The life of ply

Carol O’cal­laghan vis­its an ex­hi­bi­tion ded­i­cated to ply­wood — an of­ten over­looked ma­te­rial which has long cap­tured the ima­gaina­tion of ar­chi­tects and de­sign­ers with its flex­i­bil­ity and sus­tain­able value

Irish Examiner - Property & Interiors - - Interiors -

PLY­WOOD — it’s had a bad rap, hasn’t it? In fact, ve­neer in gen­eral has be­come a pe­jo­ra­tive term. Just think about the ex­pres­sion “a ve­neer of re­spectabil­ity” — im­ply­ing the op­po­site is true.

Christo­pher Wilk, keeper of fur­ni­ture, tex­tiles and fash­ion at Lon­don’s V&A Mu­seum, is a man who knows a thing or two about the ma­te­rial, which led him to cocu­rate an ex­hi­bi­tion on the sub­ject called Ply­wood: Ma­te­rial of the Mod­ern World, run­ning now at the mu­seum un­til Novem­ber 12.

“I first pro­posed the idea of do­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion on ply­wood about 20 years ago,” says Wilk. “It took a while for the world to catch up with me.”

But five years ago he got the go-ahead, and he read­ily ad­mits that what the show is now is very dif­fer­ent to what he had first en­vis­aged, ac­com­pa­nied by a book he’s penned which de­tails the ex­ten­sive re­search he un­der­took to un­ravel the ma­te­rial’s his­tory.

Prob­a­bly one of the most as­ton­ish­ing things about the ex­hi­bi­tion is that ply­wood is not the rel­a­tively re­cent de­vel­op­ment as we might have imag­ined, but a tech­nique used by the an­cient Egyp­tians, one of the first cul­tures to work with thin slices of wood.

This his­tory, and the var­i­ous ap­pli­ca­tions of ply­wood, in­forms the ex­hi­bi­tion, in­clud­ing the pe­riod when it was at the height of its pop­u­lar­ity as a dec­o­ra­tive art, dur­ing the Ro­coco pe­riod of the 18th cen­tury.

Not un­ex­pect­edly, Wilk drew on the col­lec­tions of mu­se­ums and pri­vate col­lec­tors in­ter­na­tion­ally to struc­ture the ex­hi­bi­tion. New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art and Wash­ing­ton DC’S Smith­so­nian In­sti­tute of­fered up patents of 19th cen­tury chairs, from a time when sub­mit­ting plans to the United States Patent and Trade­mark Of­fice was not enough; scale mod­els also had to be in­cluded, but no big­ger than 12 inches.

An­other ex­hibit is a Vic­to­rian Ro­coco re­vival chair, made by an emi­gree to Amer­ica, and along­side it is a replica made by the V&A of the chair’s orig­i­nal mould. It’s some way from the days of high-qual­ity, French ve­neered fur­ni­ture — which was the pre­serve of the French court be­cause of its ex­pense. Later tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ments led to a re­verse in the trend and saw the ma­te­rial’s rep­u­ta­tion de­cline.

Other sur­prises are Wilk’s un­earthing of in­for­ma­tion likely to turn on its head the view of ply­wood as sim­ply glued ve­neered board — thanks to ground­break­ing work in moulded ply­wood for fur­ni­ture af­ter 1850. This in­cluded the de­vel­op­ment of steam pow­ered saws to cut wood more thinly and quickly, and also led to it be­com­ing a cheap un­der-rated ma­te­rial made by ar­ti­san work­ers.

But it took un­til the last cen­tury for its ver­sa­til­ity to be ex­ploited to the fullest. Sur­pris­ingly, the de Hav­il­land DH98 Mosquito air­plane was made of ply­wood, en­abling it to fly higher than any other plane dur­ing World War 11: A Mosquito fuse­lage ap­pears in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

“Per­cep­tion changed with its wartime suc­cess,” Wilk ex­plains. “Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War ply­wood gained in rep­u­ta­tion again as the ma­te­rial that made land­ing craft as well as the Mosquito plane. I re­ally couldn’t tell the story of ply­wood and its breadth from our own col­lec­tions at the V&A with­out air­planes, boats and surf­boards to round out the full story.”

The post-war pe­riod brought fur­ther in­no­va­tion when Amer­i­cans, Ray and Charles Eames, adopted the ma­te­rial, along with the Fin­nish ar­chi­tect and de­signer Al­var Aalto, and the Hun­gar­ian-born Bauhaus de­signer Mar­cel Bruer — us­ing it for fur­ni­ture mak­ing when ma­te­rial was scarce.

“We have the Eames’ DCM chair in the ex­hi­bi­tion which was made of ply­wood,” Wilk says. “It was the most im­i­tated of all chairs dur­ing the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury. Chairs which came out of Bri­tish, Ital­ian and Scan­di­na­vian de­sign were all in­flu­enced by it.”

Also fea­tured in the ex­hi­bi­tion is a sec­tion on DIY ply­wood, in­clud­ing in­struc­tions printed in a mag­a­zine dur­ing the Cold War pe­riod on how to build your own ply­wood nu­clear shel­ter.

New and more re­cent ap­pli­ca­tions, with con­nec­tions to the dig­i­tal age, (CNC) al­low house builders to down­load plans from any­where in the world and then have their house built in their coun­try of ori­gin, so there are no ship­ping costs for ma­te­ri­als, en­abling a re­duced car­bon foot­print to help sus­tain­abil­ity cre­den­tials.

“Peo­ple have looked at me with a blank stare when I’ve said I’m do­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion on ply­wood,” says Wilks. “I want peo­ple to say “I didn’t know that” and have a lot of ‘be­lieve it or not’ mo­ments when they see it.” It seems likely they will.

■ Ply­wood: Ma­te­rial of the Mod­ern World will run be­tween 15th July and 12th Novem­ber 2017 at the V&A, Lon­don.

A mod­ern ap­pli­ca­tion of ply­wood comes with ice skat­ing shel­ters de­signed by Patkau Ar­chi­tects for use in Win­nipeg, Canada.

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