UTTER the word ``Tupperware'' and the first thing to spring to most people's minds is ``party.''
The second thing is likely to be the image of some familiar bowl or sealed container, a utilitarian plastic object, that has been an indispensable ingredient of the family kitchen.
While the kitchen is the customary context for Tupperware, some recent products have found their way into two or three of the world's most notable museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London among them.
Naturally the company sees such recognition as grist for the public-relations mill. The promotional language exotically fits the bill: ``One Touch Canisters,'' we are told, are ``unobtrusively handsome,'' and ``create a gracefully spare addition to kitchen counter or shelf.''
Or to museum display case. One Touch canisters are in three museum collections. A concept model of a bowl (they used to do something like this with automobiles in the 1950s and '60s) called ``Zuppa a Noci,'' or Soup to Nuts, is in the Metropolitan and the V&A. It is a limited edition, not intended for mass manufacture.
Clearly the humble flexible plastic ware first manufactured in Massachusetts by Earl Tupper in 1945 is, in the '90s, reaching for a new status. It is now to be thought of as Design.
This change has come about by the hiring of a high-powered and reputable industrial designer, Morison Cousins, to join the company's staff in Orlando, Fla. as vice president of design. Over the years, Mr. Cousins has grown used to having his designs for consumer products collected by museums. It seems only natural to him that his new designs for Tupperware should receive similar treatment.
Jennifer Opie, deputy curator of the V&A's ceramics and glass department (this century-old institution has no separate department for plastics) explains how her department acquired the Tupperware pieces. ``They were presented to us at our request,'' she says.
Apparently this kind of acquisition by museums like the V&A is not unusual. The V&A does not accept manufacturer's gifts without discrimination, of course. But presumably in these straitened times, donations are less of a problem than purchases.
Actually, the V&A had first expressed interest in adding some Tupperware to its collections - but it was looking for earlier pieces. It still is. (The Museum of Modern Art, according to Cousins, has owned and displayed several Tupperware pieces since the 1950s; so museum interest is not quite as new as the current hype might suggest.)
In fact, these '90s designs are rather splendid and invigorating. For American Tupperware consumers particularly, the use of strong color is stimulating and different from what Cousins characterizes as the ``lack luster'' colors of the past. They display an elegant appreciation of geometrical exactitude. And they have touches of playfulness about them, too. (Tupperware in Europe has already introduced fresh new colors and technologically advanced designs that have found their way into at least one museum, in Milan).
Cousins's task is to supply Tupperware's need in the US to be ``more in keeping with the times.''
The products have been ``very much of the '50s,'' he says, ``and that design language [of the '50s] has been maintained.''
Until now, that is. In the future, it would appear, Tupperware is to be collectible art for the kitchen. Cousins says he thinks of Tupperware plastic containers as ``permanent pieces'' rather than ``disposable plastics.''
And he emphasizes that plastic can be seen as a ``great material. You can do wonderful things with it. It can be precisely the way you want it.''
``But,'' he says, ``I think people fell out of love with it.'' And then he adds: ``I haven't.''
* Tupperware is no longer sold exclusively through Tupperware parties. To order a catalog, call 800-858-7221.