Eastman chemical is a $5.3 billion colossus. Once part of Kodak, the raw-materials supplier produces acetate for cigarette filters and paint coatings for auto bodies. It’s also the world’s largest maker of PET plastic, used for food and drink containers. But as recession looms, even colossi begin to worry about finding their next meal. In the last few years, Eastman saw competitors like GE Plastics reaching out to the design industry to bring new products to market. GE even supplied materials for Dean Kamen’s audacious Segway transport device, a public-relations, if not yet an economic, victory for the company. Eastman realized that although designers are unlikely to consume a lot of plastic pellets, the clients for whom they specify materials might buy tons.
“We saw potential in our materials practice that wasn’t being taken advantage of,” says Gaylon White, vice president of business promotion within Eastman’s Specialty Plastics division.
White did some research at the IDSA and was introduced to Tim Brown, president of industrial-design powerhouse IDEO in Palo Alto, Calif. Two meetings later, White handed IDEO a brief: Create new applications that dramatize the potential of two of Eastman’s plastics, a cellulosic and a copolyester. Make the application futuristic but realistic. Go wild but be sure the project is pursuable in the market.
IDEO came back with eyeglasses. Other ideas were discussed-a line of “clear-office” prototypes, for one-but the designers agreed that nothing appealed to consumers’ style obsessions like a pair of frames. People who’ve never given a thought to the design of their cubicle agonize for hours over the shape and color of their eyewear.
The raw-materials trade is tough, especially when it comes to creating new products. It may take up to 15 years for a material to burrow into the aerospace or auto industries. And IDEO was promoting a risky business. “Eyewear isn’t a high-growth market,” White explains. Traditionally, the fashion for plastic glasses is cyclical-metal frames are cool one decade, plastic are cool the next. White hoped that the experiment would influence that cycle in Eastman’s favor.
Cellulosic plastics are hardly new; they’ve been around for most of the 20th century. Cellulose is starch, and the natural fiber is treated with acids to produce resin. Extruded in enormous sheets, the material has gone into film stock, ping-pong balls and the imitation tortoise-shell glasses popularized in the 1980s and ’90s.
The material is warm to the touch. Knock on it, and it has the low, natural sound of wood. It’s flexible, sometimes to the point of weakness. But in eyeglasses, the flexibility allows for an accurate and adjustable fit. Cellulosic plastics also possess a depth of color that gives objects a richness and density unattainable with most other synthetic materials. Copolyesters aren’t new either-the polyester family is the stuff of toothbrushes and soda bottles. But injection-molded copolyester is a fairly new process, around for barely a decade. And the complex objects made possible through injection molding can now possess the extra-ordinary strength and flexibility of this material. Copolyesters are extremely chemical resistant (they make great perfume containers), and they’re clear enough to suit both frames and lenses.
The eyewear project is Eastman’s first collaboration with designers, and part of IDEO’s appeal was Kara Johnson, the firm’s materials expert. She became a member of the team that created six eyewear prototypes. Her “Play” highlights the durability and flexibility of copolyester. Designed as both sunglasses and a child’s toy, the frames and lenses arrive disassembled in a plastic case. Children can mix and match templates, lenses and frames, or trade pieces with friends. The design takes advantage of the chemical durability of copolyester-“the polycarbonates typically used in sunglasses have very little resistance to chemical corrosion from suntan lotion,” Johnson notes. The material’s flexibility allows children to manipulate the parts easily, and its strength means the glasses will stand up to even the most brutal play-date.
“Ensemble,” by the project’s leader, Thomas Overthun, shows the potential for a wide range of personal accessories made from cellulosic plastic. The design incorporates headphones into sunglasses striped with bright colors. The headphones connect to an MP3 player clad in the same cellulosic material, and a pair of shoes heeled in more cellulose rounds out the trio.
Whereas copolyesters are 10 to 15 percent cheaper than the polycarbonates they’re intended to replace, “cellulose is an expensive, high-end plastic,” Overthun says. “Extruded as a plate, shaped with heat, it takes on certain irregularities. As a result, objects made with cellulosics tend to feel personal and handmade.”
“Bespoke,” designed by Martin Bone, prototypes a new eyewear-buying process. This frame, which wraps around the back of the head rather than connecting over the nose, can be individually tailored like a suit or gown. The malleability of cellulose allows a reseller to mold the frame to the wearer’s head. And using a laminating technique unique to cellulose, the designers incorporated layers of copper and wood into the plastic, to show how well cellulose interacts with other materials.
Eastman isn’t restricting itself to eyewear-any market is a good market. Through partnerships with several of its customers, the company is providing new materials for experimental office workstations, refrigerators and tools. Eastman’s White hopes for a day when the company’s reputation for cutting-edge design influences its customers’ product decisions. For now, he’s simply trying to get the word out. White wants designers to feel the materials, pore over their details, study the edges. But mostly he needs these prototypes to bring in new business. At Vision Expo, an eyewear trade show in New York held each March, a succession of designers and their representatives wandered through Eastman’s booth. One of them cooed over the combination of copper, wood and cellulose. Another fingered the “Play” prototype and urged Eastman to go to market. White, however, isn’t easily flattered, and until the project brings in customers, he won’t be satisfied. The depth of pattern and wood-like feel of cellulose may find admirers. But “our overall objective,” he says, “like any raw-material supplier, is to sell more pounds.”