YUPPIE CULTURE DID NOT INVENT RECYCLING, IT JUST DEFINED it as a cause. Reuse is instinctive to Homo sapiens, starting first with nature. Great Britain wouldn't be so great if those Anglicans hadn't cleared the countryside of fieldstones, and then used those stones to line roads with winding walls. Then there were the Italian sculptors who set aside marble dust and chips to create terrazzo, the linoleum of the Renaissance. Recycling really picked up speed when the industrial revolution began to litter the planet with machine-age debris. With the advent of printed cotton, women tore up remnants to create patchwork quilts. And with all that sewing going on, someone invented the wooden spool to dispense thread, and, sure enough, craftsmen began to collect empty spools to create tables and chairs, which became chic furnishings for houses built out of discarded Coca-Cola bottles.
In 1937, a dude named Earl Silas Tupper was working at the DuPont Chemical Company, and became fascinated by a new oil byproduct called plastic, the manufacturing of which created its own byproduct, which was nothing more than inflexible black polyethylene slag. His supervisor at DuPont gave him loads of the stuff to play with, and by using a lot of chemical-engineering voodoo, Tupper purified the slag and molded it to create the lightweight, non-breakable containers, cups, bowls and plates we have come to know and love since Tupperware hit the market in 1946. Five years later, Earl Tupper had another epiphany, and with the help of Brownie Wise, a postWorld War II single mom looking for work, created that great American phenomenon the Tupperware party.
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By 1996, indestructible Tupperware was everywhere. Enter Tony Meredith, with a vision of his own and a lot of Tupperware to back it up. In honor of Tupperware's 50th anniversary, he created Tupperware Lighting, turning vintage pastel Tupperware, found at garage sales and thrift stores, into lamps. "What holds potato salad today can hold light tomorrow," says Meredith, who studied industrial design at California College of Arts and Crafts and worked for several design companies while living in San Francisco, where he started Tupperware Lighting, originally intended as a yearlong project.
"But when folks kept asking about the lamps, I kept seeing dollar signs," says Meredith, "plus I also just like making them -- finding the parts, cleaning them up. And it's a good way to meet people." He has so far made more than 350 lamps: The tall, multicolored standing lamps dance around the room like Fred Astaire at a picnic, and the two-tone table lamps give off a soft light last seen in old Disney cartoons.
Some of his earliest pieces were sold at the Whitney Museum of American Art Store Next Door and at Barneys New York when his lamps were placed in a window display of Vera Wang clothes. But don't plan to read by these lamps: Tupperware has a 40-watt limit, says Meredith, who has a studio in Hollywood where he keeps his entire collection, which includes rare pieces from when the company was still called Tupper!, such as coasters that look like wagon wheels, as well as a '70s-era Tupperware cup covered in cholo tattoos made by a homeboy doing time.
"When I first started the project, I didn't really think about the social significance of the Tupperware product, I just thought of it as a raw material -- a material that just happened to transmit light beautifully, was super easy to find, and has lots of cool shapes that could hold a bulb and not melt. It was after making a few and showing them around that I realized that I really had something that many people could identify with on many levels -- nostalgia, recycling, kitschiness. I used to stress out in design school about making more and more crap that is just going to fill up the world. Why not just take something that already exists in 90 percent of American homes and use it to do something that it wasn't intended to do?"