Antiques Column: The Art Deco appeal of Bakelite

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As a schoolboy I was never allowed to answer the telephone in our house when it rang, it was an adult only prerogative.

Oh, how I longed to be an adult and lift that heavy, beautifully modelled, Bakelite receiver.

Plastics and Bakelite really epitomise the energy of modern design between the wars.

Their bright colours, exciting styling and new affordable materials caught people’s imagination at the time.

Now their appeal is being rediscovered because these early plastic items are an easy and inexpensive way to achieve the Art Deco look.

Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic, was developed in1907 by a Belgian, Dr Leo Baekeland.

In the 1920s and 1930s it hit its absolute peak in popularity and was known as the ‘material of a thousand uses’.

Bakelite and it’s imitations ushered in a new age of colourful and stylish, yet inexpensive household goods.

Bakelite can be identified by the strong carbolic smell it gives off when rubbed.

It was made in mottled and plain browns, black, green, red and blue.

Colours other than brown and black make any plastic object more desirable and larger objects, particularly in Bakelite, are rare and so more valuable as well.

Styling is also very important and pieces that reflect the Art Deco style of the 1930s - typified by stepped forms, streamlining and clean lines- are especially collectable.

Plastics from the 1950s onwards tend to be less desirable and so less valuable as styling is not as strong and the quality is generally poorer than the early plastics made between 1910 and 1930.