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Bakelite

Bakelit® and Bakelite® are registered trademarks of Hexion GmbH

Bakelite® is a plastic named after the Belgian-born New York inventor Leo Hendrick Baekeland (1863-1944). It is impossible when writing about it, not to equate this synthetic material with the advent of the Modern age. Indeed, the 20th century saw radical changes in design, shaping old materials as never seen before and introducing new materials of which Bakelite is one. The importance of this discovery made in 1907 and the applications which followed earned Dr. Baekeland the title of father of modern plastics.

Although originally believed to be useful in the production of electrical and mechanical items such as electrical sockets and other insulating products, Bakelite which could be moulded or cast proved to be far more versatile. The excitement caught on and Bakelite was everywhere. The symbol of infinity ∞ became synonymous of what could be done with Bakelite hence the General Bakelite Corporation adopted it as part of its trademark. From then on, the possibilities seemed in fact endless.

Bakelite is a thermo set plastic which means once it is formed, it cannot be reshaped, except by carving. It is a hard material produced in a wide range of colours, opaque or translucent, marbled or solid. Describing this spectrum of colours were words such as onyx, jade, coral, rose quartz and so on. Bakelite replicated gem and stone at a fraction of the cost. That was the key to understanding its appeal for buyers then, and now collectors. In the 1930’s, while economic depression swept through North America, marketing ploys suggested using colour as a way to bring consumerism back. The timing was perfect for Bakelite. As a product of the industrial age, this plastic was subject to manufacturing techniques notwithstanding it was often finished by a skilled hand. This in fact speaks of the making of desirable objects evocative of the Modern style.

From jewellery to radios, the collector has much to choose and there are as many enthusiastic collectors as there are niches. As Bakelite was produced in different countries around the world, collecting is even more exiting. Great carved pieces of jewellery such as bracelets and brooches have originated from places such as North America or Europe; beautiful and dynamic geometric patterns found in household items have been American or German; whimsical smoking accessories possibly English; attractive cocktail and hors-d’oeuvres sets perhaps French and so on. The variety of items is as vast as the imagination and skills of its creators. What these items have in common is the age in which they were designed. They are for the most part Modern. By the late 1940’s, Bakelite had been replaced by other materials. With some exceptions, it has not been used in design since then. A company in Montreal, Canada continued to produce household items using Bakelite. The design was sometimes reminiscent of the Art Deco age however space age design was the dominant inspiration for its pieces. Glo-Hill Corporation based in Montreal folded in 1979.

The interest in Bakelite is parallel to the craving for anything the Jazz-Modern era created. The beauty of a piece of Bakelite lies in its design, shape, colour and touch. It has become an objet d’art..

Jacques Lavoie, Toronto, Canada

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