Design Knowledge Intermediary
Plywood: The underrated material that shaped our modern world
Christopher Wilk, curator of a new exhibition dedicated to the eclectic history of plywood at the London's Victoria and Albert Museum, is singing the material's praises.
"It really is strong and stable," he says, stood under a plywood airplane that hangs from the ceiling.
From curvy chairs to Victorian sideboards, and prewar planes to prefab houses, there seems to be no limit to plywood's versatility, flexibility and strength. This exhibition, "Plywood: Material of the Modern World," aims to bring the underrated material to prominence once and for all -- and reverse some institutionalized snobbery at the same time.
While the plywood technique goes back millennia (fragments of layered board have been found in Egyptian tombs) it was the Victorians who shaped our perceptions of the material today. Mass manufacturing and new production techniques in the mid-19th century meant plywood was ubiquitous, especially in furniture manufacturing. But with plywood's popularity came, as you would expect of the class-obsessed Victorians, a snooty disregard for it.
"Because it became cheaper to make because of the rotary veneer cutter -- a lathe that essentially peels away timber in rings -- it started to be used on cheap furniture," says Wilk. "(The wood) would peel off and therefore got a bad reputation."
The word plywood was first used around 1906 and, as the 20th century came to life, perceptions of the material slowly changed. A growing number of manufacturers began to rethink the possibilities of this light, inexpensive and easily moldable material, especially in aviation.
Geoffrey de Havilland created the Mosquito plane out of plywood in the early 1940s. It was one of the fastest, highest-flying aircrafts in the Second World War.
Transportation has done well out of plywood ever since: everything from canoes to racing cars to surfboards to skateboards.
Plywood's ability to be shaped obligingly is also what enticed modern furniture designers, including Marcel Breuer, Robin Day, Sori Yanagi and Charles and Ray Eames, to experiment so enthusiastically with it in the inter- and postwar periods.