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.