Plastics, Social Attitudes & Domestic Product Design

//Plastics, Social Attitudes & Domestic Product Design
Plastics, Social Attitudes & Domestic Product Design2016-12-06T05:35:25+00:00

Social attitudes towards the use of plastics in domestic product design, 1920 – 1960.

Ian Holdsworth


This essay aims to overview some of the factors that influenced British consumers’ attitudes to the use of plastics in domestic product design and manufacture between the years 1920 and 1960, and in which ways, if any, plastics were considered by them to represent true and honest materials.

Section one looks at the period between the wars, an era when plastics were still a relatively new and popular materials choice for manufactured goods. The second section begins at the end of the Second World War, an era when plastics were given an entirely different reception by the British public, and again aims to explain this reaction, taking a number of influences into account, – these influences being widely varied, and ranging from a basic distrust of the material to the impact of product designers and the propaganda of the design establishment.

The third section looks at the 1960s when plastics were again embraced as a popular material, and attempts to discover how and why attitudes towards plastics had changed so dramatically in such a relatively short period of time.

Section one. 1920 -1939.

In today’s society we have a tendency to take plastic materials for granted. In fact it is probably true that most of us cannot imagine our lives without them, as they have become as much a part of our existence as any other material. In the 1920s and 1930s, however, attitudes toward this ‘wondrous new material’ were quite different.

The 1920s and 1930s are seen as a heroic era in the history of plastics – an era when scientists could manufacture everyday items inexpensively and to a high standard from a substance as basic as coal. Nowadays however, we have become blasé about plastics to the point that we treat them as just another material with which to make our lives easier, more comfortable and more convenient. Plastics are accepted as an integral part of every day life and no longer have the magical, mystical associations they once did. Our attitudes, however, do not mean that plastics are not still the wonder material they were dubbed in the 1920s, for just because we are no longer impressed by plastics does not mean that plastics are any less impressive.

The introduction of plastics meant that imitations of such luxurious materials as ebony, alabaster, onyx and amber were within the grasp of everyone, having such a dramatic impact that, in effect, they democratized consumerism. Whereas certain products had, before plastics, been the privilege of the rich, plastics revolutionized consumerism and changed it beyond recognition into an almost classless part of every day life. This was a fact that everyone could relate to. The average person may not have been too familiar with the methods involved with the manufacture of plastics but was fully aware of its effects on their quality of life.

‘The synthetic chemist thus acted as an agent of applied democracy by making luxury items available as the common property of the masses’. (Slosson, E. A.  1992.)

There were several contributory factors in the success of plastics in consumer goods in the 1920s and 30s. Perhaps the main one was the expiry of Leo Baekeland’s patent on phenol-formaldehyde resin, which consequently enabled other companies to set up their own manufacturing plants, the resulting competition bringing the price down. This in turn made it possible for the ‘new material’ to be used for inexpensive consumer goods. This competition also stimulated new research that gave the manufacturers the opportunity to introduce a range of colours. The Bakelite Corporation had always manufactured their material in black or dark brown only. This was mainly due to the fact that these dark colours hid the fillers used to give the material additional strength in the manufacturing process.

In 1927 the American Catalin Company took advantage of the expiry of Baekeland’s patent to market Catalin, a cast phenolic resin with a high quality finish, available in a full spectrum of colours. Catalin differed from Bakelite in the way it required no fillers which meant that it could be manufactured in mottled, solid, translucent or even transparent finishes. This predictably led The Bakelite Corporation to develop its own range of cast resins and the competition had begun.

Apart from the developments in cast resin, the 1920’s also provided the consumers with a number of new plastics. Cellulose acetate had been developed and was being marketed as a substitute for Celluloid. Vynilite was also brought onto the market at the same time used primarily for manufacturing gramophone records. However, probably the greatest discovery of this particular era was a material known as urea formaldehyde resin which, unlike Bakelite, offered a full colour range including, for the first time, white, without sacrificing any of the strength that the fillers had until now afforded. The first of these urea formaldehyde resins was known as Beetle and was available in America under license from Britain. Other major plastics available before the Second World War were the glass-like acrylics manufactured by Du Pont and Rhom & Haas known respectively as Lucite and Plexiglass, and of course there was Nylon.

