Alexandra Jacobs
August 23, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Poor old plastic. Even its recent revival in the hands of retro-mad tastemakers has a bit of a kitschy, tongue-in-cheek sting to it. No one these days sincerely considers the stuff worthwhile.

No one, that is, but Stephen Fenichell. If he doesn’t find the oft-maligned substance strictly beautiful, he’s nonetheless going to give it its absolute due in Plastic: The Making of Synthetic Century, an affectionately textbookish chronicle.

Plastic wasn’t always hurting for such a champion. In fact, as the medium of Art Deco, nylons, and ’60s mod, it has epitomized modernity and chic for the better part of this century. Yet the very qualities that make plastic so practical have proved its undoing. To many, environmentalists and antiques lovers included, plastic’s permanence and replicability isn’t reassuring. It’s petrifying.

Bakelite, Saran Wrap, Plexiglas, Velcro, and others all come out for humble bows, alongside their mostly mad-scientist creators. For the Fenichellian approach to history is to pass it, Olympic-torch-style, from inventor to inventor. And while this method won’t be to everyone’s taste, the author’s references to Pop artists and pop songs (quoting ”R-E-S-P-E-C-T” is probably the most apropos citation) give his work the qualities we’ve come to expect from his subject material: It’s lightweight yet durable, colorful but sensible, suited to many uses and contexts. A-

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