Pure Polycarbonate

Nintendo copied Apple, while Apple copied Braun. Why are there so many electronics made of white polycarbonate, no matter the decade?

Hey all, Ernie here with another (thankfully not holiday-related) piece from Yuri Litvinenko, who has been thinking a lot about plastic lately—specifically, milky white plastic, the kind Apple used to use on everything. Check it out.

Today in Tedium: A new decade is drawing near, which means the 2000s are about to become a subject of mass nostalgia. But out of all the design trends of the noughties, I hope we won’t get back to painting plastic gadgets silver to pretend they are made of polished aluminum. A cursory look at many worn-down devices from ten to twenty years ago would reveal they were designed for product shots, not real-life usage. However, there was a certain design cue that makes some plastic objects look eerily modern. In today’s Tedium, we’ll take a look at a white plastic, a ubiquitous material which makes a shaver from 1960 feel contemporary to the latest AirPods you probably got this Christmas. — Yuri @ Tedium

Today’s GIF is from a video of a Chinese manufacturer mixing together liquid plastic before it’s turned into toys. Really. By the way, our sponsor for today is IVPN. More from them in a sec.

“Having a really solid white, a really intense white—it’s really an achievement. It doesn’t just happen; it’s highly engineered.”

Paul Messier, a conservator of photographs from Boston, Massachusetts. Mr. Messier is one of many professionals, from historians to dentists, which Courtney Humphries interviews for her extensive Nautilus piece on the cultural meaning of whiteness. Throughout the ages, the color is associated with spiritual purity, wealth, and cleanliness, she notes. By now, the demand for the perfect white led scientists to create ways to bleach materials to the point which doesn’t make sense naturally.

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Examples of bakelite, an early form of plastic that was made to look like wood in many cases. (m kasahara/Flickr)

Mimicking “natural” materials was the necessity for early synthetic plastics

People had the means to make common objects white long before they learned to synthesize white polycarbonate—it just wasn’t always practical to make things out of ceramics or enameled metal. For ages, the closest our civilization had to plastics in whiteness and overall versatility was ivory, as well as other animal bones. Eventually, these materials—and, indeed, animals—became scarce as we kept killing elephants to make piano keys.

The first synthetic plastics, invented in the late 19th century, were important to breaking the dependence on animal body parts for household items. But for decades, it wasn’t possible to make them bright white, or any kind of bright. For example, most objects made from Bakelite, a resin made of formaldehyde and phenol, were given a wood or amber-like appearance—fitting the Art Deco style of the 1910s and 1920s.

“Because Bakelite uses fillers, initially dull colors were used to mask this. When urea-formaldehyde and Catalin arrived, brighter colored plastics were possible and brought with them fashion and desirability,” says Helen Peavitt, the curator of consumer technologies at the Science Museum in London. She tells Tedium that Hollywood filmmakers started using white telephones as a part of their sets. Peavitt notes Diana Dors, an English actress often compared to Marilyn Monroe, was often pictured with an ivory-colored GPO Model 162.

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The Braun T3 transistor radio.

But it was modernism, not Art Deco, which gave white plastics a meaning beyond being an ivory lookalike. Specifically, it was Dieter Rams, a renowned designer at Braun responsible for the company’s minimalist electronics. Rams detested using colors other than black, gray, and white for his creations; other colors were usually used for functional elements like power buttons. While Catalin radios of the 1930s and 1940s were available in many gaudy colors, Braun sets—like the famous T3 model which would inspire Apple’s iPod—were famously white.

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The iMac G5, shown with contemporary iPods. (Matthew Pearce/Flickr)

Apple moved to white plastics to save their style from commoditization

In the late 1990s, the original iMac brought Apple back from obscurity. But, in many ways, it was the iPod which truly made it a 21st-century company. The player’s popularity influenced the whole landscape of consumer electronics as well as Apple‘s own selection: the 2004 iMac G5 was famously advertised as the iPod of computers.

The iPod wasn’t the only Apple device released in white in 2001—it just happened to be the most popular. The redesigned iBook, as well as the iMac G4, famously marked the move from those colorful translucent cases Steve Jobs loved posing with. Interestingly, the updated version of a “flying saucer” AirPort router, released the same year, looked pretty much the same, but the color scheme was made to match.

If the playful translucency of first iMacs and iBooks was so well-received, why would Apple make such a dramatic switch in style? “Oversaturation,” says Froyo Tam, an artist, and curator of the Y2K Aesthetic Institute. Her Tumblr account features many artifacts that used the exact same style, from jelly shoes to digicams, as well as magazine clippings which show how popular the style was.

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The iMac G4, with its famed swivel screen, ended an era of splashy translucent designs by Apple. (Thomas Millot/Unsplash)

“Translucency had connotations to cheap and mass-produced commodities by 2001, so Apple began to look elsewhere for inspiration,” she says.