The developments made, and the number of new products on the market were not the only reasons for the popularity of plastics in this era.  There was a movement, which was economy lead, towards the aggressive marketing of plastic as the saviour of the depressed economy in both America and Britain. While plastics had been initially used to imitate more expensive natural materials, industrial designers such as Paul T. Frankl began to develop a visual grammar specifically for their use. Plastics, therefore, were rapidly becoming a respectable material in their own right and industrial designers are credited with being the catalysts in this transformation from a substitute material. Many business men already idolized the industrial designer as a ‘wizard of gloss’, the man with the airbrush who could take the manufacturers widget, streamline its housing, add a bit of trim, and move it from twentieth to first place in its field. If industrial designers embraced plastics it seemed the battle was won.

The aggressive marketing of plastics, which was aimed at encouraging people to buy their way out of the Depression, resulted in hundreds of consumer products being redesigned to make better use of these new materials. Streamlining, for example, leant itself to the methods of manufacture by compression and injection moulding. Such shapes enabled the molten material to flow easily to all parts of the mould and the rounded edges of streamlining were ideal as there were no sharp corners to be damaged.

An executive of General Plastics summed up the marketing campaign by urging colleagues to ‘make decoration symbolic of our modern age, using simple machine cut forms to get that verve and dash which is so expressive of contemporary life’.  (Miekle, J. L. 1990)

Plastics products also had the added advantage of being relatively easily and cost effective to manufacture. Products that had been moulded had no need of the labour intensive hand finishing required by other materials. A radio casing for example simply ‘popped’ out of its mould and was ready for assembly. There was no need for colouring or finishing, as this was an integral part of the manufacture. This was a boon to the manufacturing industry as they now had products that could be manufactured quickly and cheaply and would therefore be easier to sell. The consumer now had well designed affordable, good quality products to choose from – plastics were commercially and socially acceptable.

Towards the end of the 1930s inappropriate streamlining, among other factors, lead to a backlash against the new ‘machine age’ style and the popularity of plastics began to dwindle. British propaganda, which may have been due to jealousy of the advances made in the plastics industry by Germany, began accusing plastics of being synthetic and dishonest.

The Arts and Crafts movement involvement with the domestic products market had established a firm British design tradition that was promoted by the Design and Industries Association and the industries it influenced. However before the propaganda could have much of an impact war was declared and plastics became a vital resource.

Section two. 1945 – 1960.

The plastics industry emerged from the Second World War with an understandable feeling of optimism. Great developments had taken place during the war years, and the use of plastics as a vital resource within the war effort had helped to establish the materials as reputable, shaking off their ‘substitute’ image. Throughout the war the benefits and developments of plastics had been widely publicized:

‘Publications such as ‘Plastic Horizons’ (1944) part of a series on ‘science for war and peace’ outlined post-war potential for plastics. Newsweek also announced that ‘Test Tube Marvels of Wartime Promise a New Era in Plastics.’  (Miekle, J. L. 1990)

During the war soldiers became aware of the benefits of plastics in a variety of forms including, amongst others, phenolic helmet liners, plastic laminated gliders and vinyl raincoats. The public, however, appeared to be more interested in the potential of Plexiglass cockpit covers; ‘which suggested bubble domed cars in peace time’  (Miekle J. L. 1990)

At the Britain Can Make It exhibition of 1946 there was a section called ‘Designers Look Ahead’ which showed how developments made during the war could be developed into domestic markets. While the War to Peace section showed; ‘ … designs springing from wartime innovations in materials.’  (Woodham J. M.1983)

1947 saw the first Ideal Homes exhibition since the war, featuring a section entitled ‘Science comes home’ that also demonstrated how wartime research could be applied to domestic situations. It must have seemed as though the potential for plastics in peacetime, in all their forms, were unlimited. The British consumers, however, did not have the reaction to plastics the industry had hoped for. A number of factors became apparent which had been overlooked by the enthusiastic optimism of an industry convinced of its post-war success.

