Quick History: Lucite

Retrospect

Lucite is a material often associated with either Hollywood Regency glamor or Disco-era, stripper-shoe 'glam,' but 80 years after it was first created, it is still a versatile and beloved material in interiors. Let's take a look at the history behind this material, and some of the iconic furniture designs that have taken advantage of its properties. 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).
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Lucite was commercially available by 1937, and the material was soon being used in various designs, from jewelry to handbags to furniture. One of the earliest and most famous suites of Lucite furniture was commissioned for Helena Rubinstein's New York City apartment (images above and right). The suite was totally unique and almost comically glamorous — no surprise that it was designed by the artist Ladislas Medgyes, who was not only an interior decorator but also a stage designer who had started a school of stagecraft in Paris that helped promote a Surrealist aesthetic. Rubinstein's acrylic furniture was manufactured by Rohm and Haas (sometimes erroneously credited as "Roman Haas," but the company was actually named for a Mr. Rohm and Mr. Haas, both of whom were coincidentally named Otto) around 1939-1940.
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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).
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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.
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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.
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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

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