastic” chairs often featured in design and style magazines. The traditional Comback Windsor chair is transformed into a contemporary version known as the Comback and is available in a variety of colorful opaque choices. And in 2010, Philippe Starck teamed with Eugeni Quitllet to create The Masters Chair that pays homage to three iconic Mid-century Modern designers blending elements of the Eames Molded Plastic Chair, Jacobsen’s Series 7 Chair and Saarinen’s Tulip Armchair.