The ‘Wombtomb’ (1968, Rijksmuseum collection) by Dutch artist Ferdi is an ironic and playful Pop Art style reproduction of a coffin with a double motif; dead and birth. The piece (60 x 225 x 85 cm) consists of a base (the coffin), cushions and a lid, which are all upholstered with colourful furry synthetic fabrics, completely padded with polyurethane foam. In the centre of the lid is an opening which gives the work the appearance of a mother’s womb. People could lie in the object experiencing the darkness of a tomb and the softness of a womb, whilst undergoing a rebirth by putting their head through the opening in the lid.
In the 1960’s many works of art, but also design objects and furniture, were often padded with polyurethane foam which matched perfectly the needs of the time; a period known for its aesthetic playfulness and creativity with new materials. With the passing of time many of these works have begun to show signs of degradation: as the polyurethane padding loses its shape, its appearance and meaning are no longer in line with the artist’s original intention.
‘Wombtomb’ was one of them. The foam material used by Ferdi to pad the coffin was in very poor condition: the foam had collapsed and crumbled, totally losing its flexibility, and was extremely sticky, releasing a strong smell. The construction built up by Ferdi using several shaped blocks and sheets of foam was totally lost. The only parts that remained in good condition were two small blocks of foam and the thin layers of adhesive that Ferdi used to join all pieces of foam together.
FTIR analysis was performed to identify the materials used by Ferdi in order to better understand their degradation behaviour and to properly approach the conservation of the whole ’Wombtomb’. The degraded foam was identified as polyurethane ester while the surviving small blocks are polyurethane ether. It is well known that polyurethane ether foam is sensitive to light exposure whilst polyurethane ester foam is susceptible to degradation through moisture contact. So, on the one hand, the furry fabric has protected the polyether foam from light due to its thickness, but on the other, it has allowed moisture to pass thorough it, triggering the degradation of the polyester foam. The rate of degradation of the polyurethane ester foam was so advanced that the only option for conserving the object was the total replacement of this material.
This paper presents the steps and considerations undertaken during the whole treatment of ‘Wombtomb’: the identification of the materials used in the object; the understanding of what the original construction of the padding looked like; the unravelling of the degradation process; decisions about the approach taken for its replacement; the choices made over the suitability of the new foam; subsequent analysis of the new materials used in the replacement; and the reconstruction process which employed the use of a prototype model to gauge the work’s original appearance before the final restoration. This paper highlights the complexities in making informed decisions about new stable and suitable materials in foam replacement restoration. It addresses how analysis plays an important role in these choices and aims to presents a methodology for approaching the problem of replacing very degraded foam used as padding materials in art or design.