Plastic furniture is the shining star at the latest design trade shows. Are we experiencing 1960s flashbacks? Certainly, plastic furniture comes in a kaleidoscope of colors. The forms, too, can be groovy. The sculptural Panton chair (1960) with its wavy lines resembles a long squirt of toothpaste. But plastic furniture has evolved — and arrived — in recent years. "It's always been fun and a good choice for those who have pets and young children because they're so easy to clean," says Sofia Varanka, co-owner of Hudson Home in Kansas City, Mo. "But now there are elegant options."
A prime example is the Louis Ghost chair by Philippe Starck for Kartell, the Italian manufacturer known for its plastic furnishings. The see-through polycarbonate form mimics the traditional Louis XV chair with its medallion-shaped seatback. The plastic piece, introduced in 2002, has become a modern-day classic. The transparent finish plays with light, casting rainbow-like prisms in the room.
"Clear acrylic furniture is especially beautiful in small spaces because it helps give the illusion of a larger room," says Judy Miller, product manager for CB2, the hip younger sister store of Crate and Barrel. For three years, the CB2 clear accent tables have been top sellers, so this year it introduced new plastic pieces: a media console with clear casters that accommodates up to a 40-inch flat-panel television and an acrylic tripod easel that adjusts to more than 3 feet high to float works of art.
Not surprisingly, the relatively low prices of these pieces have fueled their popularity. A Louis Ghost Chair costs about $400 when a comparable wooden accent chair starts at about $1,200.
Plastic has been popular with businesses for a couple of years, which usually heralds a trend in the residential side as well, says Brent Dorrah of Abode Commercial Interiors, which is affiliated with Abode Home furniture store in Wichita.
"A lot of people like to use these chairs in spurts in their home," Dorrah said. "Some people use them as a desk chair. Someone who gets a little bit funky might want to use them at the dining room table. Of course in kids' rooms, they're a great use for that. And we're really starting to see them outside. It just adds a lot of color and interest."
The plastic chairs that Abode carries — in designs that range from an Area 51 alien look to what Dorrah calls "the Swiss cheese chair" — are made in Italy and are solid plastic, not hollow inside like cheap deck chairs. Therefore they can be used in restaurants, and many can be used outdoors as well as indoors.
Because of plastic's affordability, architect Ryan Townsend of Kansas City became a fan of the furniture medium a few years ago. Based on products in magazines and catalogs as well as conversations with friends, he sees 20- and 30-somethings using plastic instead of wood for dining chairs because of the low prices and chic style.
However, not everyone is a fan of plastic. Some still view it as the cheap stuff they picked up for their college apartments. And although most plastic furniture is recyclable, once it's broken, it can't be repaired like wooden, metal and upholstered pieces. Therefore, it has huge landfill potential.
Plastic is produced in a variety of finishes, including metallics. Some have integrated beverage holders. Increasingly, plastic is being used in place of glass for light fixtures because of its durability.
"Plastic is constantly being innovated," says Steve Maturo, co-owner of Museo in Kansas City. "It's less serious than other types of furniture, so it's like candy for designers who are constantly trying to bring out their inner plastic child."
In the past year, Starck, who created the Ghost chair, debuted Mr. Impossible. Made in the mold-injection process like other plastic furnishings, the chair is a seamless, one-piece creation. However, it contains two colors in the same form.
Because plastic is constantly reinventing itself, are there guidelines for decorating with it at home? Designers caution to use it sparingly.
"Less is more," Maturo says. "It's an accent, so think of it as the jewelry and the bling."