In 2017 the Victoria & Albert Museum dedicated one of their galleries to the history of plywood, and it was a fascinating exploration of the marmite of the materials world.
When one says plywood, the connotations and images evoked are often of a cheap, veneered product. Second rate, paint peeling signs with rain sodden layers delaminating. But this is so far from the case, and nor is it modern. Found in the tombs of Pharaohs in 2500 BC as jewellery boxes and coffins, and in Chinese furniture 1000 years ago, plywood has been a part of society for a very long time.
As the V&A shows, plywood’s pedigree as a progressive and design led product, providing strength, lightness and versatility, allowing for flexibility in design is very much established. After its appearance in Ancient Egypt and Song Dynasty China, plywood is seen across the ages but not en-masse until the mid 1800s, when it was used in furniture. Its flexibility, with the use of moulds, allowed furniture designers to create ground breaking designs without the need to employ skilled wood carvers. Plywood’s place in modern design was established.
Plywood, due to its strength and light weight, was the material of choice for the 100s of packing crates used by Shackleton’s 1907-09 Antarctic expedition. These crates were then repurposed as makeshift furniture and dog kennels upon arrival.
Many of the 20th century’s most iconic furniture pieces are also of ply construction. Of the many designers who were captivated by its versatility and potential, a few names are of particular note; architect and designer Alvar Aalto is one. First designing furniture in the 1920s, drawing inspiration from the industrial age, he jettisoned the Victorian and Edwardian preoccupation of fussy furniture. Aalto’s designs were sleek, almost sculptural pieces that were also beautifully functional and ergonomic. The Paimo chair designed for the Paimo Sanitorium in 1935 combines this ethos perfectly.
War, always a driver for innovation, bought the material in to the contemporary world of aviation, motoring, furniture and construction. The moulded ply monocoque fuselage of the British de Havilland Mosquito (DH-98) plane, provided a light, cheap alternative to a metal construction and allowed the Mosquito to be the fastest and highest flying plane of the WWII.
During this time, American designers Charles and Ray Eames also experimented with plywood, developing a method for moulding complex curved forms. Their lightweight, stackable moulded plywood leg splint for the US Navy and plywood parts for aircraft being yet another example of technology being accelerated by the requirements of war. The Eames’s post war design for the DCM (dining chair metal) with its three-dimensionally moulded seat was greatly influenced by their wartime work. The DCM was one of the most imitated and influential pieces of the later half of the 21st century and is still being imitated today.
Plywood in the 21st century is still a marmite material, but one that sits, unpretentiously, in so much design. The possibilities of this beautiful, versatile, strong material is a designer’s dream. Just remember not to sand it too much.