It is true to say that, whilst plastics had become a vital resource during the war, its reputation had also been severely damaged. Germany had made great developments in plastics during the war and saw it as a vital alternative material. This success aroused a great deal of jealousy in Britain and some hostility to what was considered to not be a vital alternative, but once more a synthetic imitation.

It had been assumed that the public, who had had to ‘make do and mend’ for the past six years, would eagerly embrace the opportunity to purchase a variety of newly available goods in a ‘new’ material. This was true in as much that consumers were looking forward to the ability to buy, having had enough of wartime austerity.  However, people also hoped for, and expected, a return to the genuine materials denied to them due to the shortages of natural materials during the war. This return to genuine materials appeared to be linked to the desired return to ‘normality’, to values and traditions the war had deprived them of.

There was also a suspicion of the emerging ‘mass-culture’. The decade that followed the Second World War witnessed the effects of the mass media on society to a degree never before known. Whilst some of the media involved, newspapers and radios for example, had been in existence for a time their impact had never been so great. These, together with newer forms of communication that had begun to intensify their influence even before the war, were fast becoming an integral part of life:

‘More than ever before, the effects of the press, the radio, television and the cinema entered the lives of practically every individual in the industrialized world,…‘            (Sparke P. 1986)

This had the effect of changing the cultural climate quite dramatically. A new set of values, desires and expectations were emerging, greatly influenced by these new sources of information readily available to the masses. Whilst this ‘move forward’ was accepted and welcomed by some, it was fiercely criticized by others, notably the Council for Industrial Design that had been set up in order to guide both consumers and designers, and to educate the tastes of the masses. The Council felt that:

‘…many post-war developments represented a fundamental threat to all that was quintessentially British about Britain, championing the English virtues of tradition and craftsmanship as bulwark against American manufacturing and selling techniques…’ (Catteriall C. 1990)

The Board of Trade Utility Scheme, introduced in 1942 was set up as a result of declining availability of materials during the Second World War in an attempt to supply consumers with well-designed products using a minimum of materials. Its ruling was that only those products which conformed to utility standards could be produced after 31 January 1943. The adopted Utility aesthetic followed the spirit of the 1937 ‘working class home report” (Council for Art and Industry, 1937) which had stressed the need for well designed furniture and domestic equipment to be marketed at a widely acceptable price, with emphasis on good proportions, pleasant colours, surfaces and textures  (Woodham J.M. 1983). The Utility scheme was generally seen as being the golden opportunity to put into practice the good design propaganda with regards the use of plastics developed in the 1930s.

The Board of Trade were not alone in their quest to promote good British design. Organizations such as the Council for Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) were also working towards public design awareness. Promoting exhibitions such as ‘Homes to Live In’, which sought to demonstrate the ties between social problems, town planning and interior design. (Woodham J.M. 1983). CEMA also produced a travelling exhibition aimed at ‘improving taste’ in every day life. An ambitious project that travelled around various educational establishments complete with a permanent lecturer. The major emphasis of the display was placed on the various rooms in a house, with consideration of many domestic products. (Woodham J.M. 1983).

A great number of these organizations such as the Council for Art & Industry and the Central Institute for Art and Design initiated contracts with the plastics industry, in order to promote design research that would anticipate the post-war export trade. In 1945 CEMA staged a ‘Design at Home’ exhibition, held at the National Gallery in London, prior to touring the country. Its intention was to stimulate consideration, of amongst other things, the furnishing of the post-war home. Noel Carrington in his exhibition catalogue introduction put forward a case for the acceptance of mass production and many new materials were on display. Milner Gray, who, with other members of the Ministry of Information, was responsible for organizing the exhibition, displayed a transparent Perspex sheet formed washbasin. (Woodham J.M. 1983).

The Council of Industrial Design (COID) was formed in 1944 as an independent body whose concern it was to control the production and marketing of British industrial goods. It had been widely recognized as important for British industry to have the ability to compete for trade in peacetime, and good design appeared to be the key.

‘The designer should be not merely technically proficient in a particular design field but also someone able to contribute to social progress, to have relevance to the community as a whole, and a status on a par with that of an industrialist, scientist or engineer’.    (Woodham J.M. 1983).

