“Plastics.” It remains the most famous single-word utterance from the 1967 movie The Graduate. The coming-of-age film depicted the changing social mores of mid-century American society, and the material itself hasn't left us in the ensuing decades. Despite the fact that most common plastics could be the poster children for everything anti-green, more than likely you're reading this while sitting in a chair with large quantities of plastic content, sipping a beverage from a plastic container, at a desk with innumerable plastic devices and tchotchkes.
Ray Goodson, founder of Salt Lake City–based 3form, has been working since 1991 to make plastic a more environmentally sensible, not to mention attractive, material for architecture and interiors. His invention—and the principal ingredient in most of 3form's products—is called eco-resin. The patented material uses 40 percent post-consumer waste in its composition. More remarkable are its aesthetic characteristics: It's translucent. Since recycling involves the multihued detritus of contemporary life, not to mention the dirt that comes in used milk containers, water bottles, and similar junk, this is a significant advantage that other manufacturers have yet to match.
A CNC router cuts 3form plastic into custom shapes. 3form's patented eco-resin can also be customized with layers of nonplastic material-including bamboo, grass, and even shredded money (for use in a bank).
The company's headquarters includes a research and development lab, design studio, customer service center, and manufacturing facilities. Jill Canales is 3form's vice president of marketing and design. She's been with the company for two years, after moving to Salt Lake City from a job with Nissan Design America in San Diego. It's a different focus. In automotive work, Canales was designing for the average consumer; now she's designing for designers. “Because we're an accent in an interior, people look to us to be on the forward edge of design,” she says. She and her designers stay on top of evolving design trends in automobiles, fashion, furniture, and interior design. “We're very aware of what's selling today,” she says. “What you see in magazines often doesn't reflect what people are specifying.” She compares a fashion runway show to what people on the street are actually wearing. “There's quite a difference,” she says.
Tapping into that broad-based cultural consciousness, 3form develops its products to fit with the colors and larger themes in design. “Organics are always very big for us,” Canales says. “We talk about product as a meaningful juxtaposition of something raw—from nature—becoming very refined—encapsulated in resin,” she says, explaining the rationale behind most of 3form's signature lines, most notably Varia, which features an interlayer of color or natural material.
One of 3form's biggest challenges is sourcing the materials that it encapsulates in the products. “You're taking something that's natural and changing,” says Canales. “You expect what you see on the website or in your sample to be similar to what you receive,” she says. “But how can you control a crop of grass? Or a fern crop? Or the radius of bamboo rings?” The material design team works with the purchasing department on an ongoing basis to identify materials that meet their technical and aesthetic requirements.
Encapsulated in eco-resin are (above, from left) leaf skeletons, thatch, and bamboo rings. Design and technology teams at 3form work together to select raw materials that are strong enough to withstand the heating process. Individual pieces are sorted to create the right balance of conformity and variety.
Finding the right material isn't always the end of the story. Since the production process involves a fair amount of heat and pressure, each material must be evaluated to make sure it doesn't whither in the oven. The technical engineering team works to develop methods of drying and preserving raw materials in preparation for production.
A recent new material introduction ran into a problem when an entire crop froze, forcing 3form's purchasers to find a substitute. While the company won't reveal where it gets its materials—a trade secret, so to speak—Canales admits her staff will go virtually anywhere in the world to find the right stuff. They also have rather odd conversations with their suppliers. “Make the grass grow longer” is a typical request.
The production process recalls some of the madcap mayhem of Lucy and Ethel making chocolates on I Love Lucy. Each material encapsulated within the product is individually hand-placed on interlayer sheets by “lay-up people,” who rely on a lot of training and a certain amount of craft to get it right. Templates and visual references keep them from straying too far from the samples, and quality review is an essential step.
A raw sheet of PETG is laid out on what is essentially a giant light box. An interlayer is placed on top, and the encapsulated objects are arranged on this sheet. “It's like you're designing a pattern every time,” says Canales. Different materials require different actions. Bamboo rings have to be set with consistent sizes in each portion of a sheet. Birch branches require the workers to toss ones that are too thick or that might bend in unattractive ways. Some designs require multiple interlayers, so additional sheets will be stacked one on top of the other, “like a club sandwich,” according to Canales.