After beginning the 20th century as a precious metal, aluminium became a popular material in mass-manufacturing. Light, easily sculpted and durable, it is now used in advanced engineering as the bodywork for jets and sports cars.
Most new materials are invented with a commercial purpose in mind. When plywood was developed in the US in the 1850s, it was to make cheap wooden chairs. A decade later, the first plastic, celluloid, was devised as a competition entry to find a replacement for ivory billiard balls. Aluminium was different. It was an exciting scientific discovery, which then searched for an application.
Aluminium is a basic chemical element and the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust. By the mid-19th century, scientists had long known of its existence, but had yet to solve the problem of how to extract it. In 1854, a French scientist, Henri Sainte-Claire Deville came up with a solution: a chemical method of extraction. Light, easy to clean and soft enough to be sculpted into intricate forms, aluminium was hailed as a “miracle” material.
Despite Deville’s breakthrough, alumnium could only be obtained in small quantities and in the 1850s and 1860s, it was used principally for elaborate hand-made ornaments and medals. Gradually, supplies increased and aluminium was used industrially, mostly in precision parts for watches, clocks and scales. By the 1860s, it had attracted the attention of the growing number of flying machine inventors. Viscount de Ponton d’Amécourt used aluminium to make the boiler and frame of his 1863 model steam helicopter.
Aluminium was still not available in large enough quantities to fulfil its potential as a “miracle” metal. In 1886, an American scientist Charles Martin Hall and his French collaborator Paul Héroult discovered an electrolytic extraction process which was much more efficient than Deville’s chemical method, so much so that it is still used to extract aluminium today. The Hall-Héroult process was patented. In the US, it was licensed to a Pittsburgh-based group of industrialists, who founded the Pittsburgh Reduction Company later renamed the Aluminium Company of America and then Alcoa. And in Europe, Héroult’s patent was licensed to a Swiss company called Aluminium Industrie Aktien Gesellschaft (AIAG) later part of the Alusuisse-Lonza group.
The Hall-Héroult process was only financially viable if operated round-the-clock to produce aluminium in huge quantities. Both aluminium’s US and Swiss manufacturers had the necessary capital to market it on this basis. Fortunately for them, the simultaneous development of the electricity industry produced numerous new applications from electric power transmission lines to phonographs. In 1886, the year that the Hall-Héroult process was discovered, alumnium cost $12 a pound, six years later the price had plummeted to 86 cents a pound and five years after that to 36 cents a pound. Aluminium had become a mass-market metal. An attempt to promote an aluminium version of the violin flopped, but the “non-breakable, sanitary, everlasting” aluminium comb became an early 1900s best-seller.
During World War I, aluminium was used by both sides in canteens to carry the soldiers’ food and water. But by peacetime, aluminium was marketed as the material of modernity. Light, fast, efficient, it was used in trucks, motorcycles, cars, bicycles, buses, airplanes and even Airstream trailers.
Modernist pioneers had fetishised aluminium as early as the early 1900s when the Austrian architect Otto Wagner used it in the furniture and fixtures of two buildings in Vienna: his 1902 headquarters for Die Zeit newspaper and the 1904-06 Postal Savings Bank. By the 1920s, alumnium had become synonymous with modern movement furniture. “Metal plays the same part in furniture as cement has done in architecture, it is revolution,” wrote Charlotte Perriand the French designer and architect who collaborated with Le Corbusier on his furniture designs. “The future will favour materials which best solve the problems propounded by the new man.”
While Perriand and Le Corbusier were experimenting with aluminium in France, Marcel Breuer, the Hungarian-born designer was doing the same in Germany, first as a student, then a teacher at the Bauhaus design school. When Breuer fled to London in the 1930s, he told Jack Pritchard, the British furniture manufacturer who acted as self-appointed patron to the Bauhaus emigrés, that he wanted to carry on working in aluminium. Forget it, said Pritchard. Breuer had no hope of selling metal furniture to the British. Why didn’t he try plywood instead?
Aluminium proved more popular in the US where Hollywood stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Ramon Navarro and Norma Shearer commissioned aluminium furniture in the 1930s from designer Warren McArthur. At the same time, industrial designers like Henry Dreyfuss, Donald Deskey and Lurelle Guild were devising aluminium household products for the mass market.
Demand for aluminium soared during World War II when all available supplies of the metal were used to manufacture military airplanes, boats and motor vehicles. There was not enough aluminium left to make consumer products and supplies became so scarce that the US government ended Alcoa’s monopoly of aluminium production by building its own factories which were sold after the war to Reynolds Metal Company and the Kaiser Corporation.
After World War II, aluminium no longer had to struggle to define its role. It was one of the ubiquitous metals of the 20th century used for everything from everyday products such as cola cans and baseball bats, to advanced long-range jets and fast cars, including the 2001 Aston Martin V12 Vanquish.
From time to time, aluminium returns to its 19th century roots as a precious metal used to create one-off pieces like the late 1960s metallic mini-dresses devised by the fashion designer Paco Rabane. It is also the material of choice for many contemporary furniture designers: from the US architect Frank Gehry who used it in his 1999 FOG Chair for Knoll, to the Japanese furniture designer Shiro Kuramata who combined aluminium with plastic in his 1988 Miss Blanche chair.
During the early 1990s, the industrial designer Marc Newson made his name with the 1986 Lockheed Lounge he had made as a design graduate in his native Australia by painstakingly hammering tiny squares of aluminium onto a fibreglass base by hand. As soon as he could afford it, Newson reinvented the Lockheed Lounge in the mid-1990s Orgone series of sculptural furniture by commissioning an Aston Martin sub-contractor to create chairs and a chaise in the fluid aluminium forms he had been striving for in his D-I-Y lounge.