Touching countless readers with theories on love, language and literature, Roland Barthes turned his attention to an unlikely material: plastic.
Few materials withstand blows as well as plastic does. Its most eminent combatant, the meta-critic Roland Barthes, penned a famous essay in Mythologies denigrating the non-degradable product as “lost between the effusion of rubber and the flat hardness of metal.” Yet what really bothered Barthes about plastic was not its cheapness or chemical complexion, but its lack of pretension. Unlike other synthetics—say, zirconium or laminate, which harbor ambitions of appearing expensive—plastic never pretends to be something it’s not.
For Barthes, plastic also lacked an aesthetic: It is “hollow and flat,” “engulfed in its usage.” Yet plastic has outlived Barthes, as it has often done when confronted by the organic world. Today, it is the material as much as the man that enjoys renown in sophisticated urban circles. Witness the resurgence of 1950s design classics by Verner Panton and Charles and Ray Eames. Or the more recent work of Jasper Morrison and Ron Arad. By transfiguring the solemn and the frivolous, plastic embodies the most modern of aesthetics.