Lucite is actually a brand name for a kind of acrylic resin that is basically the same thing as Plexiglas, Perspex and other trademarks, but, just as the brand name "Kleenex" has come to denote any tissue, I will hereafter refer to all these things as Lucite. These materials were first developed in the early 1930s, by DuPont (Lucite) and Rohm & Haas (Plexiglas).
During World War II, lucite was in common use for military applications, including airplane windshields, bomber noses and submarine periscopes. After all, it was highly durable, low in density, and resistant to wind, water and UV rays, which are definitely the qualities you look for when you're building a military aircraft (at least, it's what I look for).
After the war, manufacturers needed to find non-military uses for Lucite, so they licensed it widely. It became a favorite material for handbags and jewelry, and by the 1960s it was often found in furniture, as well. Karl Springer, Vladimir Kagan, Charles Hollis Jones (image above) and Gaetano Sciolari (image below) are just some of the designers who are well-known for their work in Lucite beginning in the '60s, but they were not the only ones who found the material simultaneously flexible, durable and chic.
Like so many other things, Lucite could have been totally ruined by the '80s, Vegas, and the aforementioned stripper shoes. But manufacturers like Kartell have kept acrylic furniture classy through the decades. The recent Lucite renaissance can probably be traced back to 2002, when Philippe Starck introduced his Louis Ghost Chair (image at very top), produced by Kartell. Today, Lucite is used in interiors of varied styles, its light touch belying its military past.
Images: 1 Philippe Starck "Louis Ghost" chairs and a Lucite table in a Palm Springs interior designed by Michael Moloney and photographed by Joe Schmelzer for Elle Decor
2 Helena Rubinstein's illuminated Lucite bed, designed by Ladislas Medgyes and produced by Rohm & Haas in the late-1930s, in a photograph from a 1941 Life magazine, via Peak of Chic
3 Helena Rubinstein's Lucite chair, originally from a set of 8, designed by Ladislas Medgyes and produced by Rohm & Haas in the late-1930s, now in the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh
4 World War II military plane with Plexiglas parts, image from the Rohm & Haas archive
5 Original waterfall barstool by Charles Hollis Jones (1963), designed for Playboy Magazine's Pip's Club in LA. Available at R Gallery
6 Lucite, brass and chrome chandelier by Gaetano Sciolari, via Apartment Therapy
7 A Miami interior by Jennifer Post, from the July 2009 Architectural Digest
Originally published 6.15.11 - JL