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State of the Art or DIY Staple? The Untold Story of a Marvellous Material.

Posted on 10 Aug 2017

Plywood is synonymous with flat-pack furniture or stacks of boards on a building site, but its remarkable versatility has made it indispensable in products from planes, cars and boats to architecture and furniture.

The Singer Manufacturing Company was probably the world’s largest plywood furniture producer from the 1880s to the 1950s, using it in tables and cabinets as well as covers for their sewing machines, of course. [Credit: Singer Sewing machine with plywood box, 1888 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

Made from thin sheets of wood glued together with the grain running in opposite directions, plywood acquires an impressive strength and resilience once hardened, qualities that suit it to an astonishing array of applications. It’s a history that has been relatively overlooked, but an exhibition at the V&A, accompanied by a new book, reveals the unsung story of a material that has played a key role in the past 150 years of design.

The practice of bonding together layers of wood, known as veneers, dates back to ancient Egypt, but from around 1850 the cost of mass production fell and plywood was embraced as a go-to material of the industrial age. What so excited designers and engineers in the second half of the 19th century was that while drying, the layers could be moulded into an array of experimental shapes. Vast numbers of patents for designs using plywood were swiftly proposed for everything from chairs and cases to boats and bridges – far many than were ever actually built. One especially ambitious prototype surfaced in America in 1867 for a pneumatic plywood tube railway, where passengers sitting in a cylindrical carriage were propelled along by massive fans.

In the 1950s and 60s plywood was embraced as a dynamic material for the future. It became increasingly ubiquitous not least in a wide range of chic moulded furniture like this chair designed by Grete Jalk. [Credit: Moulded plywood chair designed by Grete Jalk, 1963. Photograph © Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

The qualities of versatility and affordability that made plywood so attractive to designers led to criticism from wider society for cheapness and bad quality: it was trendy to sneer at veneer. Even Charles Dickens took a pop in Our Mutual Friend with his characters Mr and Mrs Veneering who were all surface and no substance. Plywood was often concealed under other materials, and companies were even sued for presenting goods as solid wood when they were made from layers.

Despite its image problem plywood continued to be used to innovate into the 20th century. In 1911 French businessman Armand Deperdussin patented a method for moulding plywood fuselages without the need for support struts. Known as monocoques, they were light, strong and set a new standard for aircraft construction. A De Havilland Mosquito fuselage hangs in this exhibition: made from two halves of moulded plywood sandwiched around a balsawood core, it was the fastest plane of World War Two.

The fuselage of the De Havilland Mosquito aircraft was made from two moulded halves of plywood sandwiched around a balsawood core. It was the fastest and highest flying aeroplane of World War Two. [Credit: British de Havilland Mosquito, 1941 © de Havilland Aircraft Museum]

From the 1930s architects also turned to plywood. Crucially for them it could be mass produced in uniform sizes. Combined with durability and cheapness it was an ideal building material. In America it was used on a national scale to construct low cost homes following the Great Depression.

After World War Two plywood was welcomed again as a dynamic material of the future, well suited to the new wave of innovation needed to move society forward after years of conflict. Adopted by design pioneers including Charles and Ray Eames it was used in products from chic furniture to leisure products such as sailing dinghies and skateboards. Long ‘toothpick’ surfboards might seem unwieldy today, but in the Fifties they were a popular choice amongst keen wave riders. Plywood could even be made on a small scale at home, making it an everyday DIY staple.

Plywood is still used prolifically, not least in the world of digital design. It can be cut easily with lasers by computer controlled (CNC) machines, and a design made in an urban office can be downloaded anywhere in the world and used to cut parts locally. This is the principle behind the success of the WikiHouse, a home that can be slotted together entirely from CNC-cut plywood parts. The news for this great survivor of materials is, however, not entirely positive. Mass manufacture has resulted in illegal logging that has devastated rainforests, increased greenhouse gases and displaced communities. Yet what is abundantly clear from this exhibition is that plywood’s story is not one of a single eureka moment, but of continuing evolution and adaptation – and that is set to continue.

Plywood (Victoria and Albert Museum)

A Material Story Christopher Wilk