ViennaBAKELITE: The Georg Kargl Collection
The MAK is devoting a special exhibition to a historical plastic and its role in design and cultural history for the first time. The occasion is the presentation of selected items from the Bakelite collection of the Viennese gallery owner Georg Kargl (1955‒2018), who was closely associated with the MAK. Kargl was not only an important protagonist of the Viennese and international art scene and an expert on Viennese modernism in the field of applied arts but also a great authority on and a passionate collector of Bakelite.
The first real plastic in history bears the name of its inventor: After having moved to the United States, Belgian chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863‒1944) had conducted research to develop a low-cost insulation material for the electrical industry as a replacement for natural materials such as shellac and celluloid that had been used until then. Baekeland began work in 1899, and in 1907 he was able to take out a patent on his replacement product based on the hydrocarbon product phenol, naming his fully synthetic plastic “Bakelite.” From its market launch in 1920, Bakelite, due to its degree of hardness and resistance to heat and acids, became the material of the hour for the technology and electrical industries in the age of the consumer society and industrial mass production, the “Machine Age.” Its aesthetic qualities came to be appreciated only later. Major designers used the product technology in their concepts for mass products in the new “streamline design.”
Around 300 objects made of compression-molded Bakelite composite offer a survey of the material’s possible applications. The strict aesthetics of these objects results from the intrinsic relationship between expected function, technological properties and possibilities of the material, and the available processes. In a display designed especially for the exhibition by the artist Mladen Bizumic, the objects are presented in fourteen subject groups. Accompanying texts, prepared by the curatorial team, air the history of a material that was the first plastic to revolutionize production in the early 20th century and unfold decisive social import.
As documents of the aesthetics of the first phase of modern society’s full mechanization, Bakelite objects hold an undisputed place in the history of design. The further development of plastics was determined by changing economic considerations and increasingly influenced by ecological issues. Today, Bakelite, as a fully synthetic material that is neither degradable nor recyclable, only fulfils a niche function. Just like then, we now find ourselves on the threshold of a new production era. Georg Kargl’s Bakelite collection encourages a fundamental reflection on new materials and their significance for social development in a time of radical change.
Curatorial Team: Rainald Franz, Gerson Lessa
Artistic Exhibition Display: Mladen Bizumic
Technical Coordination: Itai Margula
Thanks to Inés Lombardi
all images © the gallery and the artist(s)