We've Always Been Obsessed with Lucite
Every few years, Lucite experiences something of a resurgence. Judging by June alone, we’re in the midst of something of a plastic renaissance right now. That’s the month that Rihanna included a number of shoes with Lucite block heels in her most recent collaboration with Manolo Blahnik. The same month, boutique owner and designer Maryam Nassir Zadeh and jewelry designer Sophie Buhai chose to focus their first accessories collaboration around the material. As Vogue wrote in June, “The result is a small capsule of Lucite accessories for Fall 2017 including thick hoop earrings, a clear-buckled belt, and transparent-heeled oxfords—items described by Buhai as ’30s/’40s meets postmodern.’” Lucite is cheap, versatile and feather-light, though its clarity offers a couture appeal, and the material has a long past bolstering its timelessness.
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The history of Lucite reveals a slightly disappointing reality: Lucite is just Plexiglas. Plexiglas, Lucite, Perspex, Acrylic or any other names you might know it by are the result of the reactions between acrylic acid derivative methacrylic acid and methanol. Acrylic acid was first created in 1843, and scientists around the world rushed to find practical and military applications for the new material. British chemists Rowland Hill and John Crawford registered their product under the trademark Perspex. German chemists Otto Röhm and Otto Haas trademarked Plexiglas in 1933. In the United States, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company (which you’re more likely to know today as the DuPont Company) introduced its own iteration in 1937 under the name of Lucite.
Whatever you want to call it, polymethyl methacrylate is a highly durable, transparent material that can be used as a lighter-weight, shatterproof alternative to glass. The material found abundant use throughout World War II, in everything from submarine periscopes to plane windshields. Only after the war would scientists and chemists begin to apply the material widely in products for civilian use. Unlike Plexiglas or Perspex, the Lucite name carries a fashionable and covetable cachet, immediately recognizable to fans of both fashion and interior design. This is in large part due to DuPont’s premonitory decision to license the Lucite trademark for applications in jewelry. Handbags with Lucite handles—and purses constructed entirely of the material—became popular throughout the ‘50s and remain collectors’ items today.
The material’s inherent pliability makes it a favorite of designers, who can dye it, contort it and suspend objects within it. The use of the material in accessories was, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, relegated to lower-end high heels, but in 1998, Alexander McQueen sent models down a runway made of a long, water-filled Lucite tank, restoring some of the material’s high-fashion credibility. Philippe Starck, ironically the son of an aircraft designer, made the material his life’s work, most famously in his Ghost Chair, a transparent take on the classic Louis XIV armchair. Transparent polycarbonate (Starck does not claim Lucite or any other branded poly as his material of choice) is injected into a single mold, eliminating the need for screws or other hardware. It’s a beautiful concept that quickly became the ubiquitous dining room chair of choice amongst a particularly stylish set.
Fashion’s take on Lucite today shares little in common with the top-handle purses and kitsch earrings of the past. A few years back marked the start of a renaissance for Lucite, perhaps incited by Kanye West’s inclusion of clear boots with Lucite heels in his Yeezy Season 2 show, continuing through to Rihanna and Maryam Nassir Zadeh’s use of the materials in 2017. Lucite’s historical relevance and enduring beauty allow it to embody both futurist and vintage sensibilities. It can read as luxury or casual, and simple objects like keychains, when rendered in Lucite, become something of an objet d’art simply sitting upon a desk (an important feature for Instagram friendly accessories). Designers and artists like Corey Moranis are amassing social media followings for their innovative takes on the material. Moranis weaves Lucite into chunky yet elegant keychains, necklaces and earrings—the kind of accessories that immediately elicit queries of “Where did you get that?” Her creations are mesmerizing and organic with a kind of sci-fi futurism, and won’t break the bank.
There is a reason Lucite has been around for so long. Although its popularity has waxed and waned, Lucite’s ability to occupy the limbo between the past and future ensures the pieces crafted from it will be worth hanging onto for decades to come.