Although British design had a good reputation for quality workmanship it lacked the modernity and visual appeal of American, German, Swiss, Swedish and Italian design, and whilst there was a certain amount of resistance to change it became evident that in order to succeed in peace time, British design would have to learn lessons from American industrial techniques. Good mass produced design for economic prosperity and a better standard of living was essential. The Britain Can Make It exhibition was the COID’s response to this – and although it could be said that some of the exhibits were contrived, mass production aesthetics were promoted significantly. Visitors were advised that;

‘Some people believe that what is mass produced and low priced cannot be well designed. They think that ‘good’ must mean ‘expensive’. On the   contrary, design is not a matter of price. Limited sums spent carefully can   buy good design.’  (Sparke P. 1986)

The Festival of Britain in 1951 was another opportunity for the COID to convince the public of the importance of good design and how such design could not fail but to improve the quality of their lives, the Homes and Gardens pavilion being set up as the main area for domestic designs. The British suspicion of the newly emergent ‘mass culture’ lead to a resistance, which meant that while other European countries such as Italy and Germany were developing product design in plastics to a high quality, Britain was being left behind.

The problem was compounded by the general resentment of Americanization, which proved to be another reason for the poor reception of plastics. The USA had had a potent influence on British industrial design for some time. Even before the Second World War there was an awareness of the effectiveness of American industrial design in a commercial sense. Raymond Loewy had opened an office in London and was made an honorary member of the Faculty of Royal Designers in 1939. In November 1945 Loewy wrote a letter to The Times comparing the design industry of America with that of Britain. In 1949 the Anglo-American council on productivity sent a study group to the USA in order to examine the possible adoption of American design styles, resulting in the recommendation of expanding the use of such styles in Britain.

However, even in the early 1940s a certain amount of reserve had been expressed in Britain about American industrial design; the streamlining of such household objects as refrigerators for example had been criticized for being superfluous. During the 1950s there was a resistance in Britain to the American way of life;

‘People were afraid that Britain was going to follow the United States in the submersion of people’s individualism in large-scale, monopolistic    commercial and industrial networks.’  (Woodham J.M. 1983)

While at the same time the British public appeared fascinated by the glamorous and affluent lifestyles of Americans. ‘Design Magazine’ the mouthpiece of the COID, regularly featured American goods, and arguments for both sides were regularly being put forward. Although it was true to say that the British public were hungry for consumerism after the war, and that they enjoyed their ability to buy, the years following the war saw trade barriers coming down and more and more foreign goods becoming available

In Britain although rationing and the Utility Scheme were not declared officially over until the early 1950s, it was clear by then that the brief interlude during which it had seemed that a form of design control, which took as its starting point ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ was at an end. By comparison with the new consumer goods on display at the ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition, utility goods seemed to represent all that was dull, uniform and uninspiring. The British, starved of such novelties throughout the war and bored with the common sense of utility items, yearned for the colour, decoration and expressive forms of the new goods.

The emerging contemporary style for the domestic interior was characterized by a new use of materials, particularly aluminum and plastics, a love of colour and pattern, an overall lightness and a delight of variation. Manufacturers such as Heals, Ernest Race and Dunns, capitalized on the new optimism commissioning items from the new postwar generation of designers who could see that the way ahead was to create a modern aesthetic to herald the ‘new age’. However, with the exception of a few notable designers such as Gaby Schrieber for Runcolt,

‘a company which was headed by a manufacturer who believed that plastics products could be better if professionally designed.’ (Katz S.1978) there were unfortunately very few advances made in Britain and the quality of mass manufactured plastic products was rapidly superseded by German and Italian manufacturers who began to exploit the aesthetic potential of plastics. The poor quality of plastic goods available in Britain, in both material and design did little to persuade the consumer of the material’s potential.

‘…..widespread application during post-war austerity reinforced the disgraced reputation plastics already had and which the industry is still in the process of setting right.’ (Sparke P. 1986)

The publicity of the war years must have been ringing in the ears of the consumer when faced not with the anticipated bubble domed car of the new utopian lifestyle but with an influx of badly designed, poor quality plastic items. These were generally produced by the Japanese plastics industry, financed by America, which had swamped the international market with cheap, often injection moulded plastic products many of which were manufactured from war surplus scrap.

