Richard Lowry’s ‘Liquid Plastic’–Perceiving and molding plastic differently
by Purva Chawla
Temporary, lightweight, cheap, disposable, moldable, colorful and easily available–just a handful of terms that come to mind when you think of Plastic.
Yet, if you are looking at Richard Lowry’s Liquid Plastic collection, the perception is quite the opposite–there is a sense of depth, permanence, and owed to its rich texture and color, a sense of experiencing a natural material.
This exceptional effect is owed to the London-based furniture designer’s combination of molten polyurethane foam with marble dust and pigment, to create a new composite material. But even more significant than the material ingredients that make up this rapidly setting composite, are the motivations that led Lowry to create Liquid Plastic.
Responding to our rampant culture of consumption, and the disposable and consumable way that we view and treat plastic, as well as seeking to reframe plastic as a sculptural material–these issues and goals are at the heart of Lowry’s creation of this new material, and a series of tables and stools from it.
Lowry’s past work and experience in bespoke cabinet-making have led him to work primarily with beautiful wood so far and create stand-out pieces that become the sculptural centerpiece of a room. In that sense, plastic, with its much lower cultural value, is a different and unexpected material for him. But he treats it, especially with the addition of marble dust (the remains of marble-cutting) and the intuitive forms that emerge from this process, as he might another valuable material. The outcome is just as beautiful and thoughtful as his works in wood, and this collection becomes both a commentary on our existing patterns of wasteful consumption and an invitation to reconfigure our perception of plastic as a material.
Interestingly, a key player in the form and design of the collection's element themselves, is the rapid setting time of the poured-plastic pieces. The thermoplastic polyurethane foam composite gives Lowry a short window to shape and mold the material, a factor that determines design.
Lowry’s Liquid Plastic will be seen this week at design collective Form&Seek’s ‘Age of Man’ exhibition at Milan Design Week. His work aligns powerfully with the show's theme, as do his attitude and methods with that of the collective. This is Lowry’s first exhibition with the group, though he has for long admired the collective, whose work he says possesses the “element of exploration and experimentation that are very important in today’s design world.”
Here is our recent conversation with Richard Lowry, where we talk materiality, methods, and motivations for his Liquid Plastic collection.
MD: Richard, How does this collection relate to your practice as a whole?
Richard: My work is primarily focused on exploring the line between art and design. The poured-plastic pieces I am showing in Milan are an evolution of my work, in the sense that I wanted to look at plastic as a sculptural material, and use it in a way that I haven’t seen it used before. Although the material itself is new to me–and in that sense, this project is a shift from my other work–my pieces are always exploring the creative possibilities that different materials provide.
MD: How does the theme ‘Age of Man’ express itself in this work? And what impact to the earth or our age really, plays into the making of this collection?
Richard: My pieces for the ‘Age of Man’ exhibition are the result of an observation of our relationship with materials–particularly plastics. Generally, plastic products are considered disposable, consumable, and mass produced. My pieces are designed to challenge that narrative. To do this, I started to relook at plastic and see it as something that I could use in a sculptural manner; this led me to create a composite of liquid plastic, marble dust, and pigment.
The impact on the earth that this collection comments on is that of our often wasteful pattern of consumption. This pattern, it could be argued, results from our current psychology of consuming without really caring for the object we are consuming. We are, in fact, in pursuit of the process of consumption itself. These works take a material that is consumed in an ‘ugly’ way and refine it into something that is not mass produced, and disposable, and is instead as crafted and unique as a piece made from wood or marble–which would be traditionally considered of higher cultural materiality.
MD: What are the material ingredients and techniques you employed to transform plastic in this way?
Richard: These pieces are made from a very dense polyurethane foam mixed with marble dust. Polyurethane foam is a thermosetting polymer comprised of two parts. When the two parts are mixed, a reaction occurs, and the resulting liquid sets very rapidly. This type of foam comes in varying degrees of hardness–it is commonly available for building applications and is relatively soft, but it is also possible to produce a polyurethane foam capable of withstanding massive pressures (>400kg/m3).
Marble dust (calcium carbonate CaCO²), on the other hand, is made from pure marble rock and is no larger than 150 microns in particle size. The dust is a byproduct of the marble industry.
In the creation of these pieces, therefore, the setting time was critical and meant that the manipulation of the resulting compound had a very precise window. This imposed a fascinating restriction on its manipulation and is something that became an integral part of the designs.
MD: What reaction to ‘Liquid Plastic’ are you anticipating, and hoping for, from viewers in Milan?
Richard: I hope that when people see my pieces, they think. Ultimately, I would like them to recognize that we all have a hierarchy of materials that we have ascribed values to and that these values are created by only us. Although it is culturally assumed, it doesn't necessarily need to be that materials give something a value. If we can restructure the different values we give to various materials, we may find we are less willing to waste.