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(invented 1937)

Invented by Otto Bayer in Germany in 1937 as an early variant of what was to become a highly versatile modern synthetic plastic. However, despite experimentation on a range of applications during the Second World War and the reconstruction period, rigid and flexible polyurethane foam manufacture did not commence until 1955. Highly versatile, being able to be manufactured in varying degrees of hardness or softness, it has been used in many contexts, ranging from upholstery to fabric coatings and paints to packaging crates. Although generally used as an alternative for conventional upholstery in the 1960s and 1970s its expressive qualities were more dramatically explored in a number of products such as those manufactured by the Italian company Gufram. These included a mid‐1960s revival of Salvador Dalí's Mae West Lips sofa of 1936, the Sassi (Stones) seats by Piero Gilardi in 1967, and the Pratone (Large Meadow) seat by Gruppo Strum in 1970. The realistic Sassi appear hard but are in fact soft and able to be sat upon; the Pratone seat is in the form of a large sod of turf with almost 3 foot (1 metre)high blades of grass and provides a flexible surface for lounging. This Postmodernist outlook was far from the limitations of plastic discussed by Roland Barthes in his book Mythologies (1957), showing how swiftly the technological developments of a material can transform its aesthetic and cultural possibilities. Rigid polyurethane foam also enjoys a wide range of applications from low‐cost shelters to fine art sculptures, but also as a structural material in its own right, as in the Cumulus chair by Robin Day for Hille.

Subjects: Industrial and Commercial Art.

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