It was not until the Second World War that plywood was really able to prove its worth
London's Victoria & Albert Museum new exhibition highlights the most humble material: plywood
Of all the materials that have been celebrated by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, plywood is probably the least sexy. These lofty halls are home to historic textiles, patterned kimonos and 19th century suits of Samurai armour; a throne belonging to Maharaja Ranjit Singh is housed here, alongside Cecil Beaton’s iconic photograph of Queen Elizabeth II. It was here that the late Alexander McQueen’s creative genius was immortalised in Savage Beauty, and that David Bowie’s extraordinary career was celebrated as part of a touring exhibit, David Bowie Is.
And now, plywood.
“Plywood is a layercake of lumber and glue,” is how Popular Science magazine described the material in 1948. A more recent, and detailed, breakdown comes from APA – The Engineered Wood Association, which is a non-profit trade association representing the Canadian- and American-engineered wood products industry: “Plywood consists of three or more sheets of thin wood that are assembled, their grains at right angles to each other, then laminated with glue. The perpendicular arrangement of the grain makes plywood exceedingly difficult to break. At the same time, a machine can easily bend and shape the material, so it’s optimised for mass production.”
So what is it about this humble glue-and-wood-sandwich that makes it worthy of its own exhibition? It may be worth noting that this is not the first time that plywood has been the star of a solo show at a world-class museum – a long-term exhibit called Plywood: Material, Process, Form ran at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from February 2011 until September 2013.
On until November 12, the onus behind the new V&A exhibition is encapsulated in its name, Plywood: Material of the Modern World. For while plywood may be a most modest material, it has also been the catalyst for some of the most significant designs of the last century.
Stronger than solid wood, but also stable and non-warping, plywood lends itself to countless uses. The first-known instances of the material date back to ancient Egypt – traces of primitive plywood have been found in the tombs of prominent pharaohs, according to APA. Around 1,000 years ago, the Chinese combined wood shavings and glue to create furniture, while the English and French are known to have adopted the principles behind plywood in the 17th and 18th centuries.
However, it was not until the Second World War that the material was really able to prove its worth. Declared “an essential war material”, billions of square feet of plywood were produced over the course of the war, and used in the construction of everything from barracks and boats, to gliders and planes.
At the V&A, the fuselage and petrol tanks of a battered De Havilland Mosquito plane are suspended overhead, in a striking reminder of plywood’s contribution to the war effort. The 1941 aircraft was faster, and able to fly higher than any other wartime bomber, and ended the war with the lowest loss rate of any bomber in the RAF Bomber Command Service. Held up as an example of the engineering ingenuity that can come from war, the aircraft was made almost entirely out of plywood, its fuselage a frameless shell crafted from balsa wood placed between sheets of birch.
Highlighting the versatility of its star material, the V&A exhibition places these plane parts alongside some of the most recognisable examples of furniture design from the last century. Plywood was, after all, the hallmark of mid-century design. It’s very nature acted as the catalyst for some of the most prominent creatives of the time, from Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen and Arne Jacobsen, to the famed American husband-and-wife team, Charles and Ray Eames. These designers were united in their efforts to create beautiful, affordable design for the masses, and plywood made this possible.
In fact, some might even argue that it was plywood that brought Charles and Ray Eames together. The couple met when Ray joined Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in 1940, to assist Charles and Saarinen in preparing for the Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Furniture Competition. Charles and Eero’s submissions were created by molding plywood into complex curves, and earned them first and second place.
The Eames’ aesthetic was also shaped by the demands of the Second World War, and the first plywood chair that the couple designed was actually a lightwood pilot’s seat. Once the war was over, they began applying the knowledge and skills they’d attained while creating military products back to furniture for the home.
Featured in the exhibition is an Eames Molded Plywood Dining Chair Metal Base, also known as the DCM, from 1947. One of the couple’s best known creations, the DCM was named Best Design of the 20th Century by Time magazine. “Eames took technology created to meet a wartime need (for splints) and used it to make something elegant, light and comfortable. Much copied but never bettered,” was the magazine’s consensus. So enamoured were the Eames’ with the material, that they are rumoured to have called their plywood-molding apparatus “the magic box”.
Other classic examples of plywood furniture include the three-legged, lightweight, unexpectedly proportioned Ant Chair, which was designed in 1952 by Danish designer Arne Jacobsen, and Alvar Aalto’s sculptural Paimio Chair, which perhaps best reflects why plywood was such a firm favourite with these mid-century creatives. The chair was developed for patients at a tuberculosis sanatorium in southwest Finland – its flexibility allowed Aalto to customise the angle of the back, which helped position sitters in a way that allows them to breathe more easily.
However, the unadorned, uncluttered, unpretentious simplicity of plywood done well is perhaps best illustrated by the Edie stool, which was designed by David and Jon Steiner in 2013. Already included in the V&A’s permanent collection, as well as the Vitra Design Museum in Basel, Edie is part of a family of three chairs and a table for children, but can also double as a coffee table and side table. It’s a firm reminder that there is space for plywood in contemporary constructions.
Once a catalyst for ground-breaking, lifesaving designs, from the 1960s onwards, plywood was relegated to the sidelines of design, considered as too basic, simple and cheap. It is now making something of a comeback, and the V&A exhibition is a reminder of both its value and contribution to society over the last century. It is also, perhaps, a comment on human fickleness, and on how materials can be in favour one day and then forgotten the next, through no fault of their own. And maybe, ultimately, it is a reminder that however unassuming and apparently mundane something is, it too deserves its moment in the sun.