Plastics have changed the world for better and for worse, but they don’t have to die out with disposable consumer culture. Resins are a family of plastics that began as any of myriad clear to translucent yellow or brown, solid or semisolid, viscous substances, such as copal, rosin or amber, derived from plants and insoluble in water. Think: lacquers, varnishes, inks, adhesives, plastics, pharmaceuticals and construction materials. For the past 150 years, they have also been manufactured synthetically, becoming a tool in the design of interiors that is as highly functional as it is expressive.
“Resin is one of the most versatile materials in interior design,” says Azar McMaster, SVP Product Management & Business Development at 3form. Resin allows designers to create or reinvent spaces to fit any aesthetic or program: It plays well with other materials, can be used in high traffic areas, and is easily cleaned, durable and rigid enough for use in partitions, flooring and countertops. Its extreme formability, ability to display depth, color, texture, pattern and to transmit light or even, amber-like, carry embedded objects, make it the iguana of the interior, suited to the design of all-resin furniture, lighting features and even design-art objects: The resin sculptures of British artist Zuza Mengham are simultaneously liquid, mineral and vapor, while the flower-embedded furnishings of Polish designer Marcin Rusak honor both life and its decay in their dark depths.
A Brief History
Humans have harvested natural resins from plants like tree bark and flowers for thousands of years. Thick, sticky sap helps the pine tree heal itself and, over eons, fossilizes into amber, a material the ancient Greeks saw as sunlight solidified. Ancient cultures drank resin, smoked it and burned it as incense. Ship builders sealed and waterproofed wooden vessels with pitch and, in the 13th century, Mongols glued the parts of the world’s first composite bow together with sap, making it one of the deadliest weapons for 200 years until the advent of firearms.
The 19th century saw the invention of man-made resins. Early “polymerization” included semi-synthetics like Parkesine (1862), and advanced through the turn-of-the-century with the first thermosetting plastic, Bakelite, followed by vinyl (1926), nylon (1939), Styrofoam (1954) and liquid crystal polymers (1985).
Types of Resin
The two main types of synthetic resin are thermoset and thermoplastic resins. Thermosets—mpolyester, epoxy, phenolic, vinyl ester, polyurethane and silicone in liquid or powder form—cannot be remelted after they’re formed or “cured”, making them insoluble and tough to deform but difficult to recycle.
Like metals, thermoplastic resins–polycarbonate, polyethylene, acrylic, nylon, teflon—can be heated, softened, melted and reformed repeatedly. Though more expensive, they are recyclable, impact- and chemical-resistant, aesthetic and more eco-friendly vis à vis production.
An Increasing Focus on Wellness & Sustainability
For interior design applications, American materials giant 3form has produced Varia (PETG for partitions, walls and ceilings) and Chroma resins (acrylic for horizontal surfaces and shelves), enabling designers to specify a variety of diffusion layers, surface finishes and patterns that create privacy, openness, or both at once: “Our translucent resin can be used to create distinct divisions of space while still allowing light to pass through,” says McMaster. “This creates functional and usable spaces for people to work and gather, while also providing a sense of connectivity to promote well-being.”
Leading the way, 3form’s resin materials are also made of durable instead of single-use plastics, making them eco-conscious and high-performance with a potential lifespan of decades. Its closed-loop, translucent, terrazzo-like Varia Flek panels contain approximately 75 percent recycled materials. Across numerous industries, resins will only get more sustainable from here. That race is already being run.