According to the contemporary furniture manufacturer, Value Created Resources, the first use of plastics in furniture design occurred in 1946 when James Donahue and Douglas Simpson created the first plastic chair. Plastics are polymers, meaning that they are composed of long molecular chains which link together for stability. Each molecular chain is composed of single units called monomers. Different types of plastics have varying properties. Plastics used in the furniture industry are divided into two categories: thermoplastics and thermosetting polymers.
Both thermoplastics and thermosetting polymers feature different molecular structures. Thermoplastics consist of two dimensional molecular chains that allow this plastic to soften when heated. Thermosetting polymers, more commonly known as thermosets, are a type of plastic that features three-dimensional molecular chains. Thermoset molecular chains form stronger bonds to provide a stronger framework for furniture components, making this type of plastic more durable than thermoplastics.
When cooled, thermoplastic furniture becomes brittle and is easily shattered. When heated, thermoplastics become pliable and easily bends. Another property of thermoplastics is that its weaker molecular chains leave furniture vulnerable to corrosion. This same property means that plastic furniture constructed out of thermoplastics will bend and have less structural integrity when used. Thermosets resist changes in temperature and corrosion. Hot or cold temperatures will not damage the integrity of thermosets once they have cured.
Plastics are manufactured out of nonrenewable hydrocarbons. Thermoplastics used in making furniture are more environmentally friendly than other types of plastic as they are melted down and recycled, according to Value Created Resources. Thermosets are less environmentally friendly. Once thermosets are heated and cured, these types of plastic cannot turn into a different material. Unlike thermoplastics, this type of plastic is not recycled because heating thermosets will simply burn furniture without entering a liquid state.
Some common types of thermoplastics include polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polystyrene (PS). An example of thermoplastics and its use in furniture manufacturing is plastic lawn furniture or tables. They are also used as indoor plumbing or plastic sheeting. Thermosets are usually used in a supporting role in the furniture industry. A couch may contain polyurethane foam, which is used as cushioning beneath furniture cushions. Phenolics are a type of themoset used as a furniture adhesive. Polyester is used to create fabrics that are placed over the top of the frame and cushions of a coach or sofa.
- Photo Credit two plastic chairs and a table image by Thor Jorgen Udvang from Fotolia.com