The 30th Anniversary of Jane Atfield’s RCP2 Chair Celebrates Possibility in Sustainable Design

An exhibit at Emma Scully Gallery commemorates the first designer to craft furniture from recycled plastics

When Jane Atfield first released the iconic RCP2 Chair in 1992, she dared to use design as a response to climate change and consumer culture. As the first piece of furniture made exclusively from post-consumer recycled plastics, the chair revolutionized the design industry, creating new paradigms for how things are made—and reused. From new seats made from mushroom leather to Herman Miller‘s Aeron Chair made from plastic waste, the world of sustainable design consistently harkens back to Atfield’s early advancements. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the RCP2, a new exhibit (open now until 30 April) at NYC’s Emma Scully Gallery presents new and re-edition versions of the chair, paying tribute to the design’s enduring legacy while honoring the sustainable future it championed.

Atfield found inspiration for the chair while she was studying furniture design at London’s Royal College of Art. There, she came across a sample of high-density, polyethylene plastic board sheets from Missouri-based manufacturer Yemm & Hart. Enamored with the material, Atfield partnered with the manufacturer to create the RCP2, which reused bottles of suntan lotion, cleaning liquid and shampoo from community collection points that Atfield picked up herself. The plastic was pressed and heated to form sheets that were then cut and screwed together, leaving remnants of the plastic chips exposed.

The chair’s simple form was inspired by Gerrit Rietveld’s 1923 Military Side Chair, lending the RCP2 a contemporary style with which it addresses issues of modern-day consumerism. At a distance, the colorful, speckled chair resembles a Jackson Pollock but up close, the former life of the chair is exposed, as these speckles are revealed to be plastic particles. Without hiding its materiality, the RCP2 simultaneously breathes new life into the plastics through vibrant, evocative hues. This duality—of both exposing waste while repurposing it—critiques the capitalist conditions that created mass waste as it offers up ways to rethink a better, sustainable way forward.

The exhibit commissioned three colorways of the chair, using the same manufacturers as the original, in editions of 25: a replica of Jane and Stephen Yemm’s first multicolored confetti prototype, a MADE OF WASTE (an agency for recycled materials founded by Atfield) blue edition and a debut black-and-white edition, featuring a table concept that has never been produced until now. This expanded lineup, showcasing new and classic iterations of the RCP2, attests not only to Atfield’s trailblazing design, but also to how her vision continues to produce new possibilities in design and sustainability.

At a time when the dangers of microplastics and climate change continue to threaten the planet and people, Emma Scully’s exhibit commemorating the RCP2 is a poignant reminder of the present-day significance of Atfield’s contributions, as well as the work that still needs to be done to mitigate climate catastrophe.

Images by Sean Davidson, courtesy of Emma Scully Gallery