‘Bargain prices bought shoddy goods – faded colours, crazed mugs, cracked boxes and designs that came off in the wash.’ (Farr M. 1955)

It was not until Sony in the 1950s began to understand the importance of good design that the Japanese plastics industry began using product designers specifically for the creation of high quality goods. Competition from countries such as Italy, which had made great headway in the design of plastics, forced Japan to look to design as a way of competing in the international market place. In Britain, British Industrial Plastics (BIP) felt somehow responsible for the image of plastics and employed a designer, a design assistant and four draughtsmen. This group set out to achieve three aims in an attempt to improve the image of plastics:

‘1. They offered to interpret existing designs into designs more suitable to manufacture from plastics.

2. They could design suitable moulds for companies who did not employ   their own designers.

3. They could suggest suitable applications for BIP’s technical  developments.

It is hoped that by introducing well designed products to a discerning public they will force manufacturers to maintain a reasonable standard of modern design.’ (Farr M. 1955)

It is important to realise that this was the attitude not of a small obscure company but one of the largest plastics manufacturers in Britain at the time. The BIP design team was developed in order to; ‘Contact buyers of chain stores, large public corporations, wholesale houses and the bazaar trade, and offer to interpret their ideas for new products in terms of plastics.’ (Attfield J. and Kirkham P. 1989)

Their aim was to help and encourage mainstream retailers to supply a range of domestic goods in plastics to a high standard of both material and design. The impact of this was felt most strongly in the lives of women. Women had been exposed to industrial machinery in munitions factories during the war and were aware of advances in modern technology. This, coupled with the changing face of housewives in post-war Britain, meant that women now had a certain consumer power and consequently were a target market for advertisers encouraging people to buy plastics. Women’s magazines tended to encourage this by commenting on the hygienic qualities of plastic in the home.

Housewives in the years immediately following the war were under a great deal of pressure to be successful in their role of homemaker, not least from women’s magazines that had increased in popularity. An untidy or unclean home denoted failure. Plastics therefore, in the form of wipe – clean furniture and kitchen appliances, were a vital asset in the housewives’ daily battle against the dirt and grime they were constantly being warned about by such magazines. These same magazines that featured articles on how to keep your home spotlessly clean were also full of advertisements for domestic products in plastics.

Magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Journal, Every Woman and Ideal Home popularized contemporary domestic design. Ideal Home not only featured modern design, but also commissioned new designs for a wide range of domestic items, while Woman’s Journal included features on domestic labour saving devices. Women’s organizations, many of which were nationwide, began to be consulted in the 1950s on the quality of consumer products. Such groups were encouraged to put forward their opinions on the strengths or weaknesses in domestic products. 1951 saw the setting up of the British Standards Institute Women’s Advisory Committee which meant that women now exerted a certain amount of influence on the innovation of domestic products, although this tended to be of a more practical than aesthetic nature.

The 1950s also saw an acceleration in the rate at which British women acquired new consumer skills, partly because there was a flood of new commodities and partly because the government’s reconstruction programme encouraged women to re -assume the role of homemaker with a new fervour and enthusiasm; ‘as part of their patriotic duty in the battle for peace’ (Attfield J. and Kirkham P. 1989)

This role however was to be different from the way it was before the war. The consumption of new goods and services became part of the housewife’s expanded job-description. Women were not only expected to consume but to consume in a certain way. Women’s magazines played an important part in educating women to do so in a disciplined and ‘responsible’ way, exercising restraint and ‘good taste’ by choosing well-designed, useful and efficient goods.

Section three. The 1960s.

The 1960s witnessed a reassertion of Europe over the U.S.A. by way of cultural leadership. The pop revolution was predominantly British with swinging London at its centre. Its influence was worldwide for most of the decade. Mass culture was quick to take its influences from the avant garde sub culture of the time; ‘The lasting lesson of the 1960s is that plastics could represent both mainstream and alternative culture without a hint of contradiction.’ (Reilly P. 1967)

Plastics seemed to epitomize the mass-produced, throwaway culture evident in the Britain of the 60s. Throwaway products, such as ball point pens and disposable razors, and the feeling of impermanence of products such as inflatable chairs reflected the current attitudes and system of values.

