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Go groovy, mod with plastic furniture

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Plastic furniture is the shining star at the latest design trade shows. Are we experiencing '60s flashbacks?

Certainly, plastic furniture comes in a kaleidoscope of colors. The forms, too, can be groovy. The sculptural Panton chair (1960) with its wavy lines resembles a long squirt of toothpaste.

But plastic furniture has evolved — and arrived — in recent years.

"It's always been fun and a good choice for those who have pets and young children because they're so easy to clean," says Sofia Varanka, co-owner of Hudson Home in Kansas City, Mo. "But now there are elegant options."

A prime example is the Louis Ghost chair by Philippe Starck for Kartell, the Italian manufacturer known for its plastic furnishings. The see-through polycarbonate form mimics the traditional Louis XV chair with its medallion-shaped seatback. The plastic piece, introduced in 2002, has become a modern-day classic. Some interior designers say every home "needs" at least one Ghost chair. The transparent finish plays with light, casting rainbow-like prisms in the room.

"Clear acrylic furniture is especially beautiful in small spaces because it helps give the illusion of a larger room," says Judy Miller, product manager for CB2, the hip younger sister store of Crate and Barrel. For three years, the CB2 clear accent tables have been top sellers, so this year it introduced new plastic pieces: a media console with clear casters that accommodates up to a 40-inch flat-panel television and an acrylic tripod easel that adjusts to more than 3 feet high to float works of art.

Not surprisingly, the relatively low prices of these pieces have fueled their popularity. A Louis Ghost Chair costs about $400 when a comparable wooden accent chair starts at about $1,200.

Because of plastic's affordability, architect Ryan Townsend of Kansas City became a fan of the furniture medium a few years ago.

"You can get metal folding chairs from Wal-Mart or Target or you can get designer chairs for about the same price," Townsend says. "The choice is pretty clear."

Townsend was introduced to plastic when he purchased Oh chairs designed by Karim Rashid for Umbra for a massage-therapy clinic client who had a next-to-nothing furniture budget. The chairs are designed with curvaceous matte polypropylene seatbacks with metal legs.

"They were surprisingly comfortable and helped create a spa-like atmosphere," Townsend says. "The client liked them so much that we ended up ordering twice as many."

Townsend is seeing more restaurants and other businesses using plastic chairs, including the $40 Urban chair from Ikea — in orange at the new Coffee Girls in the Kansas City, Mo., neighborhood of Waldo. Pizza Bella in the Crossroads Arts District uses high-gloss red nylon polymer UltraBellini chairs designed by Mario Bellini for Heller. Natasha's Mulberry & Mott, a patisserie and espresso bar at Mission Farms in Leawood, Kan., has a sitting area with French-style furnishings and transparent Louis Ghost chairs — a modern/traditional mix reminiscent of the film "Marie Antoinette."

Townsend ordered white plastic Oh chairs for himself. He appreciates that they are durable enough to be used outdoors as easily as indoors; two are on his front porch. He can easily stack them, a definite perk of most plastic chairs. And friends borrow his chairs all the time.

"Sometimes I think I get invited to parties just because of my cool chairs," Townsend jokes. But seriously, he thinks the future is bright for plastic. Based on products in magazines and catalogs as well as conversations with friends, he sees 20- and 30-somethings using plastic instead of wood for dining chairs because of the low prices and chic style.

However, not everyone is a fan of plastic. Some still view it as the cheap stuff they picked up for their college apartments. And although most plastic furniture is recyclable, once it's broken, it can't be repaired like wooden, metal and upholstered pieces. Therefore, it has huge landfill potential.

Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., stipulated that the polyethylene seating Stones she developed for furniture company Knoll be available in 100 percent recycled plastic content. The Stones' content includes recycled beverage containers. The multifunctional pieces are available with optional seat cushions.

Plastic is produced in a variety of finishes, including metallics. Some have integrated beverage holders. Increasingly, plastic is being used in place of glass for light fixtures because of its durability.

"Plastic is constantly being innovated," says Steve Maturo, co-owner of Museo in Kansas City. The store carries Kartell and other furniture lines that have plastic pieces. "It's less serious than other types of furniture, so it's like candy for designers who are constantly trying to bring out their inner plastic child."

In the past year, Starck, who created the Ghost chair, debuted Mr. Impossible. Made in the mold-injection process like other plastic furnishings, the chair is a seamless, one-piece creation. However, it contains two colors in the same form.

Because plastic is constantly reinventing the rules, are there guidelines for decorating with it at home? Designers caution to use it sparingly.

"Less is more," Maturo says. "It's an accent, so think of it as the jewelry and the bling."


CB2, 800-606-6252,

Design Within Reach, 800-944-2233,

Ikea, 800-434-4532,

MoMA Store, 800-851-4509,

Topdeq, search "Kartell," 866-876-3300,

Umbra, search "Karim Rashid," 800-387-5122, www.umbra.comCare of plastic furniture

Dust with a lint-free cloth. A clean old cotton T-shirt works.

To clear grime, use a drop of liquid mild dish soap mixed in a bucket of water.

Never scrub. It can worsen natural surface scratches.