Materials as “happy accidents” – SCIN’s new exhibition at CDW – Bakelite

by Eve Hollands on

Bakelite Museum, Orchard Mill, Williton, Somerset TA4 4NS

Since prehistoric times, man has evolved and defined itself by the use of materials: the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age…Our attempts to transform and recreate materials found in the natural world have shaped civilisation and society. And many of these successful outcomes are due to Serendipity.

The SCIN exhibition at The Serendipity Studio will be a walk through history, presenting materials that have come to fruition as a “happy accident” and how they have evolved and transformed the world of Design.


This week we will be posting on some of these amazing materials and presenting some of the artists that will have their work in our exhibition. Be ready to be wowed!!


Here’s our second material:

It’s a Bakelite World


The introduction of Bakelite in 1907 marked the introduction of the Polymer Age as it was the world’s first synthetic plastic. But Leo Baekeland, the Belgian-born chemist who developed the first plastic, originally set out to find a replacement for shellac, a resin secreted by South Asian scale bugs. He first created “Novolak” a combination of formaldehyde and phenol, that didn’t really work as a shellac substitution But he noticed that by controlling the temperature and pressure applied to the two compounds (using a massive iron cooker that he called a bakelizer) and by mixing it with wood flour, asbestos, or slate dust, he had created a material that was moldable yet robust as well as non-conductive and heat-resistant. He called the material Bakelite. Its properties made it especially useful for electronic components as well as mass production. In particular jewellery took to Bakelite as it allowed for creative ideas and shapes.


A 1924 article in Time magazine predicted that Bakelite, a “material of a thousand uses,” would one day make up nearly everything we touch, see, and use. We currently don’t use Bakelite, but it opened the doors to plexiglass, polyester, vinyl, nylon, polyurethane, transforming materials used to make our everyday things from natural to synthetic.


Bakelite has become a material of the past but Patrick Cook is ensuring that it doesn’t become a forgotten material! His Bakelite Museum is a unique destination that takes you back into history with an enormous collection that includes Bakelite objects in a huge variety of shapes, colours and functions – radios, telephones, eggcups, musical instruments, toys, tie-presses and even a coffin. There are also domestic and work related things from the Bakelite era, mainly the 1920s to the 1950s, and the whole collection is a nostalgic treat, a vintage wonderland and an educational eye-opener.
Bakelite, the first proper plastic, was a revolutionary material.  It enabled mass-production and its insulating capabilities allowed cars and aeroplanes to be made. The museum gives a delightful, humorous look through a keyhole into the past – including its visions of the future (See the Stars Wars telephone!).
Patrick Cook MA RCA, creator and curator of the Bakelite Museum, is an artist and sculptor.  He trained at Goldsmiths College and at the Royal College of Art under Peter Blake and has exhibited at the ICA, the South London Gallery, the Whitechapel Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts.  He formed the Bakelite Museum Society in the mid-1970s and the Museum was housed in London before moving to the West Country in 1995.  Patrick is a founder member of the Plastics Historical Society.  He has appeared regularly on television and radio programmes.  Patrick has been involved in a number of exhibitions, at the Science Museum, the V and A and other museums and organised a range of exhibitions around the country in the 1980s.  He has written a number of books, including Bakelite Style and the best-selling Illustrated Guide to Bakelite Collectables. As a consultant on the history of plastics, design and social history he has advised auction houses, film and television companies, classic car owners and other museums.

Plan your trip to the Bakelite Museum!


Serendpity Studio will be hosted at The Goldsmiths’ Centre during Clerkenwell Design Week

Date: 23rd to 25th of May

Opening hours: 10 am to 5 pm (free entry)