Polymer Clay was actually discovered In Germany, in the late 1930s by an enterprising woman named Fifi Rehbinder. Frau Rehbinder developed and marketed a clay product, which she called Fifi Mosaik, to use for doll heads. In 1964 she sold the formula to respected art supplies manufacturing giant, Eberhard Faber. Eberhard Faber developed Fifi Mosaik into the Fimo we know today.
Note the name comes from using the first two letters of Fifi Mosaik.
As always, innovation breeds imitation. Other manufacturers were eager to get in on the action, and they developed products similar to Fimo. Another woman, Monica Resta, developed a form of the clay she called LIMMO in Argentina in the late 1950s. There were others. Some had short lived lives, but others are still around providing art medium to polymer clay artists.
In those early days the clay was sold as a toy for children. Even art supply companies saw this stuff as something to be played with by children, with some modest use for little ladies making doll heads, hands, and miniatures for doll houses. Like many products, at first it appeared to have a limited and very specific uses. But artists see applications where others don’t. A woman named Pier Voulkos, purchased Fimo from a toy store in 1971 because she was teaching children at her mother's art school in Oakland, California and was looking for new things for the children to use in their art projects.
But Pier Voulkos is an artists, and if you put your hands on an artistic medium, an artist is going to start using it in ways dictated by her creative nature. Pier soon took this "children's toy" in new directions. In 1977 she entered beads in an art show in Richmond, California and the explosion of interest in polymer clay soon followed.
So the polymer clay found in a toy store was transformed into beads. These may have been the first beads ever created with polymer clay. Beads were the hot items to make in those days. You remember the late 60s and early 70s. Love beads, hippie fashion, disco dangles.
Much of Pier's innovative creativity is probably due in part to her parents, who were recognized artists and supporters of art education. The first beads she made with polymer clay were given as gifts to her mother. Pier was playing with polymer clay, but she is an artist and her creative pursuits were extending into a variety of areas. She did her own painting and graphics, and she was a serious dancer. While pursuing a dance career in New York City during the 1980s, Pier started selling her polymer clay work. One of her neckpieces was featured in the New York Times, and she began to show her work at galleries. As various people bought her necklaces, those pieces began to migrate over the US.
Pier started using telephone wire in her jewelry in 1984but in 1989 she had one of those light bulb over the head, ah-ha experiences. She discovered that it was possible to actually put the telephone wire into the unbaked clay, bake it, and it would become forever embedded in the cured clay. This set her jewelry zooming off in a new direction. Discovering the bonding properties opened up the world of making jewelry for Pier. Before this discovery Pier and everyone else was having to glue things to make this stick to the cured clay. It seems like a simple idea, but it moved polymer clay up another level. Inclusions in the clay is common today, but someone thought to try it first. Thanks Ms Pier Voulkos.
Pier is known for her colorful canes and resulting necklaces and earrings. But she also explored sculptural forms using foil or air as armatures. In 1996, she was featured as an artist in Ornament Magazine, American Craft Magazine and Metalsmith's Exhibition in print, using these techniques.
You can read more about Pier Voulkos, by checking out the following books:
Artists at Work: Polymer Clay Comes of Age, by Pierette Brown Ashcroft and Lindly Haunani
Five Artists-Five Directions in Polymer Clay, by Jamey Allen In this inspiring book Jamey Allen reports that as polymer clay became an accepted art material, it was Pier Voulkos who was a prime mover in instigating this change.
In the early 1970s, a family by the name of Shaup, which had immigrated to the United States from Germany in the 1950s, received a Christmas package from their grandmother. Inside was a package of Fimo. Mrs. Shaup, immediately fascinated by the clay, began making ornaments and figures, and soon people were asking her where she got the clay. Her husband, out of work at the time, decided to import Fimo, and in 1975, Accent Import began to import Fimo into the United States. Mr. Shaup demonstrated the uses of the clay to various retail stores, and sales began.
As the popularity of the clay grew, other American companies, including Dee’s Delights in the 1970s and the American Art Clay Company (AMACO) in the 1980s, also began to import Fimo.
At the same time artists and American companies were discovering Fimo, an American company was developing its own version of the clay. A product called polyform had been developed in the 1960s for industrial purposes, but when it’s industrial use didn’t pan out, the clay was shelved. One day, a visitor to the plant played with a lump of the polyform and created a small figure. The figure was cured in a lab oven, and Sculpey/Polyform was born.
Note: So many of our advances in art grow out of our tendency to enjoy creative play. HINT: incorporate more play into your art. Let the incorrigible child within you have a turn with your art supplies. You’ll be pleased with the results more often than not.
The white Polyform/Sculpey was actually sold on a small scale from 1967. By 1976, Mike Solos, the company founder, was marketing his product at craft shows and demonstrating its use to small retail shops. Color wasn't added to the clay until around 1984, and until then artists such as Sue Kelsey and her sister Cathy Johnson were coloring their clay with ground chalk and Tempera colors.
The popularity of polymer clay soon became evident, and AMACO, which manufactured natural clays for years, created their own polymer clay, Friendly Clay, in 1993, which they sold both in single-color packets and pre-made canes. Accent Imports also began selling their own version of the pre-made cane: Kaleidocanes.
Another person interested in polymer clay, Marie Segal, had switched from creating objects out of bread dough to creating objects out of Fimo. Soon Segal and her husband were not only selling Fimo, but promoting it and offering excellent technical support to those who had discovered its charms.
Along the way, the Segals inadvertently became the developers and promoters of a brand new polymer clay product, Premo. In 1994, the Segals approached the Scupley/Polyform company with a question: why not have a high-quality American-made clay? Sculpey needed a little tweaking: more intense colors and a do-everything formula.
Sculpey/Polyform liked the idea, and the Segals began working on developing a better polymer clay. Polymer clay artists in the Southern California area were fortunate enough to be in on the development process, and many were given beta test products. From these tests, the lastest addition to the polymer family, Premo, was born.
Perhaps the greatest contribution to Polymer Clay came from Judith Skinner, but she's so important we'll need an entire article just for her and maybe even a book.