Tam notes that, while Apple’s late 1990s consumer computers rocked the world with brightly colored “fruit” cases, the company started adding indigo, sage more muted colors to the mix. (The all-in-one G3 line eventually ended with translucent-white iMac and the opaque eMac.) In 2000, Apple released iBook Special Edition, making the white polycarbonate part of the shell opaque instead of translucent.

seven

The number of months it took Palm Zire to achieve a milestone of 1 million units sold. While the $99 price point was the Zire’s main appeal, its “high-gloss, good plastic parts” contributed to the success, argues Gadi Amit, the handheld’s designer from NewDealDesign, in a Fast Company feature. He clarified to Tedium that the choice of color and materials was due to a decision to aim at “a more home-appliance look as to position the device less as a ‘productivity device’ and more as a ‘personal device.’” Amit explains that later models were made from aluminum and painted blue because of “the general notion of having 2-3 good color options” expressed by the consumer. With the Z22, the last Zire in all but name, Palm returned to the series’ design roots.

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(Sofia Lee/used with permission)

To Asian manufacturers, the surrounding interior is just as important as the product

One might see the white plastic aesthetic as bland or uninteresting, not unlike Kinfolk-inspired “slow living” photos mass-shared on Instagram a few years ago. However, subverting the latter with artifacts of the former shows pleasing results—and a notable difference between Western and Asian approaches to sterile design. That’s what Sofia Lee, a visual artist currently living in the Netherlands, noticed while maintaining KIN*WÄV.

Lee’s photos show how ubiquitous the whole trend is. There is a notebook that deceptively looks like an iBook, but nope—that’s a Lenovo netbook from 2009. Wrapped EarPods share a scene with an old Kindle, which, in turn, doesn’t look out of place when literally put in the same bag with a Nintendo DS and a bunch of media players.

The real star of the project is not any of the gadgets by themselves, but a sense of environment. Lee notes that Japanese companies tended to picture their products in all-white environments—unlike Apple which made their gadgets ”stripped of context, existing in a vacuum, photographed on top of a white seamless or under a spotlight in a dark room.”

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The Wii U, albeit less successful than the Switch, is a more recent example of white polycarbonate used in a hardware context. (Notably, it also uses the direct descendent of the G3 processor used in the snow-white iBook.)

In their home markets, many Asian manufacturers continued to rely on their own interpretation of whiteness well into the 2010s. Nintendo’s ill-fated Wii U was released in black and white variants with either 8 to 32 GB of storage—but the white version of the 32 GB one was only available in Japan. And while Xiaomi regularly gets some flak for ripping off iPhone designs, their Mi Home smart devices are always pictured within an environment which looks straight out of the IKEA catalog.

“I saw KIN*WÄV not just as a photo project … I wanted to explore the feelings of intense nostalgia I had towards this imaginary ‘past-future Asian corporate landscape’.”

– Sofia Lee, explaining the motivation behind the KIN*WAV project, which “represented a lifestyle I was actively living for years.” She explains that vaporwave, which famously uses the imagery of old Japanese technology and corporate visuals, essentially put real-life trends of the 2000s into a retrofuturism category.

Polycarbonate, when not pushed to look like metal or glass, is just as desirable—that was my perception which pushed me to write this article. But by initially relying on my personal experience alone, I did not notice consumers have already voted against plastic gadgets unless absolutely needed. After the iPhone’s switch to natural materials, Apple has only once tried to incorporate plastics back in its design. The iPhone 5C performed worse than expected, and while there were many reasons for it, cheap looks—compared to both the 5S and the previously released 5—contributed notably.

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Nokia’s 8810 4G looks like a banana, in case you didn’t notice.

Likewise, Nokia’s colorful Windows phones found their fans but failed to define a wider trend. Even modern Nokia’s 8810 4G used bright yellow plastic mostly to make a visual pun on “banana phone” rather than advance the style. Still, it doesn’t mean plastic cases are bad or do not deserve to coexist with other ones.

This year’s winter has been exceptionally warm in Moscow: the temperature rarely gets below 30° F, and the snow, if falls, melts the next day. Even so, I’d be glad to use a phone or a tablet encased in a snow-white plastic, as my aluminum gadgets are painful to use without a case even during a slight frost. Sure, aluminum is way less prone to beating and falling, but it doesn’t mean it’s automatically more practical. The meaning of “practical” depends on a scenario, conditions, and the actual user who defines what’s better for them.

We aren’t sticking glass into our ears for a reason.

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Thanks again to Yuri for writing. Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And thanks to our sponsors IVPN for sponsoring. Here’s a quick message from them:

Yuri Litvinenko

Your time was just wasted by Yuri Litvinenko

Yuri Litvinenko is a web news editor at Vedomosti, a Russian business newspaper. When not covering the current affairs, he takes historical notes and writes off-beat stories—preferably on the history of consumer technology.

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