On a Failed Design

The 1950s saw an explosion of inspired, clever, sometimes offbeat and often plain wacky design concepts. The Bauhaus, form-follows-function design aesthetic of pre-war Germany gave rise to an increased use of steel, chrome, glass, and futuristic-type space age ideas in the first full decade after the war. Modernists were experimenting with shapes, textures, colors and new, synthetic materials in everything from building materials to appliances and even in fabrics.

In 1957, Marc Chavannes, an inventor, and Al Fielding, an engineer, decided to collaborate in a proposal for a new type of wall covering. The 1950s saw a huge uptick in the building of houses for returning vets and their families who were creating the Baby Boom Generation. The market was looking for new materials that fit the modern, new Space Age the world was entering. And that’s where Marc and Al thought they had a wonderful idea.

Their concept was–wait for it–textured, thick wallpaper. Their prototype was to take two shower curtains and combine them to create a thin layer of trapped air between the two plastic sheets. They thought their idea would be on the forefront of the new ’50s design revolution. They hired a manufacturer, and they set to work on what they knew would be a sure-fire success.

The partners were wrong.

No one was interested in what amounted to 3-D wallpaper. But the pair didn’t despair. They realized that those fused shower curtains with the air between them could have some possible insulative properties. So, the switched their marketing. Now, instead of textured wallpaper, the fellows were selling insulation for greenhouses. Again, that idea went nowhere, fast. People simply weren’t building greenhouses like they were building homes for middle-class America. The partners thought about giving up their idea of cashing in on the ’50s design craze.

Luckily for the pair, the company they’d contracted with to make their wallpaper cum insulation had a different approach. The company was called Sealed Air. One of their marketing men, Fred Bowers, was turning the product over in his hands on day, and a thought struck him. Lightweight. Insulative. Malleable. Sheeting. He made a call to IBM, the computer company. IBM, too, was experiencing a boom in the late ’50s, and they were shipping their new computers around the world. Bowers pitched the product to IBM as a protection for the computers during shipping.

The result?

Today, Sealed Air clears almost half a billion dollars a year from a product now known as Bubble Wrap.


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