Post consumer waste design: Jane Atfield’s groundbreaking recycled chair turns 30
New York gallerist Emma Scully revisits the groundbreaking design of Jane Atfield’s RCP2 recycled plastic chair, on the 30th anniversary of its creation
When the British designer Jane Atfield first created her now-iconic RCP2 chair in 1992, it was groundbreaking. Austere in form and made from recycled high density polyethylene board derived from plastic bottles, the chair almost appears painted because of its speckled, multi-coloured surface. The board was made by pressing and heating plastic chips so that the fragments and shards were maintained in its final state. Atfield made the board herself, gathering bottles of suntan lotion, washing up liquid and shampoo from community collection points.
‘Through the radical honesty of its evocative and colorful materiality, the former life of the RCP2 chair as post-consumer waste is brilliantly exposed. Its aesthetic speaks volumes to the meaning behind Jane’s statement on consumer culture and climate change as it relates to design,’ says the New York gallerist, Emma Scully, who has commissioned new limited-edition colours of the chair to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Working with Atfield’s original plastic manufacturer, Yemm and Hart, whose recycled plastic board originally inspired Atfield’s later version, Scully’s new colourways include a multi-coloured confetti iteration of the original prototype, a blue version of the chair that’s in the permanent design collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and a completely original black and white version that has not existed before.
Elaborating on the chair’s design, which itself was inspired by Gerrit Rietveld’s 1923 Military Side Chair, Atfield recalls, ‘During my time studying furniture design at the RCA in the early 1990s, I was looking for ways to connect furniture with wider political issues when I came across a sample of recycled plastic that a friend had picked up at a New York trade fair. Made by Yemm and Hart of Missouri, the material transformed post-consumer plastics such as shampoo and detergent bottles into sheet construction materials. I saw the potential for using this material — the ever-growing mounds of plastic waste around us — to construct furniture and other everyday items.’
She continues, ‘In the 90s, eco-design was somewhat marginalized and often seen as an eccentricity or a leftover from the hippy movement. At that time, the emphasis was on status and style-driven design, which I felt alienated from. Both furniture design and the plastics industry were very male dominated in the 90s as well, which was also alienating! Stumbling upon the American recycled plastic sample became a really exciting opportunity and led to a decade-long research project pioneering and developing recycled plastics in the UK. The demand for plastics is still growing, with less than 10% being recycled worldwide despite the well-documented, drastic effects on our health and the health of the planet.’
Scully concludes, ‘With such an innovative perspective, Jane’s work led to the widespread use of recycled plastics throughout the industry with many designers in the subsequent 30 years working within the proactive precedent that she set. Despite the challenges Jane faced as one of the few women working in furniture design at the time, she later went on to found her own company to process recycled plastics, promoting the use of recycled plastic material to her contemporaries in addition to selling her own designs.’ §