The 1960s saw a change in attitudes towards design. Youth culture with its newfound affluence began to reject the elitist design attitudes of the Council of Industrial Design (COID) and embrace pop art and design. The aesthetics of the Kings Road and Carnaby Street was the antithesis of design elitism, and young designers exploited this freedom from constraints. Rapid change and expendability came into vogue and were seen as being a healthy rather than morally suspect mirror on society. A great many of the pre-requisites of industrial design came into question. Paul Rielly of the COID, later the Design Council, spoke out about the narrowness of the Design Council style. He observed that; ‘to reject the ephemeral per se is to ignore a fact of life.’ (Reilly P. 1967)

In the early post-war years design theorists such as the Independent Group had begun to analyze mass culture in Britain. The Independent Group based their analysis on public acceptance of expendability and styling in products and began to reject the ideas of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ taste put forward by the COID and later the Design Council. While the Independent group was analyzing mass culture and its effects on design, certain British manufacturing companies were, by the beginning of the 1960s, responding directly to the needs of the public, and were producing consumer goods which incorporated mass values. They took their lead from Pop culture and exploited the qualities of expendability, fun and symbolism in designed objects. Consumption rather than functionalism began to appear as the new design criteria.

The 1960s were a good time for plastics. The plastics industry were investing a great deal in developing new polymers, and designers across the board were working on ways to expand the visual vocabulary of the material which expressed the ideals of the new era so aptly. Expandable polyurethane foams, labelled ‘fun-foams’, meant that furniture designers were no longer tied to the traditional construction methods, but could develop a new, freer style of construction which resulted in a rash of abstract, organic forms never before seen.

The new wave of ‘Pop’ designers received a great deal of encouragement from the plastics manufacturers, who were well aware of the benefits that good design could bring to the reputation of the material. The ‘Prospex 67’ exhibition sponsored by ICI and held at the Royal College of Art, (RCA) was a significant link between the plastics industry and young designers. It not only helped promote the aesthetic qualities of ICI’s acrylic, Perspex, but also gave the RCA students the opportunity to experiment with acrylic in whatever way they chose. Dunlop also used this opportunity to promote their soft foam, instigating an annual design competition.

The 1960s saw a definite move from Modernism to Post-Modernism, the latter being symbolic of a much more open cultural attitude which accepted even encouraged, change, pluralism and variation. This new Post-Modern era saw a blurring between the boundaries of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and consequently plastics found themselves in an entirely new position, at the centre of the picture;

‘capable of incorporating all the meanings that are possible within a Post- Modern epoch.’ (Sparke P.1990)

Within this new movement the emphasis lay with the meaning of an object rather than its method of manufacture. There was no longer a need to find an authentic aesthetic for plastics, which designers of the 1950s had striven for. Plastics had taken on a fundamental importance symbolizing better than any other material the ideology of ‘Pop’ culture. The new generation of young people eagerly embraced the idea of Pop. It was a complete reversal of the values held dear by their parents. The commitment to permanence had been exchanged for flexibility, change and expendability. The functionalist ideal of the modern movement gave way to the idea that;

‘an object’s form and its expressive relationship with the ideals and    aspirations of the society into which it was destined to play a part were more important.’

(Sparke P.1990)

The newly emergent plastics of the 1960s were the ideal materials with which to represent the key themes of Pop culture. They represented a commitment to the future and technology, were flexible and expendable, and were highly suited to bright colours and the application of surface patterns. The years following the Second World War had seen plastics struggle to achieve an acceptable status as a useful, aesthetic material. The public of the 1960s, however, whole-heartedly embraced plastics, with designers, industrial bodies and the consumer all in agreement about the material’s potential.

Society’s attitude to plastic materials and the products that they bring has swung dramatically from viewing them as heroic and glamorous to synthetic and cheap – and then some way back again. We may take their existence, and implied impermanence, for granted, to be used and disposed of when necessary. The social and cultural resonances of such a relatively young and developing material are still less understandable, even more so in a carbon conscious world.


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