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
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.