Great fake tortoiseshell
by Martina Metzner
Jul 9, 2014

What would hipsters be without acetate? If French chemist Paul Schützenberger had not dipped cotton fibers in acetic anhydride in 1865 and heated the solution to 140°C, then they’d have to go without those all-defining specs that look like they’re made from real tortoiseshell but aren’t. A few years and various experiments later (the early 20th century saw fierce battles between American and European scientists over the patents) and the first biological thermoplastic was being produced on a larger scale: cellulose acetate. The novel material was soon being used in the fashion world (as an artificial fiber with a silky gleam), in film (as the base for celluloid), in legal intoxicants (as part of cigarette filters) and in design, where primarily spectacle frames were made with it. As regards the latter, little has changed.

It was the usual fake-tortoiseshell specs that prompted young French designer Jean Baptiste Fastrez and Swiss designer duo Joséphine Choquet and Virgile Thévoz to take a second look at the material. Fastrez used it to make “Mask” wall mirrors, framed by elaborately patterned acetate and a bit reminiscent of voodoo masks. “I was intrigued by the twin poles of ‘unnatural/natural,” Fastrez explains. “An artificial material such as acetate imitates a natural material, namely wood or tortoiseshell.” In 2012 Parisian Galerie Kreo discovered “Mask” and Fastrez created other pieces using acetate. Such as his low glass-topped “Stromboli” coffee table, with its cylindrical acetate foot, from which he then derived a higher version, called “Etna”. For his “Totem” side table Fastrez actually combined acetate with eloxed aluminum. “Totem”, Fastrez explains, constitutes the max in terms of furniture size that can be achieved with acetate.

“Acetate is a fascinating material, it’s both kitschy and contemporary,” comments Joséphine Choquet, who with her business partner Virgile Thévoz (both are from the ECAL Lausanne) has used acetate for a spectacle frame collection and for luminaires. Choquet came across the material while preparing her graduation project in which she studied the work of past spectacles makers who initially studied different acetate patterns under light and then combined them. She then created her first frames collection with the imaginative name “Copacabana”, which were presented in 2013 at the Geneva Design Days and in 2014 at the Salone Satellite in Milan. By contrast, the “Acapulco” fluorescent tube lights (with slender and plain acetate fixtures) are far more radical, she says. The sharply geometrical idiom contrasts with the acetate. Choquet is still hunting for a manufacture for the collections.

That young designers should find acetate of all things fascinating and are perhaps ensuring it a life beyond the glasses business may bring a smile to the one or other face, but is not surprising. The material exudes a touch of “Retro”, but is also reminiscent of the good old days when tortoiseshell for spectacles and cases was in part still imported from the colonies. Moreover, it has unique visual qualities: It seems slightly transparent and, if you so desire, it can boast quite amazing patterns. On top of which, if you heat it slightly (which is what opticians do to improve the frame fit) you can bend it carefully. That said, there are limits to its use: Industrially made panes are max. 60 x 140cm in size – usually in strengths of less than one centimeter, rarely thicker than five. And stability is a problem. Combinations with other materials (e.g., metal) are not always easy, as acetate really changes shape if the temperature fluctuates.

The new zest for acetate is also to been seen at “Mazzuchelli 1849”, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of cellulose acetates with a total payroll of 1,000 in Italy and China; the company works with specs makers such as Luxottica and Safilo. Of course, explains Brustio Corrado, its marketing and business development manager, the main business is still with frames, which accounts for some 70 percent of the total. Yet almost 10 percent of output now goes for interior design items. The remainder gets spread across fields such as music instruments (e.g., drum kits and electric guitars). The Mazzuchelli 1849 portfolio includes 300 different acetates, structured by market segments such as “Art Print”, “Tortoiseshell/Wood”, “Havanas”, “Multilayer” or “Fantasy”. Demand for classic acetate patterns such as tortoiseshell, Corrado says, has risen sharply over the last four years.

We’re not likely to soon be sporting chairs, tables or luminaires made of the patterned plastic in our homes. Acetate will remain a material that is particularly interesting to product designers if the items are smaller and more refined. It’s no coincidence that Montblanc makes its pens using acetate. Especially as acetate is an expensive plastic: A 0.5 centimeter thick pane sized 60 x 140 centimeters costs between 150 and 300 euros from Mazzuchelli 1849. But for your money you get a magical, delightful pattern of light and dark that catches the eye immediately. As Choquet rightly says: It oscillates between kitsch and classic, party and piano.

MORE on Stylepark:

The legendary bling bling: In 1895 the inventor Daniel Swarovski moved to Tyrol in Austria, where he installed his new machine to cut and polish crystal glass.
(21 September 2007)

All about of carbon: Carbon is the high-flyer. In product design too and even in times when sustainability should play an ever greater role.
(18 December 2008)